The Lord's Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed

By Gordon Hugenberger October 22, 2013


How is your prayer life?

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1).(1) 
Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, reveals the rich prayer life of our Lord Jesus. Luke, however, seems to give special emphasis to this by including seven references to Jesus’ prayers that are unmentioned elsewhere (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:32). For example, although Luke 5:12-26 has a close parallel in Mark 1:40-2:12 and a less exact parallel in Matthew 8:1-4 and 9:1-8, only Luke includes the summarizing observation, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Perhaps, then, Luke mentions, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place (11:1),” to emphasize the convicting example of Jesus’ prayer life that humbled this unnamed disciple enough so that he recognized the deficiency of his own prayers and was willing to ask: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus’ response to this question is remarkable. He might have said, “The ability to pray as I do is a spiritual gift: it cannot be taught.” It is apparent, however, that this was not Jesus’ opinion of the matter. The ability to pray is not just a special gift reserved for a select few. For this reason it is not included in any of the lists of spiritual gifts found in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:11. If we are followers of Christ and we want to learn how to pray, he stands ready to teach us. 
Alternatively, since the disciples had already been under Jesus’ ministry for some time, he could have responded with well-deserved exasperation, “If you don’t know by now, you’ll never know!” Instead, Jesus’ view appears to be that it is never too late to learn how to pray, and so he generously accedes to their humble request: 
Lord, teach us to pray…. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our coming day’s bread; And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us; And lead us not into trial’” (NIV modified; Luke 11:2-4).
The Lord’s Prayer as a flexible model, rather than a rigid formula for our prayer
When Jesus provides the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2-4, his intention is not merely to teach his disciples a prayer to recite, but to teach them how to pray.
A superficial reading of Jesus’ words might suggest that this is the only prayer believers should ever pray, or that they should use the exact words that Jesus prescribes and no others. It is apparent, however, from both example and precept that this is not what our Lord intends. The New Testament offers an inspired record of many other prayers of Jesus, such as John 17, or of the Apostles, such as Acts 4:24-30. It also includes many explicit commands to pray about matters that are unmentioned in this prayer, such as James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God….”
In fact, Jesus himself does not hesitate to depart from his own model when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer on another occasion, namely in the context of the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 6:9-13. There Jesus uses somewhat different vocabulary, such as “Our Father who art in heaven,” rather than the simple designation, “Father,” found in Luke 11:2, and “forgive us our debts…,” rather than “forgive us our sins…,” found in Luke 11:4. He also includes a third petition, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” which is missing in Luke’s version, and he expands the final petition by adding “but deliver us from the Evil One.” Moreover, consistent with the interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer as a flexible model rather than a rigid formula, in Matthew 6:9 Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer not by commanding his disciples “pray this,” but “pray then like this” (so Revised Standard Version). (2) 
Since the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount has a fuller address and includes two additional petitions, it is traditional to choose this expanded version for liturgical practice. The variation between the longer version in Matthew 6:9-13 and the shorter version in Luke 11:2-4, however, supports the liberty of Christians over the centuries to expand or elaborate on the precise words of this model prayer. 
In particular, because the Lord’s Prayer concludes abruptly in both Matthew and Luke, according to Tertullian (circa 200 AD) it was a common practice for believers in his day to add their own personal petitions to the end of the Lord’s Prayer.(3) For similar reasons, from the time of the early church it has also been traditional to add to the Lord’s Prayer a closing doxology. The most common doxology for this purpose is the triple formula, “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen,” which apparently is based on 1 Chronicles 29:11-13.
Should we use a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer?
The explicit time reference in the fourth petition (“Give us this day…”) and the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is formulated with plural references throughout (“Our Father,” “Give us this day our…,” “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” “And lead us not…, but deliver us”) support the mainstream tradition of Christendom to pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly, if not daily, when assembled in corporate worship. In spite of innumerable differences of style and content in the worship of individual churches, this regular act of prayer in obedience to Christ is rightly viewed as an expression of profound unity within the Church Universal.
In an attempt to underscore that unity, it has sometimes been urged that it would be preferable if every church throughout the world prayed the Lord’s Prayer employing the same language.(4) For example, this was, in part, the rationale of Pope Pius V for prescribing Latin in the Roman Missal, which he issued in 1570 AD long after Latin had ceased to be a living language. From the time of Martin Luther, however, most Protestants have found this logic unpersuasive.(5) In other words, our genuine unity in Christ is not diminished merely because many of our Chinese brethren prefer to pray the Lord’s Prayer in Mandarin, while some Kenyans prefer Swahili, and some Americans prefer English. Unity does not require uniformity.
Likewise, even within the English-speaking world, what is required for an expression of unity is not agreement on a particular English translation, whether that of the Book of Common Prayer, or the King James Version (KJV), or even one of the many modern translations. Rather, what is required is our shared obedience to Christ as we pray this prayer in each other’s behalf. After all, even Jesus did not use the exact same words on the two occasions he taught the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 have significant differences in their Greek vocabulary. If Jesus felt at liberty to deviate in this manner, then surely his disciples may be afforded a degree of latitude in their practice. This is especially the case when the intention for adopting a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer is not to change that prayer, but to reflect more accurately what Jesus actually taught in a manner that contemporary believers can understand.
For example, William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible (1526) renders the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive them which trespass us.”(6) Reflecting the influence of Tyndale, the Book of Common Prayer (1559) likewise has “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” Understandably, to this day the Book of Common Prayer has determined the dominant tradition of the English-speaking world for the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. At times its dominance, however, has been rightly challenged. With the appearance of the popular Geneva Bible (1602) and soon thereafter the King James Version (1611), English-speaking Christians were made aware that this fifth petition should be rendered more accurately, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”(7) Faced with this superior translation, certain Separatists and other Protestant groups decided to dispense with the traditional wording (“trespasses”) and go with accuracy (“debts”). In retrospect they made a wise choice, even if at first this new practice may have seemed divisive, unnecessary, or confusing.(8) 
In our own day, with the proliferation of many excellent translations of the Bible and the widespread availability of scholarly commentaries, the problem faced by our forebears, who had to decide between tradition and accuracy, is being repeated with ever greater intensity. It is not uncommon, for example, for new believers to read Matthew 6:13 in the American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, New International Version, etc., and then ask why many Bible-believing churches persist in praying “deliver us from evil,” rather than “deliver us from the evil one,” as Jesus taught according to these more recent translations. 
In an attempt to resolve these tensions and to represent with greater accuracy what Jesus actually taught, these notes are intended to support the use of a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer which retains the traditional wording wherever possible. It is hoped that the explanation of this translation will enrich our understanding of this model prayer from our Lord Jesus, who designed it not for mindless recitation, but for thoughtful expression of the deepest cries of our hearts.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotations in these notes are from the New International Version or, as in the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, are the author’s own.
2 W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison observe, “The adverb houto\s [rendered in the RSV “like this”] … means ‘in this manner.’ It probably implies that what follows is more an example of how to pray instead of a formula to be mechanically repeated” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC, Vol. 1 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1988] 599).
3 “On Prayer,” Chapter 10.
4 In reaction against John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English in 1389, a law which prohibited the use of any translation other than Latin was passed in 1408. As a result, in Coventry in 1550, for example, six men and one woman were burned to death for teaching their children to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English (Ken Connolly, The Indestructible Book. The Bible, its Translators, and their Sacrifices [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996] 141). 
5 One of the many welcome developments in Roman Catholicism since Vatican II (1961) has been the affirmation of the use of vernacular languages in worship, without excluding the use of Latin where deemed appropriate.
6 Updated spelling. The original text reads: “And forgeve vs oure treaspases, even as we forgeve them which treaspas vs.” The Geneva Bible differs only by its addition of “also” in the second clause: “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”
7 It is true, of course, that “debts [Greek: opheile\ma]” and “transgressions [Greek: parapto\ma]” or, as the KJV translates this term, “trespasses” are approximate synonyms. In fact, Jesus implies this when immediately after the Lord’s Prayer he explicitly mentions “trespasses” in Matthew 6:14-15 (KJV): “For if ye forgive men their trespasses [parapto\ma], your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses [parapto\ma].”
8 It should be noted that in addition to the present confusion over “debts” vs. “trespasses,” or even “sins” (as in the first option for the Lord’s Prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, and Philadelphia, PA: Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978]), several other variations are frequently encountered among English-speaking churches. The most significant of these are:
  • “Our Father which art in heaven” (as in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer) or “Our Father, who art in heaven” (as in the 1929 Book of Common Prayer) or “Our Father in heaven” (as in the first option in the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, and in The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1990).
  • “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (as in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer) or “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (as in the 1929 Book of Common Prayer) or “your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (as in the first option in the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978) or “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (as in The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1990, which has “your” rather than “thy” and “yours” rather than “thine” throughout the Prayer).
  • “And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil” (as in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer) or “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” (as in the first option in the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978) or “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (as in The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1990).
  • Concluding the Lord’s Prayer with a simple “Amen,” but without a doxology (as in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer) or concluding the Lord’s Prayer with “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen” (as in the 1929 Book of Common Prayer) or “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” (as in The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church, 1964) or “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen” (as in the first option in the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978) or “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen” (as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, although the customary practice is for the congregation to pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison and for the priest to utter the doxology by himself).