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In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus famously says:

Matthew 6:12 NMB

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

This seems to be a law thing, as it means "unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven".

How is it then, that Lutherans (or other Evangelical/Protestant Churches) understand this in a Gospel sense, where this becomes a promise telling us "forgive because you too have been forgiven", as Luther says in the Small Catechism.

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If the question is whether, to Luther, that petition is law or gospel, the answer would be "both." Consider Luther's thoughts in the Large Catechism:

Thus this petition really means that God does not wish to regard our sins and punish us as we daily deserve but to deal graciously with us, to forgive as he has promised, and thus to grant us a joyful and cheerful conscience so that we may stand before him in prayer. For where the heart is not right with God and cannot generate such confidence, it will never dare to pray. But such a confident and joyful heart can never come except when one knows that his or her sins are forgiven.

There is, however, attached to this petition a necessary and even comforting addition, “as we forgive our debtors.” He has promised us assurance that everything is forgiven and pardoned, yet on the condition that we also forgive our neighbor. For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence, and injustice, bears malice toward us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that God forgives you. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven — not on account of your forgiving (for he does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because he has promised it, as the gospel teaches) but instead because he has set this up for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise that matches this petition in Luke 6[:37], “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Therefore Christ repeats it immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, saying in Matthew 6[:14], “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. . . .”

(Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 452-453.)

to make sure that we're on the same page, let's define our terms. The law is the burden that God puts on us to do or not to. The law is used as...

  • A mirror: to show us our sins
  • A curb: to prevent over-the-top outbursts of sin
  • A guide: For the new person in us who knows who Jesus is and gladly, willingly, and spontaneously, the law is a way of thanking Jesus

The gospel is God putting to burden on Jesus to do what we cannot do: Keep the law.

In that light it's good to consider what Luther says. The first part of the petition is pure gospel (“καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν” (Μαθθαῖον 6·12 THGNT-T)). God is the one who, in Christ, is forgiving our sins. And this is only in line with God's grace (his undeserved love towards us).

The second part of this petition is, however, law. And Luther doesn't hesitate to treat it that way. The burden is squarely placed on us to be willing to forgive others. In a mirror sense, this shows us our sins. It exposes the times we have assumed and expected God would forgive us, but neglected to forgive others (as the parable following the Lord's Prayer in Matthew exposes). But it's also used in a guide sense. This new person inside of us that knows Jesus and follows him naturally and spontaneously, wants to know how to thank Jesus. This is one way of thanking and praising Jesus: we work at forgiving those who have harmed us.

Finally, also note the motivation to carry out this command of forgiving others is grounded in the gospel. Paul puts it this way: “bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive.” (Colossians 3:13 CSB17)

For further reading, I suggest Luther's Large catechism. The small catechism is a really good start. But, as others have said, the Large Catechism is for the "grown ups."

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  • 1 John also strongly links our love for others to our assurance of salvation. +1 Sep 27, 2023 at 12:55
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Most Protestants would agree that those who do not forgive are not likely to be forgiven. Christ Himself makes this point in Matthew 18:21-35.

I think the problem here is a wrong understanding of law as it pertains to Grace. We don't earn Grace by being gracious. No matter how gracious we are, we can never atone for our own sins. Rather, consider again Matthew 18:21-35. Grace is made freely available to us, as to the debtor, but it can be taken away / withheld under certain conditions. Grace is not forced on anyone.

To a Protestant, the question is not whether we "earned" Grace, but whether someone who is not themselves gracious — or, more generally, someone who does not exhibit faith in Christ (James 2:14-24) — really wants Grace... or, more to the point, wants the consequences of Grace, which is to spend eternity in God's presence.

We have failed to obey God's Law. Yet, if we have true faith, we would at least try to obey it (n.b. Romans 6:1). Thus, while no attempts to obey the law can save us, willfully ignoring the law can still condemn. It is a little confusing. 🙂

p.s. Personally, I tend to pray that petition as "grant that I may forgive as I have been forgiven".

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