Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


5. Prayer for forgiveness

"God, have mercy on me, a sinner".

Forgiveness comes next in the prayer, a deep personal need that we all share. We are always in utter need of the forgiveness of God, and so this part of the Lord's Prayer is a basic prayer. The need of forgiveness is a theme that echoes right through the Scriptures, and consequently prayers for God's forgiveness are frequently recorded.

One of the earliest prayers in the Bible is the prayer of Abraham for sinful Sodom (Gen.18:23-33). Many of the prayers of the Old Testament are in fact prayers for the forgiveness of the nation when they had been unfaithful to the Lord, as, deeply conscious of their sins, they begged for God's pardon. In this way Moses pleaded for Israel's forgiveness in Numbers 14:19, "In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now." In Deuteronomy there is prayer relating to murder by an unknown person, "Absolve O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed, and do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel." (Deut.21:8) So it was in the time of Samuel when the people were rebuked for asking for a king when God was their true King (see 1 Sam.12:19). When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple and he foresaw the ways in which the people might fail in the service of God, he asked that nevertheless they might be forgiven (1 Kings 8:33-53). There are also, however, pleas for personal forgiveness as we find with David, both in the instance of his adultery with Bathsheba and when he sinned in the matter of the census (2 Sam. 12:16 and 24:10). Hezekiah in his day prayed, "The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God -- " (2 Chr.30:19), and Hosea (14:2) exhorting the people to "return to the Lord" set on their lips the plea, "Forgive all our sins, and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips." In Isaiah 64:9 the request is, "do not remember iniquity forever".

In the Gospels we have the prayers of the tax collector (Lk.18:13), of the 'prodigal son' (Lk.15:18-19), and of the dying thief (Lk.23:42); and such prayers were readily heard by the Lord. We can understand such to have been the prayer of Saul of Tarsus after his experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:11).

As we would expect, often associated with the prayer for forgiveness is actual confession of sin. Old Testament examples of such confession are found in Ezra 9:6-15, Nehemiah 1:6-7, 9:2 and Jeremiah 14:20. Some churches give a fixed and regular place to confession, followed by the assurance of forgiveness and absolution. There is a danger of fixed words of confession becoming formal, but there is also danger if confession of sin has no regular part in congregational worship. James 5:16 urges Christian people to make confession of their sins, and there are he solemn words of 1 John 1:8-9, universal in their application to us, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

The prayers for "grace" and "mercy" and "peace" such as stand in the place of formal greetings in New Testament Epistles, both at their beginning and often their ending too, can truly be understood to imply the prayer for forgiveness. The first application of God's grace and mercy to our lives is his forgiving our sins, and the gift of peace is first and foremost that of peace with God. Hebrews 4:16 makes it clear that from the blessing of God's mercy flow all other blessings, as that passage puts it, "Let us -- approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." That plea for God's mercy stems from the sense of unworthiness to approach God without the hope or assurance of God's gracious acceptance and forgiveness. Paul (in 1 Tim.1:16) acknowledges the sin of his past life, but can say "I was shown mercy", and that mercy he would ask similarly for others (see Gal.6:16 and 2 Tim.1:18).

Intercession for others, we may say, most basically involves the prayer for the forgiveness and acceptance with God of those for whom the intercessor prays. We have seen this in the case of Abraham and Moses. The work of the priests offering sacrifices for their people's sins was in fact prayer for their forgiveness. So Amos too prayed for his people, as he was conscious of their standing under God's judgment, "O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small" (Amos 7:2 and 5). Similarly we have the prayers of Ezekiel (see 9:8, 11:13), but as in the case of Amos, the time came when it was made clear that the intercession could not be heard because of the people's stubborn refusal to turn from their sin (Ezek.14:16, 20). With a sense of the gospel of grace that Old Testament preachers could never know, those who minister the good news of Christ under the new covenant are agents of God's reconciling and forgiving grace.

Finally, we can only ever consider this part of the Lord's Prayer as a prayer for forgiveness as we realise that it sets on our lips a solemn promise and undertaking, "as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us". In other words we say, 'I ask forgiveness only on the condition of my forgiving others'. We have considered this in the study of a forgiving spirit as a necessary and right attitude in our praying.