Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Lk. 23:34
The reader of our Newsletter who sent in a question concerning this text, phrased the matter this way: "This verse seems to have two problems associated with it: (1) It seems as if Christ is asking his Father to forgive all who hear him, indiscriminately. Does this mean therefore that Christ wants all who hear, indiscriminately, to be saved? Do we preach the gospel in this manner? (2) Christ seems to be suggesting that the people do not know what they are doing, and so therefore are not responsible for their actions. Is this really so?"
We pointed out last time (and we ask the reader to consult that article to refresh his or her memory) that it is important to ask the question, first of all: For what is Christ praying?
We mentioned that one possible interpretation is that Christ was praying for a postponement of judgment. And we pointed out that this interpretation was almost necessary if Christ is here praying for all men. For, if Christ is praying for all men, and this prayer is for the forgiveness of sins, then Christ's request for forgiveness is rejected by God. That would be the most dreadful happening in all this sorry world.
But Christ cannot possibly be praying here for a postponement of judgment. The simple fact is that the word in the Greek (and in the English) for "forgive" is the word which Scripture uses throughout for the forgiveness of sins.
It is a perversion of Scripture, therefore, to say that, "Father, forgive them..." means, "Father, postpone thy judgment so that they have an opportunity of repent." Anyone can see that such a change in Scripture's language is unwarranted and wicked.
So the prayer of Christ is indeed for the forgiveness of sins. It can mean nothing else. But if this excruciatingly moving prayer of Christ is for the forgiveness of sins (and is surely heard -- any other thought is too terrible to contemplate), then it has to be also for His elect. That is, it is a particular prayer for His people only.
This is in keeping with Christ's own words in His high priestly prayer: "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine" (John 17:9). This prayer was for those, therefore, for whom Christ died. For He laid down His life for His sheep. And He shed His blood for those who were given Him from all eternity.
It is fitting and appropriate that He should do this at the moment of His crucifixion, for our Lord is about to die for the sins of His people. And it is on the basis of His own cross that He is able to make this prayer to His heavenly Father. Christ prays: "Lord, do not punish my sheep for this great sin which they now commit, but forgive them, for I die to pay for this sin also, as well as all the sins that they commit."
The reader says, "This verse seems . . . as if Christ is asking his Father to forgive all who hear him." But why should that be? Why should He be praying for all who hear Him? Why is it not possible that in the consciousness of our Lord Who "loved His own, even unto the end" (John 13:1) he should now have them in His heart as they commit that most terrible of all possible sins, the crucifixion of the Son of God?
There were, of course, those there at Calvary who were among the people for whom Christ prayed. Scripture itself mentions the centurion who was responsible for seeing to it that the execution was carried out, but who cried out at the moment of Christ's death: "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matthew 27:54).
But we must put ourselves at the foot of the cross. The curses and blasphemies hurled against Christ, after all, echo our own depraved and corrupt hearts. "On Calvary is the judgment of the world. There we stand exposed in all our enmity against God. There the mask of our sham goodness and religiousness is torn from our faces. The hour of the cross is" our condemnation (When I Survey, p.378).
When in humility we confess this, then that prayer is also for us.
The cross is for Christ's sheep. The prayer is for those for whom atonement is about to be made. The preaching of the cross is never an expression of God's willingness and desire to save all men. The gospel is the proclamation of God's purpose in Christ to save all who believe.
That brings us to the last question: What then is meant by the expression: For they know not what they do? The reader suggests that this implies an ignorance on the part of the people which removes from them their responsibility. In a certain sense this is true. But the question is important enough that we ought to devote a separate article to it. Prof. H. Hanko
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- Volume: 6
- Issue: 2
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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