Sins and trespasses

Recently my church, a WELS church, changed the words to our Lord's Prayer. The word trespasses was changed to sin. I believe that only God or a called servant may forgive sin. Why was this change made? This issue is very disturbing to the older members of the congregation to the point that some are considering leaving our church.

On the two occasions when the Bible records the Lord speaking the prayer that is named after him, Jesus used different words for violating God’s holy will. That is not surprising, as the Bible does as well. It speaks of “sin,” “debt,” “transgression,” “trespass,” among other terms for disobeying God.

In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used the word “debt” – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Luke’s gospel, Jesus used the words “sin” and “debt” – “Forgive our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” There is a Greek word for “trespass,” but that word does not occur in Matthew or Luke’s account.

So, how did we come to speak “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? We can thank the Anglican Church for that. For hundreds of years already, the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer has focused attention on forgiving “trespasses.” When the time came for German Lutherans in our country to begin utilizing English liturgical materials, they adopted the version of the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Tradition has led many Lutherans in the United States to continue using that version.

If your congregation recently began using the “contemporary Lord’s Prayer,” substituting “sins” for “trespasses,” it is not doing anything wrong. “Sin” is a more accurate translation of the original Greek than “trespass.” And, whether we use “sin” or “trespass,” we are acknowledging in the Lord’s Prayer that we have acted contrary to God’s holy will and seek his forgiveness.

In addition, we also speak of forgiving those who sin against us. Speaking the news of forgiveness is not limited to pastors. Keep in mind that in the Lord’s Prayer you and I speak of “forgiving those who sin against us.” That is what God, elsewhere in the Bible, tells us to do. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

I would encourage you—and others in your congregation who share your view—to speak to your pastor and allow him to show you how the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the original Greek can be translated into English.