Augustine interpreting our Saviour's words of 'the shutting of heaven in Elias' time.' compared prayer to a key that hath power to open heaven from whence all blessings descend unto us, and to shut the bottomless pit of hell from whence all evils proceed. Prayer is a means not only to draw all grace from God, but it is obex mali, et flagellum dæmonis: as the name of Christ is oleum effusum, because by it we receive all good, so the name of the Lord is turris fostissima, for that it saves and defends us from all evil.
As these are both truly affirmed of God's name, so by the invocation of the name of God we have this double benefit, that we do not only receive all good by it, but also are delivered from all evil.
In the three former petitions our Saviour hath taught us to draw grace from God; in these three latter we are taught to use that kind of prayer that concerns the removing of all evil called Techinah, d_hsij, and deprecation.
The evil is of three sorts, of sins past, and to come, and of the evil of punishment.
In the first of these three petitions we pray against the guilt of sins past, that God would not charge us with them; in the second, against the running issue of sin to come, that God would not suffer us to sin hereafter; in the third, that God would turn away from us all those plagues that our sins deserve, both in this life and in the life to come: and these three petitions are fitly opposed to the three former.
[424/425] To the Kingdom of glory we oppose our sins; to the doing of God's will, temptation; to natural good things, the evil of the world to come, and the miseries of this life; from both which we desire to be delivered when we say, 'Deliver us from evil.'
The petition consists of debts and forgiveness: but before we handle them we are to speak, first, of the necessity of this petition; secondly, of the goodness of God That penneth the petition for us.
What need we have to pray God for remission of our sins appear hereby, because our sins do make a partition between God and us, the effect whereof is that our misdeeds do turn God's blessings from us, and do keep 'good things' from us.
Now having already desired at God's hands the glory of God's kingdom, the good of grace for the doing of His will, and all outward good things necessary for this life, we are of necessity to pray that God will forgive us our sins, which otherwise will hinder us of these good things; and as our sins do hinder God's graces that they cannot come to us, so they hinder our prayers that they cannot come to God, for our sins are as it were a 'cloud' to hide God, so that 'our prayers cannot go through.' So that except we desire the forgiveness of our sins, we shall in vain pray for the three former good things.
Besides, our sins are a plain hindrance to God's kingdom, for none shall come thither but such as are 'uncorrupt,' and void of sins in the whole course of their life: et nihil impurum ingreditur illuc, 'no unclean thing shall enter thither.' Therefore the Prophet saith Hic, est omnis fructus ut auferantur peccata.
Secondly, the goodness of God appeareth herein, that He hath indited us a prayer to ask remission, telling us that it is possible to obtain remission of sin. It is true that by our sins we have made ourselves incapable of all good things, but yet we see the goodness of God, that as we have still dona, so He teacheth us to say, Condona.
Where He teacheth all men to pray for good things, we learn that we are all mendici Dei; but in that we are taught to ask forgiveness of sin, we see that we are malefici Dei, 'the [425/426] malefactors of God,' such as having need of pardon; and the goodness of God towards us appears to be the greater in this behalf, because there is no Angel nor spirit to whom He vouchsafeth this favour, to have their sins remitted, save only to man.
Of them it is said, He found no truth in his Angels; in His servants, and in 'His Angels,' there was 'folly,' that is, they had trespasses but yet God will not forgive them, nor receive any supplication for pride; but contrariwise, He keepth 'the Angels that sinned in everlasting chains to the judgment of the great day. He that is 'the God of the spirit of all flesh,' will not hear the spirits that sinned against Him; but 'Thou hearest prayers, to Thee shall all flesh come.'
There is a way for man to escape the danger of sin, if he ask pardon; but the sins of the wicked Angels shall not be forgiven. The elect Angels do make the three first petitions as well as we, and the petition for the supply of natural defects is common to all living creatures, but this which prayeth for pardon of sins is proper only to man; so we see how God exerciseth His goodness and sheweth it, not only in exercising of liberality to them that have need, but His long-suffering in pardoning them that have sinned against Him.
To come to the petition itself, By 'debts' our Saviour meaneth 'sins' expressly so called, Luke the eleventh chapter and fourth verse, and sinners are called 'debtors,' Luke the thirteenth chapter and fourth verse; for the Scripture speaks of them, Matthew the eighteenth chapter and twenty-fourth verse. One was brought that 'owed ten thousand talents, that is, which had committed a great number of sins; and Luke the seventh chapter and forty-first verse, a lender had two debtors, by which are meant sinners; the reason hereof is because there is a resemblance betwixt 'sins' and 'debts.'
In the affairs of men the case is thus, that if the condition be not performed they are bound to endure the penalty, and so become double indebted: so it is between God and us, the sin that we commit by the breach of God's law is chirographum contra nos, 'a hand-writing against us.' So they are called in the Old Testament, 'Thou writest heavy or hard things against' us and our sins are compared to 'a book' [426/427] written on both sides; for we are bound to keep God's commandments because He made us, and not only so but He still doth nourish and preserve us: therefore we ought to do His will. He gives us 'talents,' which we ought to employ to His glory; He gives us dwelling places in the world, as to the Israelites He gave the land of the heathen 'that they might keep His statues, and observe His laws.' If we fulfil them we discharge our duty to God and are free from all penalty, but if we do it not there is an obligation. 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written, to do them.' If He place us in the 'vineyard,' He will look to 'receive fruit of it.' If He give us talents, He will have us so employ them as that He may reap gain thereby. The gifts and graces that God bestows upon us must be employed in hallowing His name, in enlarging His kingdom, in accomplishment of His will, if we fulfil this, the penalty of the Law takes no hold on us, but if we do not only not use them to his glory, but abuse them and turn them to the breach of the Law by serving sins, then are we in a double sort indebted to God, and making ourselves guilty of His wrath, Et quis intelligit, &c. 'Who understandeth the power of His wrath?'
If we consider how grievous plagues God threatened for the breach of the Law we would be more careful and heedful that we do not offend Him; which because we consider not, we become indebted to God.
We are 'debtors' to the flesh to provide for it, only so much as is meet for the relieving of it; and the rest of our care must be fore the spirit. But because all our care is for the flesh, to satisfy it, in fulfilling the lusts thereof, and are careless of our spirits, therefore we become indebted to God in a third sort by breaking His commandments in that which concerns ourself; but this Apostle saith, 'I am debtor to the wise and the unwise.' That is, we must be careful of others, as God said to Cain, 'Where is thy brother?' But because omnes quæ sua sunt quærunt, 'all seek their own,' and seek not the good of others, therefore they grow further indebted to God.
These 'debts' or sins are properly said to be 'ours,' because they proceed from us - for there is no member of our body that is not guilty of some sin - and not in that sense that bread is said to be ours which cometh to us and is made [427/428] ours by Gods gift. And when we pray, 'Forgive us our debts,' we learn that it is our duty to crave forgiveness for others as for ourselves; for as the Apostle by these words, 'the rebukes of them that rebuked Thee, fell upon Me,' sheweth that Christ was carried with the same zeal against sin committed against God as if it had been against Himself, so he teacheth that we must be moved with the like compassion towards others, when we consider their sins, that we find in ourselves for our own; and that we ought no less to pray for them than for ourselves, and to suffer others to pass over the bridge of God's mercy as well as we.
In the word 'debts' three things are to be noted: first where Christ teacheth His Apostles, that were baptized and the most perfect Christians that ever were, to pray for remission of sins, it should work in our nature a humiliation, for they in making this prayer acknowledge themselves sinners; much more ought we.
The Apostle Peter confesseth of himself, 'I am a sinful man.' St. Paul saith of himself, Peccatorum primus sum ego, 'I am the chief of sinners. St. James, including himself and the rest of the Apostles saith, In multis offendimus omnes, 'In many thing we sin all.' St. John saith, 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves:' he saith not Exaltamus nos, as the Apostle spake of modesty, or Non humiliamus nos, 'we do not humble ourselves,' but 'Desipimus nos,' and 'if we deny it the truth is not in us.' Seeing it is so, we must not say with the Pharisee, 'I am not as this man,' but with the publican, 'God be merciful to me a sinner.'
Secondly, we are not only sinners but daily sinners, as appeareth by this, that we are taught no less to pray daily for forgiveness of our sins than for bread. To confirm this Solomon saith Septies in die cadit justus, 'The just man falls seven times a day;' and as man eateth and drinketh every day, so 'drinks iniquity like water.'
Thirdly, we run into such debts as we are not able to discharge; for if we were, we needed not to say, Dimitte nobis, 'Forgive us our debts,' but 'Have patience with me, and I will pay all.'
To signify to us the greatness and number of our sins, one was brought that 'owed five hundred pence,' and another that [428/429] owed 'fifty,' and another that owed his master 'ten thousand talents.' By which we perceive that we cannot make satisfaction to God: therefore He must remit them.
The consideration whereof ought to work in us humiliation: first that, as Job says, our hearts do not excuse us, and that we seek not to 'justify' ourselves; that as God requireth, we 'confess our misdeeds,' that we acknowledge our sins to God, and hide them not: for, 'if we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive our sins.
Secondly, that we do not only confess, but 'be sorry for,' them; that while we are in danger to God for our sins, we go and humble ourselves, and entreat Him, and suffer not our eyes to sleep, till we be surer how we may obtain forgiveness.
The consideration of sin made David 'forget to eat his bread,' so greatly was he disquieted till he was assured of pardon.
For the second point, if our sins be 'debts,' they must be paid.' Owe nothing to any:' but we are not able to 'answer one of a thousand,' and for the penalty of malediction we are not able to endure it. 'Who knoweth the power of His wrath?' Therefore our prayer must be to God, that our misery may prevail more with God to move Him to compassion than our unworthiness to stir us His indignation, and that He will 'cancel the hand-writing,' which thing, for that He is full of the 'bowels' of compassion, He is moved to do when He seeth us sorry for our sins. Howbeit His justice must be satisfied, else His mercy cannot take place: but Christ by his death having done that, God saith of the sinner, 'Deliver him, for I have received a reconciliation.' Qui circumcisus est, debitor est totius Legis: but Christ was circumcised, and therefore fulfilled the Law for us ad ultimum quadrantem, 'to the utmost farthing;' and not only so, but He saith of Himself, Exsolvi quæ non rapui, 'I restored that which I took not.' He not only perfectly fulfilled the Law, but suffered the curse of the Law, which He had not deserved, with this condition, Sinite istos abire, 'Let these go,' that is, He was content to be the reconciliation for us, that He might draw us out of the hands of God's justice.
The estate of our debts may be compared with the widow's state that was left in debt by her husband; for as the Lord [429/430] blessed her oil in such sort as she did not only pay her debts but had enough to live on after, so Christ is our oleum effusum, 'our oil poured out,' that is of power not only to satisfy God's wrath for our sins, but also to give us an estate in the Kingdom of heaven; and for His sake it is that we may be bold to pray for remission of sins, and are taught to believe that for His merits our sins are forgiven; so that is true, Legem operandi et legem credendi lex statuit supplicandi, 'The law of prayer stablished both the law of obeying and believing.'
Out of Dimitte arise three things for our comfort first that even these sins which we commit after baptism, after our calling, and when we are come to the knowledge of the truth, are remissible.
In teaching the Apostles to pray He assureth them of this favour, that the same party that saith peccata nostra, 'our sins,' is taught to say Pater Noster, 'Our Father.' Our comfort therefore is, that still we are the children of God, though great sinners; for though we lose the dutiful affection of children, yet God cannot lose viscera Patris, 'the tender bowels of a Father.'
David, a rebellious son, could not but shew a fatherly affection: 'Do good to the young man Absalom.' So though the prodigal son had offended heinously, yet the father is ready to receive him.
Secondly, another comfort, that albeit we commit sin daily, yet He will daily forgive us; for God should mock us, saith Augustine, if bidding us pray for forgiveness, He should for all that shut up the bowels of His mercy. He bids us pray for pardon of our sins, putting no difference whether they be penny debts, or talents; whether fifty, or a thousand; if we ask forgiveness, He tells us He is ready daily to remit them.
Thirdly, that be our sins never so great, so great as cannot be satisfied by us, yet He will forgive them propter Seipsum, 'for his own sake.' Christ hath made Himself 'a satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.'
We must labour how we may soundly apply His satisfaction to ourselves; and among other means whereby we apply the satisfaction of Christ to ourselves, prayer is one: 'They shall confess their iniquities; then I will remember My covenant.' [430/431] 'He shall pray unto God, and He will be merciful unto him.' 'I confessed my sins unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.' Propter hoc orabit omnis sanctus, 'For this cause shall every one that is holy pray,' &c.
By virtue of this prayer Solomon saith, that the people having committed any sin, if they come into the house of the Lord and pray for pardon, God Who is in heaven will hear them. But this is more plain in the New Testament: 'Did I not forgive thee,' quia rogasti Me? and to Simon Magus, Pray to God, if He will forgive thee the thoughts of thy heart; that is, if we confess and be sorry for our sins, and ask pardon, He will forgive us. 'How long wilt Thou be angry with Thy people that prayeth to Thee?' But we must be of the number that is meant by Nobis, that is of the Apostles, that is, such as 'baptized into Christ's death.' We must die unto sin, as He died for sin; ut, sicut Is dimisit peccata, so we must dimitterer peccato, 'He hath suffered in the flesh and hath ceased from sin,' so must we. We must have a care that hereafter we fall not into sin, more than our infirmity compels us: for sins of infirmity, God's 'grace is sufficient.' But if we willingly sin after remission 'there is no more sacrifice for sin.' We are therefore 'to crucify the flesh with the lusts and affections' thereof, if we will be 'Christ's' and receive benefit by His satisfaction.