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Debts or Trespasses?

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I’ve been a part of many gatherings where we have recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison. All usually goes smoothly until we get to the fifth petition where someone will say “forgive us our debts” and others say “forgive us our trespasses.” I suspect many of the readers of this blog have experienced that as well. What accounts for this difference – and is one word better than the other?

Why this difference?
The primary reason for people using different words in this petition is because different theological traditions have used different words. Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Lutheran Churches will typically use the word “trespasses” while Presbyterian and Reformed Churches will use “debts.” The words “debts” and “trespasses” are not synonyms or interchangeable, so what caused differing words to emerge? 

At first, we may think that the reason for the different options emerges because we actually have two different forms of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. In Matthew 6:9-13 where Jesus teaches on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Luke 11:1-4 Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples. We do find different words in this phrase as the petition in Matthew is “forgive us our debts” while Luke reads “forgive us our sins.” It’s important to note that the words used in these two versions are not “debts” and “trespasses” but “debts” and “sins”! Not only does Luke not use a word connected to “trespasses,” it actually is more connected to the word “debt” as it goes on to say “for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). Thus, these two accounts themselves do not explain the debate between “debts” and “trespasses.”

Although the word “trespassess” does not appear in Luke or Matthew, it does appear in close proximity to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:14-15. These verses immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew and discuss further this petition: “For if you forgive others their treapssess, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their treapasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespassess.” This connection between Matthew 6:14-15 and Matthew 6:12 may have been the reason that William Tyndale translated Matthew 6:13 as “forgeve vs oure treaspases” (in modern English: “forgive us our trespasses”) in his 1526 English translation of the Bible. This was different from the earlier translation of John Wycliffe, which used “debts.” Perhaps because Tyndale translated from the original Greek while Wycliffe used the Latin translation of the Bible as his base text, the first version of the Book of Common Prayer developed by the Anglican Church (1549) featured “trespasses.” The King James Version of the Bible produced in 1611 did not retain use of Tyndale’s “trespasses,” but the phrase “trespasses” continued to appear in the Book of Common Prayer and thus used in Anglican (or Episcoal) services and then in Methodist Churches when they broke off the Anglican churches. Because of how strongly embedded the word “trespasses” was in English liturgy, the English translations of the prayer that would be used in Lutheran and Catholic services also featured “trespasses.” Churches’ traditions that were tied less to the liturgy and tradition, such as the Reformed and Presbyterian, would end up using the language in the King James Version.

What makes more sense?
Since the word “debts” rather than “trespasses” is the word that appears in Matthew 6:9-13, I think using “debts” is better, keeping us closer to the wording that is given in the biblical text.

One could make the case (as some recent versions of the Lord’s Prayer done by ecunemical groups) that the word “sins” might be better, as it is more clear about what is being requested, reflects the form of the prayer in Luke, and avoids both of the familiar terms (so neither side wins!). However, in general, I still think “debts” is better for a couple of reasons. First is that the longer version of the prayer found in the Sermon on the Mount rather than the shorter form in Luke is the one recited, as we include the “our” before Father, to note that He is “in heaven,” request for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and ask to be delivered from evil (or the evil one – more on that next week!). Second, I think there is value in using the imagery of “debt” to help explain sin. We live in a world in which people often do not discuss sin or can think of things as being “sinfully delicious.” The image of debt, however, helps us to see that sin makes us accrue a debt before God, a debt that needs to be paid. Many commentators think that the reason the word “sins” appears instead of “debts” in Luke 11:3 is that the term “debt” would make sense for sin for those from a Jewish background (which would be Jesus’s original audience as well as the first readers of Matthew) but would not really resonate for an audience (such as the first readers of Luke) with a different background. I think our current culture might better understand the significance of debt because of its prominence in our world, with this phrase inviting us to recognize the reality of spiritual debt.

While I prefer the term “debt” and will use that when leading the Lord’s Prayer, I recognize why the word “trespasses” has been used and its biblical basis due to its connection to Matthew 6:14-15. The word “trespass” is a helpful word to use in describing sin as it reminds us that sin is when we go beyond what God has said and commanded. Therefore, I won’t get upset with or boycott people or churches that choose to retain what is more familiar to many.

A Final Thought
The one thing that I would encourage all to do when seeking to say the Lord’s Prayer together is to decide which word all will use, either by printing or projecting the words or by mentioning whether you will use “debts” or “trepasses” before you commence. Each word has value, reminding us of our need for forgiveness and to extend that forgiveness to others, but that value is lost when we get distracted or confused because of the different words being said, and the beauty and power of the group praying together dissolves at the dissonance found in this phrase. So, let us with one voice (and one vocabulary) cry out to God about our need for forgiveness, resting in the assurance that we can receive this forgiveness in Christ and then extend forgiveness to others because of the great debt that we have been repaid.  

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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