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Question: If God doesn’t forgive us until we repent, then at the cross why did Jesus say, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34) to people who clearly had no intention of repenting?
Answer: Hi Radio Listener, If you don’t mind, let’s take your questions one at a time.
A good place to start is by looking at other examples in the New Testament of Jesus forgiving people. For brevity, let’s consider other examples from the Gospel of Luke.
- And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20).
- “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:47-48).
In both situations, notice that Jesus sees evidence of a person’s faith in him and then he forgives them.
In the first case, four friends cut a hole in the roof to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus, and he identifies this as evidence of their faith in him.
In the second case, it is the same. The woman’s extravagant love toward Jesus is counted by him as evidence of her faith in him.
The pattern in Luke seems to be that Jesus sees some outward evidence that authenticates a person’s faith in him, and then he declares directly to them that he (or she) has been forgiven.
So, if the scene at the cross were another example of Jesus forgiving people, we would expect the same pattern, or at least something very similar:
- First, Jesus identifies the behavior of a particular person (or persons) that is evidence of his (or her) faith in him.
- Second, he turns to that person and declares to them directly, “Your sins are forgiven.”
This is the pattern in Luke’s Gospel.
But what actually happens at the cross is very different:
- At no point does Jesus identify the behavior of the people around him as evidence of their faith.
- Sadly, their behavior contradicts faith in him – the rulers scoffed at him (Luke 23:25), and the soldiers mocked him (Luke 23:26), while the people watched passively (23:25).
- Jesus never turns to anyone in particular and declares to them that they’ve been forgiven.
- Rather, he turns to God the Father in prayer and asks for mercy and grace to be shown to them.
So, what we have in Luke 23 is not an example of Jesus (or God) directly forgiving people who are not willing to repent. What he is doing is praying for them.
Now, it sure looks like Jesus is forgiving people at the cross. After all, we do find the words “forgive them” coming out of Jesus’ mouth. But in both of our examples from Luke, Jesus says, “Your sins [plural] are forgiven.” In other words, “All of your sins are forgiven.”
Faith brings us near to Christ and he forgives all of our sins, not just some. But at the cross, Jesus is not asking God to forgive all the sins of the people who are standing nearby.
He is asking God the Father specifically to forgive them for “what they [are] do[ing].” What are they doing? Crucifying him.
This is the greatest injustice in the history of the world! God’s judgment should rightly fall on them for what they are doing. But in this prayer, Jesus is keeping the door open for them to repent.
Jesus is asking God to pour out the judgment on him: “Don’t let it fall on them. Let it fall on me.” He is isolating himself under the judgment of God. He is making himself the lightning rod for God’s judgment.
Faith and Forgiveness
So, in summary, in our two examples from Luke, Jesus is forgiving all the sins of people who are demonstrating genuine faith in him.
And, on the cross, Jesus is praying for the faithless people that God would not judge them for crucifying him, but would keep the door open to repentance.
I hope this is helpful to you. Please let me know if you have further questions about this.