Grace is Not Transactional

As we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer in worship today I was reminded of an insight I had recently about that prayer. Having said that prayer well over 3000 times in my life I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize this much sooner. In particular I’m talking about the part of the prayer that says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” In our congregation we have replaced the rather nebulous “trespasses” with the much more powerful and truthful “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

For far too long I have been uncomfortable with however we say that line because I thought of the forgiveness there as being a quid pro quo. In other words it is a transaction asking God to forgive me in the same way I forgive others! I always was uncomfortable because if God’s forgiveness is limited to how well I forgive others I am in deep do do. It is a very common anthropomorphic mistake whenever we model God after our own behavior instead of the other way around.

In other words I now understand the second part of the phrase about forgiveness to be our response to God’s unconditional grace and mercy for us. We are once again renewing our promise to forgive those who have wronged us just as God has forgiven us. My recasting those words then becomes “forgive us our sins as we promise again to forgive those who have sinned against us.” That may not be the most accurate translation of the Greek or Aramaic, but I think it is very faithful to the nature of God revealed in Christ.

Forgiveness is one of the essential elements of love. We are all flawed human beings and that line in the Lord’s prayer is first an admission of our own fallibility and then a promise to extend the acceptance and love God gives us to others. It is not a deal or a transaction. Grace is free. All we have to do is humbly ask for it, and when we receive that priceless gift it won’t last if we try to hoard it. We have to pass it on.