Recently my church changed the words of the Lord’s Prayer from trespass to sin. Why was this change made? I believe that only God or a called servant can forgive sin.
James F. Pope
Christians have long prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Changes to the wording can lead us to think more about the content of what we are praying. Your question does just that.
Committing sins and trespasses
On the two occasions when the Bible records the Lord speaking the prayer that is named after him, Jesus used different words to describe the violation of God’s holy will. That variety is not surprising, as the Bible employs different terms as well, such as “sin,” “debt,” “transgression,” and “trespass.”
In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used the word debt (Matthew 6:12). In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Luke’s gospel, Jesus used the words sin and debt (see the footnote for Luke 11:4). There is a Greek word for trespass, but that word does not occur in either 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, the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer 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.
Whether we use sin or trespass, we are acknowledging that we have acted contrary to God’s holy will and seek his forgiveness. If your congregation recently began using the “contemporary Lord’s Prayer,” which substitutes sins for trespasses, it is not doing anything wrong.
Forgiving sins and trespasses
When you and I pray the Lord’s Prayer, we state that we are on the receiving end and the giving end of the forgiveness of sins. We ask God to forgive our sins or trespasses as we forgive those who sin or trespass against us. Declaring the message of forgiveness is not limited to pastors. In the Lord’s Prayer, we speak of “forgiving those who sin against us.” Elsewhere in the Bible, that is what God 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). Forgiveness of sins is our precious gift from God. Forgiving the sins of others is our responsibility from God.
In the verses after Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus emphasized the importance of forgiving others: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15). Forgiving other people when they sin against us is not optional; it is necessary.
For years, Christians have prayed the Lord’s Prayer. From church sanctuaries to kitchens, from hospital rooms to war zones, from deathbeds to wedding services, Christians have rendered the original Greek language of the Lord’s Prayer into their own language. Our Father hears and answers them all.
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 10
Issue: October 2018
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