the Lord’s Prayer

Posted on Oct 5, 2016 in Theology blog | 2 comments

What is the difference between using “debts” and “trespasses” in saying the Lord’s prayer?


  1. the Lord’s prayer is found both in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, the Greek translation is “debts” from the word ophelilema, and it means “that which is owed.” Likewise, the Greek word for “debtors” is opheiletes, and it means “one who owes another.” If you were to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, you would find the word “debts” (debita) used. It is only English-speaking Catholics who use the word “trespass” which is probably from a translation of Luke’s version to ask forgiveness of our sins (hamartia). According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition of “trespass” is “a violation of moral or social ethics: transgression: esp: sin.”

    For me, the word “debts” is more encompassing because it conveys to me that which I do and also that which I fail to do. Both words in context of the prayer tell me that we must be willing to forgive others, or we condemn ourselves.

    As a reforming Catholic, it took me a while to stop using trespasses! and still I have to focus to have debts flow off my tongue.

  2. Here’s my answer: Matthew uses the Greek word, “opheilema” which non-controversially means “something owed” i.e. debt. “Trespass” means to transgress or offend” which boils down to pretty much the same thing as “debt.” Different traditions have adopted one or the other, with the Catholic/Anglican tradition favoring “trespass” and most protestant traditions feeling comfortable with “debt.” I can see no theological difference. Where the much more interesting question lies is how Luke has recorded the same prayer. He says, “And forgive us our sins (hamartia) as we forgive those who are indebted (opheilo, again) to us.” This has led some versions to use a seriously erroneous translation of “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This cannot be accurate because we cannot forgive sin as only god can do that. “”Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Mark 23:7 God forgives sins; we forgive those who are in our debt because they have transgressed or offended us or done us wrong. Bottom line: the difference is simply tradition and has no theological significance.

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