Can Classical Protestantism Affirm the Lord’s Prayer?

Called to Communion had a great discussion on this topic in regards to Calvinism, but I wanted to look at the same thing in regards to traditional Lutheranism. Pastor Hemmer of Hope Lutheran Church contrasts the Lutheran position with Catholicism quite neatly:

Can you be forgiven of sins you have not yet committed? 

The answer to this question exposes a huge difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in their understanding of forgiveness. Case in point: Baptism. For a Roman Catholic, in Baptism, God only forgives past sins. For a Lutheran, when God baptizes you, He places you into His forgiveness. That forgiveness covers past sins, current sins, and future sins. As Luther explained it, we live in our Baptism every day. 

So, to the person who is worried that Jesus might return before he has the chance to confess sins and receive forgiveness for those sins, the answer is, “Yes, as long as you remain in the forgiveness delivered to you at Baptism, you are already forgiven of those future sins.” There’s no partial forgiveness. Either all of your sins are answered for by Jesus or none of them is.

Contrast this with the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9-13), in which we pray, “Give us this day our Supersubstantial [or Daily] Bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:11-12).  There are two things to note about this prayer:

  1. We’re asking God for forgiveness whenever we pray this, not thanking Him for forgiveness He’s already delivered;
  2. The forgiveness is conditional: conditioned upon us also forgiving.

It was this second point which Christ knew would be controversial. Out of the entire Lord’s prayer, Jesus saw fit to comment only on this part. So immediately after teaching the Disciples the prayer, He said (Mt. 6:14-15):

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.

So whether your sins are or are not forgive is premised off of whether or not you forgive others their sins. That’s a tough message, but it’s one that Christ could scarcely make clearer. Strangely, Martin Luther, in his Larger Catechism explicitly denies that this condition exist, even while quoting to the passage, and making clear that the forgiveness is available only to those who forgive:

If, therefore, you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you; but if you forgive, you have this consolation and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven, not on account of your forgiving, for God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace, because He has so promised, as the Gospel teaches, but in order that He may set this up for our confirmation and assurance for a sign alongside of the promise which accords with this prayer, Luke 6:37: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Therefore Christ also repeats it soon after the Lord’s Prayer, and says, Matt. 6:14: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, etc.

The problem appears to be that Luther couldn’t understand how God’s forgiveness could be pure grace, a free gift, and yet still conditional. But the problem is easily solved: a gift can still be conditional without us earning it.  For example, if I say, “if you swing by my house later today, I’ll give you the keys to a brand new car,” you don’t somehow merit the gift by coming over. But if you refuse to show up to the house, you reject and deny the free gift. So it is with the forgiveness of God: we’re given this free gift conditioned (again, rather explicitly) upon our forgiveness of others.

That’s not just an idle hypothetical. In Matthew 18:23-35, a King freely forgives a servant a large debt (Mt. 18:27).  The servant then refuses to forgive a fellow servant a small debt (Mt. 18:28-30). So the King retracts the forgiveness, and turns him over to be tortured until the debt is paid (Mt. 18:34). Christ concludes: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt. 18:35).  That’s really straightforward: even if we’ve already been forgiven by Christ, that forgiveness can be taken away if we refuse to forgive others.  The servant wouldn’t have merited being forgiven 10,000 talents (the equivalent of millions of dollars) by forgiving his brother servant the hundred denarii (the equivalent of a few dollars) he was owed.  The forgiveness is both a grace and conditional. So Luther’s extreme opposition to any meritorious action on the part of the individual (for fear that this would lead to us “working our way to Heaven”) meant that he couldn’t understand Mt. 6:14-15, or Mt. 18:23-35, or any of the other passages which speak about the condition of forgiveness As a result, his explanation of the passage is something of a mess.

Calvin’s is no better, in which he simultaneously declares Mt. 6:12 to be a condition, stating that “This condition is added, that no one may presume to approach God and ask forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment,” and yet proceeds to argue that “the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.”  Now, it either is or isn’t a condition. Calvin’s attempt to have it both ways results in this embarrassing conclusion: “Christ did not intend to point out the cause, but only to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God.” So rather than a condition of God’s forgiveness, like Christ explicitly says, Calvin’s position is that Christ decided to throw into the Lord’s Prayer a short reminder about our feelings. But every Christian knows that there are times when we don’t feel like forgiving our neighbor.  So Calvin’s interpretation renders the condition of Matthew 6:12 and 6:14-15 to be simply advisory.  We ought to forgive others, but it’s not necessary to be forgiven. Contrast that with Jesus Christ: “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:15). It’s a condition of forgiveness, not a feel-good admonition about feelings, period.


A Lutheran or a Calvinist could affirm something like:

  1. We forgive others because Christ has forgiven us first; and
  2. Only through the grace of God are we able to truly forgive.
So a prayer like, “Thank you, Lord, for having forgiven me of my sins; out of gratitude, I shall try to forgive others” would be completely compatible with their faiths.  But that’s not what the Lord’s Prayer says. It says,  “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors“,  and Christ tells us that means that “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.” Like I said before we’re asking God for (1) present-tense and (2) conditional forgiveness.

From a Lutheran and Calvinist perspective, we already have total and unconditional forgiveness from the past, so we’d be asking God for less than we currently possess as justified Christians.  In other words, we’d be asking Him to take away some of our forgiveness, and to add a new condition in to what was previously unconditional.  From that perspective, the Lord’s Prayer would be a spiritual evil.  But of course, it’s not: so the problem must like with the Lutheran and Calvinist understanding of how God’s forgiveness operates, rather than with the prayer given us by Jesus. In short, it seems to me that the Protestant notion of forensic justification, in which past, present and future sins are forgiven, cannot be right, given what Christ teaches us about forgiveness, and given the Prayer He leaves us with.


  1. Hello, Joe,

    Thank you very much for the link to “Called to Communion”. I had never heard of this site, but it contains answers to the questions I’ve been asking myself lately.

    In Christ,

    New Zealand

  2. Excellent essay. It becomes so clear how the protestant heresies are founded on the pride and fallibility of men — men who not only imperiled their own souls, but have taken so many souls with them into their land of haughty false security. There is a millstone waiting for that, terrifyingly. May God have mercy on all of us.

  3. Your argument can be made much more forcefully with quoting the parallel account in Mark!

    “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

    Despite the Lutheran and Calvinist views effectively teaching ‘eternal forgiveness’, the Lutheran side also believes salvation can be lost.

    How can this be? For them faith is the only thing that determines whether one is justified, and the Lutheran side sees faith as a sort of umbrella that only grants ‘protection’ as long as you have it. Once faith is lost (which usually comes when major personal sins come about in the persons life), then justification is lost. So it becomes as if God is no longer looking at the fresh fallen snow covering the dung anymore. As long as the snow covers the dung, it makes no sense to ‘need forgiveness’ since your sins are not being taken into consideration, only the snow.

    The Calvinist side is much more logically consistent when it speaks of eternal forgiveness, stating faith cant be lost (Irresistible Grace) and that Christ already took your punishment so God can never hold you accountable for any of your sins.

  4. Jocelyn, glad you like it. It’s a great site.

    Brad, I agree, particularly with your pray for God’s mercy on us all.

    Nick, I somehow overlooked that. You’re right — that does a great job of showing the causality and conditionality which Calvin denied: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

  5. The question follows: What is the difference between the forgiveness we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer and the forgiveness that is provided for the whole world of humanity through the sin-offering of Jesus, which forgiveness we personally realized when we first came to Christ for salvation? The answer is just this: One is judicial; the other is paternal. When Jesus died upon the cross He was the sin-offering for all men. The Judge of the universe accepted His sacrifice on behalf of all and from a judicial standpoint that act of pardon covered all our sins, past, present, and future, as Paul says, “By the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Rom. 5:18). Although the whole world is already fully and freely forgiven all their trespasses, this becomes experiential in our lives only when we respond to it, accept it, and live in the light of it.

  6. It is like the Emancipation Proclamation signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. As soon as President Lincoln signed the document every slave in America was free. All of them. They were one and all fully released from the dreadful tyranny of slavery. Their freedom was a legal and judicial fact. They were no longer slaves. But news traveled slowly in those days. There were black men and women chopping cotton on plantations in Georgia and Mississippi who had no knowledge of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In their minds they were still slaves. So they continued to chop cotton and lived in the slave quarters. They thought like slaves. They felt like slaves. They acted like slaves. They lived like slaves. They suffered as slaves. Once the news of their freedom reached them, what if they couldn’t believe it? What if it seemed too good to be true? What if they refused it? They remained slaves although legally they were free. They remained in bondage until they accepted freedom and adapted to it.

  7. That is how it is with the whole world of mankind. All are forgiven. Their sins are atoned for. They are free. They are conciliated. God was in Christ conciliating THE WORLD unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. And God has committed unto us the word of the conciliation, we are His official representatives sent forth by His Kingdom authority to inform all mankind of their release and the power of God available to make it effective in their lives. God has a program for their rehabilitation. But we are heralds of an already accomplished reality. Our message is not just about what God can do — it is about what God has done. God has forgiven the Adam man of all his trespasses!

  8. Through acceptance of this judicial act we are transformed from slaves of satan, sin, and death to sons of the living God. Now, consciously being His children we can pray, “Our Father.” From henceforth His dealings with us are not with slaves, but within the family circle. Our sins now are not merely the gross sins of the flesh of old Adam — they are sins on another level, on a higher plane, under different circumstances and other conditions. They are sins against spiritual life, against the will of the Father for His sons, against His plans and purposes in our lives, against the ways of His Kingdom, and against the family of God. Sin now becomes a hindrance to our progress back into the image of God. When we were first forgiven of all our sins at the time of our salvation, we were forgiven of those things that separated us from God. But now, as God’s dear children, we are forgiven of those things that prevent our progress into the nature and character of our heavenly Father. Forgiveness now means cleansing from all impediments, removal of all hindrances and on-going conformation into the image and likeness of God. These two orders of forgiveness must be kept clearly in mind. Judicial forgiveness accompanies our salvation, whereas paternal forgiveness is within the family relationship and maintains the Father-son relationship. Only sons can pray, “Our Father…forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.” It is the Fatherly forgiveness for which we ask in the Lord’s Prayer.

  9. Barry,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to you.

    As an aside, you said of the Emancipation Proclamation: “As soon as President Lincoln signed the document every slave in America was free. All of them.” Actually, the exact opposite is true. By its terms, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in portions of the Confederacy not yet under Union control. None of the slaves in the North, or in the Union-controlled South were freed by it. These slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment. So it would be more accurate to say, “As soon as President Lincoln signed the document no slave in America was freed. None of them.” Of course, as the Union took over sections of the South, the document did result in the eventual emancipation of a great number of slaves, so its importance wasn’t only symbolic.

    Nevertheless, I can see the image you’re envisioning, that we just need to tell ourselves we’re already forgiven by Christ, but we’re forgiven either way. My big problem with it is that Christ says quite literally the opposite, saying that “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Not you won’t feel forgiven, but you won’t be forgiven.

    As for the judicial/paternal distinction, I think you’re hitting on an important theme, but it’s still a little off. As Catholics, we also embrace the notion that we should move beyond the judicial (guilty/not guilty) into the familial (sons and heirs). But I don’t think it actually means anything to say that God has judicially forgiven us, but not Paternally forgiven us. Maybe you can flesh it out, but that statement seems to be inherently contradictory. So I think you’re on the right track, but not quite there.

    Finally, to your claim that “the whole world is already fully and freely forgiven all their trespasses,” are you knowingly promoting universal salvation? I don’t really know what perspective you’re coming from, but at the very least, if you were right on this, there would be no Hell (and there is).

    In Christ,


  10. Question: Are Catholics permitted to parish shop? E.g. if the parish closest to their home is particularly cold and they are in particular need of more warmth, may they go to one a little farther away?

  11. HocCogitat,

    There’s no rule governing it, and Catholics are split on the prudence of it. Some think it’s better to simply remain in the parish you’re in and try to improve it: if it’s good enough for Jesus Christ to come in the Eucharist, it’s good enough for me. After all, the Mass is about Him, not me.

    Others, for a variety of reasons, seek out (or avoid) particular styles of worship. As a result, parishes that are either uncharitable or preaching something wacky tend to die out, or at least whittle down to a handful of souls. The risk is that it’s too capitalistic. Worship shouldn’t be like the marketplace, where people pick what suits them the best. This is the problem with denominational shopping, and if people do the same thing with Catholic parishes (albeit on a smaller scale), that’s a real problem.

    The major areas where I see parish-shopping are where there’s a very particular niche. So, for example, a decent number of D.C. area Catholics go to St. Mary’s in Chinatown on Sundays, because there’s a beautiful Latin Mass there. Many of these same people go to their local parish for daily Mass. That strikes me as a seemingly healthy balance: they seek out particular spiritual fruits that they want or need, but don’t abandon their local parish.

    Some people feel strongly about this one way or the other. For myself, I see the benefits to both sides.

    God bless,


  12. >The risk is that it’s too capitalistic. Worship shouldn’t be like the marketplace, where people pick what suits them the best. […] if people do [this] with Catholic parishes […], that’s a real problem.

    I know this is an old post, but would you please comment on this further? Why shouldn’t it be like the marketplace? Why is a problem? Assuming all parishes are doctrinally orthodox, of course.

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