Home > Bible Study, Matthew, S. Lewis Johnson > Unlearning and Relearning Some Things About the Lord’s Prayer

Unlearning and Relearning Some Things About the Lord’s Prayer


S. Lewis Johnson in his Matthew series (1975) has some interesting points concerning the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-15), including corrections to popular notions and uses of this text.

First, this prayer really should not be called “The Lord’s Prayer” — seeing as how our Lord himself never prayed it.  SLJ observes that John 17 would be a more appropriate passage to call the “Lord’s Prayer.”  The prayer in Matthew 6 could be called the “Disciple’s Prayer,” but as Johnson concedes, popular tradition will never leave and so we must refer to this as “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Next, this prayer was never intended to be prayed as such, but rather was intended as a model for prayer.  Note verse 9:  “Pray then like this” (ESV), or “After this manner therefore pray ye” (KJV).  It certainly was never intended to be recited, week after week in endless repetition as is done at so many mainline churches.  S. Lewis Johnson experienced that at his church growing up — and the same was done at the church I attended as a child (during the same time period when he preached these messages).

Also, this prayer is a Messianic prayer — a prayer that anticipates our Lord’s return to establish His kingdom upon the earth.  But as SLJ noted, in the church age this has become confused, and “kingdom” has become a church word.  In S. Lewis Johnson’s words:

Now of course, when we think of the statement, Thy kingdom come, now it is usually colored by the fact that the term, kingdom, has become a church word.  And, often, it is identified with the church.  The church and the kingdom are confused in our thinking as a result of this common misconception.  But when this petition was first given by Jesus Christ, and he said, “Thy kingdom come,” he understood that word kingdom – as did those who heard him offer this model prayer – in the Old Testament sense of the Messianic kingdom that had been promised through many, many centuries of prophetic teaching.  They looked forward to the time when the Messiah would come and establish an earthly kingdom.  The length of that kingdom is not given in the Old Testament; it is given in the New.  But they spoke of the grandeurs of the time when God would reign upon the earth.

Now words in the New Testament are often interpreted in the light of the sense that they had in the developing revelation of God – that is, in the sense in which they had in the Old Testament.  So when we read here, Thy kingdom come, we are to understand that this is a petition for the coming of our Lord’s rule and reign over the earth.  Now I dare say that in most of our congregations in which this Lord’s Prayer is repeated Sunday after Sunday all over this land (just to mention the United States), that petition is not understood.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven:   Here we ask regarding God’s preceptive will, which is now done in heaven.  God’s preceptive will, the things that please God, is not now being done on earth; His decretive will is what is now done on earth.  In the future millennial kingdom, God’s preceptive will is what will be done, as evidenced in several of the Psalms that describe that age.

Forgive us our debts:  this speaks of “paternal forgiveness” rather than judicial and eternal forgiveness — the forgiveness of a father toward his children, to restore them into communion and fellowship.  The union is there, but forgiveness is needed to restore the relationship.

SLJ:

I realize that a great deal can be said on the other hand, but in my opinion, from the study of the Scriptures, there is such a thing as the paternal forgiveness, the forgiveness that a father renders to a child.  It is to be distinguished from the judicial and eternal forgiveness that we receive when we believe in the Lord Jesus.  When we see Christ as the one who has died for our sins, and when we have put our trust in him and receive the forgiveness of sins, that forgiveness of sins covers the past, the present and the future.  But, it has to do with the guilt of that sin; it has to do with that which destroyed the relationship that existed, and it makes it possible for the relationship to be restored – the relationship of union with God.

But within the family of God, just as within our own families – our own children – our own children may do things that displease us.  Now, this does not destroy the relationship, but it certainly destroys the communion.  It destroys the fellowship, and that, I think, is what is taught in the word of God, that when Christians disobey the Father, it destroys the fellowship.  It does not destroy the relationship.  It destroys the communion; it does not destroy the union.

What I continue to appreciate from S. Lewis Johnson is the depth of teaching — teaching that looks past the obvious surface level and draws out distinctions to help our understanding.  Many people get tripped up concerning God’s will, for instance, and fail to see the difference between God’s decretive will and preceptive wills.  Study of Samson (Judges 14-16) is a good case in point, as I noted previously concerning that topic.

The different types of forgiveness, judicial/eternal versus paternal, also help for understanding this model “Lord’s prayer.”  As with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, this prayer is for believers in this age, those awaiting God’s kingdom  — and so the prayer starts out with our addressing God as “our Father.”  The phrase “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is thus in the context of a family, with a father and children, as well as how we as believers forgive each other — brought out more clearly in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18: 23-35.  I also can relate this to 1 John 1:9 and other passages  which talk about believers in fellowship with God.

Understanding these distinctions keeps us from error and confusion.  Knowing about the two wills of God, decretive versus preceptive, we can answer those who might suggest that Samson was obediently doing God’s will when he married a non-Israelite, or that David was just as much in God’s love and will when he sinned against Bathsheba as when he fought Goliath.

The distinction between judicial forgiveness and paternal forgiveness helps to avoid another misunderstanding:  that the Lord’s Prayer is one in which we continually lower ourselves to worse and worse points of despised wretched sinners worthy of God’s eternal wrath.  That is certainly the message needed for unbelievers, but not for those in God’s family (and not from this text at any rate) — but it distorts the Lord’s prayer while missing what the prayer does say about the love of God and our relationship to Him as His children.

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