“And forgive us our debts.” In the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, the word “debts” is in the text instead of “sins,” which is what Luke 11:4 has. The prayer is the same, and the Bible is telling us that one way God thinks of sin is that it is a debt that must be paid. The idea that sin was a debt seems to have existed to some extent in the minds of the Jews before the Babylonian Captivity (Lev. 26:34; Isa. 40:2; 50:1), but it became a common way of thinking under the influence of the Aramaic language during and after the Babylonian captivity. In Aramaic, one of the words for “sin” also means “debt.” That sin was thought of as a debt is clearly represented in the Aramaic Targums and is also represented in the New Testament.
When Matthew 6:12 reads, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” but Luke 11:4 reads, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us,” these are not two different teachings. The people listening to Christ and the early Christians reading the Gospels were used to thinking in terms of sin being debt, so to them Matthew and Luke were simply saying the same thing in two different ways—and if Jesus was speaking Aramaic at the time he spoke his prayer, which he most likely was, then both “sin” and “debt” were meant in the same word.
It is common in translations that words are translated in a way that best relates to the reading audience. The more Greek audience of Luke would not be used to thinking of sin as a debt because “sin” and “debt” are totally different words in Greek, so in writing down the words of Christ, Luke would say “sin” to clearly communicate to his audience what Jesus was saying. Matthew, however, was the most Jewish of all the Gospels and his audience would understand that when Jesus says, “forgive us our debts,” he meant “forgive us our sins,” so Matthew has “debts.” We can also tell that “debt” meant “sin” in the Gospel of Matthew because when Jesus starts explaining his prayer to the people, he makes it clear he is referring to sins and says, “For if you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive people their transgressions, your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15). [For more on “sin,” see commentary on 1 John 1:7].