We might be tempted to wonder, Why a sacrifice? Couldn’t God simply forgive sins without requiring the death of Christ? After all, God is love and it is his nature to forgive. Why was the cross a necessity?
An answer may be found in the first statement of the dying savior from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We cannot understand, any more than Jesus’ tormentors could, the depth of our sin or the height of God’s holiness. If we did, we would more fully understand the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for sin.
A reading of the crucifixion narratives in the four gospels arouses our amazement. Jesus offered no resistance during his arrest, unjust trials, savage flogging, public mocking, and torturous crucifixion. We hear no cry for revenge. There is only empathy: “They do not know what they are doing.”
This fact did not relieve them of responsibility, however. Their ignorance was willful ignorance. They rejected him in the face of the overwhelming evidence that he was the divine Son of God. It was lazy ignorance, the apathy of indifference to the truth that he preached. It was blind ignorance because “they loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
It is the same for us. We are responsible for our sins, even those of which we are not aware. We must recognize that we, too, are guilty of sin (Romans 3:9-20). If not the same sins as of those who crucified our Lord, they are sins that are equally offensive to God’s righteous nature and holy law. His perfection requires the satisfaction of a perfect sacrifice in order for forgiveness to be possible. He must be true to himself (2 Timothy 2:13).
“He was numbered with the transgressors,” Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 53:12). It is noticeable, then, that Jesus prayed for their forgiveness as he was dying on the cross. It was his death on the cross that accomplished satisfaction. It was on the basis of his sacrifice that Jesus was asking the Father in heaven to withhold his wrath. Yes, God is love, and he is willing to forgive sins. But his love is a holy love. His holy nature requires satisfaction (1 John 2:2).
Their forgiveness depended upon their response to Jesus’ sacrifice. One of the hardened Roman officers at the scene confessed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish high council, had “become a disciple of Jesus” (Matthew 27:57). The faithful women disciples who had followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry mourned his death amid the mockers at the foot of the cross.
This precious word, “forgive,” means to remove, to send away, to release from a debt. It refers to restoration of a relationship that is broken by sin. It involves two parties, the one offended, and the offender. There must be a granting and an acceptance of forgiveness. This acceptance involves confession and confession involves a change of outlook toward sin. This is called repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).
What about those who deny their moral responsibility and who refuse to acknowledge their sin? Are they covered by Jesus’ prayer from the cross? Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus was not forgiven. Jesus said of him it would have been better if he had not been born (Mark 14:21). Caiaphas and his co-conspirators thought it would have been better for Jesus to die than for them to lose their political influence (John 11:49-53). They remained embittered toward Jesus and his followers (Acts 4:5-7). The criminal dying at Jesus’ left side joined the chorus of willful defiance against Jesus (Mark 15:27-32; Luke 23:39). These who rejected Jesus then represent all who now exempt themselves from the benefits of his prayer for God’s forgiveness.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” shows us the compassion of the Lord Jesus, even toward those who reject him. It shows us God’s willingness to forgive those who confess their sin and trust in his Son. It shows us that forgiveness before a holy God is available for all who believe the message of the cross: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).