01 March, 2017

Luke 23:34—An Intercessory Prayer for the Elect




Prof. Herman C. Hanko


Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).


Part 1

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?”

These are good questions which deal with important truths, not the least of which is the nature of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

We must, first of all, picture the scene. Christ and the two malefactors had been led away to Calvary, and the soldiers in charge of the execution were nailing the three to their respective crosses prior to setting the crosses up in holes dug to support them. When the nailing was completed and the holes were dug, then the crosses were raised and dropped into the holes, and earth packed around their bases to hold them erect.

This was a time when criminals about to be crucified would pour out all their hatred and venom with fierce words of cursing and blasphemy, against their executioners and against society in general. At that moment (and it may very well have been at the moment the nails were being driven through His hands and feet as the cross lay on the ground with its bottom end near the hole that had been dug) Jesus, instead of joining the criminals in their shouts and cursings, prayed: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What a contrast! What a surprising word from the suffering Savior!

It was the first of seven crosswords. And, as is the case with all the crosswords, this one too tells us something about the nature of the work Christ was doing when He died on the cross.

The first question of the reader really is a question concerning the ones for whom Christ is praying: “It seems as if Christ is asking the Father to forgive all who hear him, indiscriminately …” And the reader suggests that this could possibly be deduced as proof that Christ wants all men to be saved. And, as a further conclusion, the reader suggests that it is possible that Christ’s intention or desire to save all men be proclaimed in the gospel.

And that is, of course, the basic idea in what has become known as the well-meant gospel offer. The reasoning as such is sound. If Christ is praying for all men without distinction then all the rest surely follows. And so the question is: For whom is Christ praying? Is He indeed praying for all who heard Him at this moment when He uttered the prayer? and does this prayer have significance for all men?
Before we answer that question, however, it is well that we ask a prior question. That prior question is: For what does Christ pray? Perhaps if we understand for what Christ is praying, we can understand for whom Christ is praying.

Or, to put the question a bit differently: Is Christ really praying here for the forgiveness of sins? If He is, that makes a difference. If Christ prays for the forgiveness of sins and Christ is praying for all men, then Christ is also praying that His Father forgive the sins of all men.

But that leads to great difficulties. If Christ asks His Father to forgive the sins of all men, then, quite obviously, this is one prayer of Christ which God is not pleased to hear. God refuses to grant Christ His request! That would be a most dreadful thought!

There are plenty who hold to the position that Christ is praying for all men. In fact, I would venture to say that this is probably the interpretation adopted by most commentators. But those who claim that Christ prays for all men recognize the terrible problem that is involved in this interpretation. And so they proceed to adopt another interpretation of Christ’s prayer. That interpretation is that Christ is here only praying for a postponement of judgment.

The wicked have committed a terrible crime in nailing to the cross the eternal Son of God. If these wicked would receive their just due, heaven would open and God’s fury would pour out upon them. But that would also be the end of them, and of the nation of Israel, whose sin it primarily is that Christ was crucified. And so Christ asks God for a postponement of judgment so that God will restrain His anger for a bit.

Such an interpretation is also adopted by those who hold to the fact that Christ beseeches His Father for a postponement of judgment in order that these very wicked, who deserve to be stricken from the earth, may receive a second chance to believe in Christ. Now they crucify Him; but perhaps, if given another chance, they may still believe in Him. 

Part 2

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 to 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 heardany 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” (Matt. 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. 


Part 3

The reader 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?”

In our last two articles we answered the first question which is quoted above; in this article we propose to answer the second question: “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?”

In the last article we suggested that the conclusion of the reader to this question was true in a certain sense. To this we now turn.

It is, of course, not true at all that those who crucified Christ did not have any idea of what they were doing. They surely knew that Christ was the Son of God. Christ had repeatedly claimed this for Himself not only, but the chief grounds of Christ’s condemnation by the Sanhedrin had been exactly His claim to be God’s eternal Son.

They knew that Christ had gone about the land doing good; that He had not ever committed so much as one tiny sin; that He had done nothing worthy of death; that, in fact, He had preached the gospel of the kingdom and supported His claims to be the One who brought the kingdom by many wonderful miracles.

They knew all this. Not only the leaders of the Jews knew this, but the common people also knew all these thingsalthough surely some understood them better than others. Jesus does not refer here to complete ignorance of their foul and vile deed.

But Scripture makes a distinction. It makes a distinction between knowing that Christ is the eternal Son of God, and knowing that Christ came to make atonement for sin by His death on the cross. Of the latter the people were ignorant. It is one thing to crucify the Son of God even though those who crucify Him know who He is. It is quite another matter to reject Him and crucify Him knowing that in Him was accomplished atonement. For the first sin there is forgiveness. For the second sin there is not.

This ignorance is referred to in other parts of Scripture. In Acts 3:17 Peter tells his audience on Pentecost that they crucified Christ “through ignorance … as did also your rulers.” Paul claims a similar ignorance when in I Tim. 1:13 he says of himself, “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.”

Scripture does not mean to say that crucifying Christ is not a horrible sin. It is indeed almost the greatest sin man can commit, and it is the culmination, the full realization of the desperately wicked depravity of the human heart.

But there is one sin yet greater: that sin is knowing that Christ died on the cross to make atonement for sin, and even confessing that truth for a while, but then rejecting that truth, denying the blood of atonement, and crucifying the Son of God afresh (See Hebrews 6:4-6).

This is the sin referred to in Hebrews 10:26-27: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” And even more: “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:28-29).

So Christ’s prayer, answered already at Calvary, was for those who were at the moment of the crucifixion engaged in the terrible work of crucifying Christ. But that same prayer is for all God’s people for whom Christ died. In a sense we are all at Calvary represented by that blood-thirsty mob which screamed for Christ’s death. For it is our corruption and depravity which is expressed in all its grim reality at Calvary. And for us all Christ prays, because our sin, horrible as it is, is not a crucifying of the Son of God afreshas Hebrews 6 calls it. Christ prays for forgiveness, therefore, not on the grounds of our ignorance, but on the grounds of our forgiveableness.

This prayer is the beginning of Christ’s great Highpriestly prayer for His people. It is begun on Calvary; it continues into eternity. It is on the ground of His perfect sacrifice. It is made to the Father that we may be forgiven. It is made that all our sins may be forgiven, because our sin of crucifying Christ is the greatest of them all.

But it is at the same time a serious warning. To confess Christ and His atoning sacrifice, and then to deny it is a horrible sinfor which there is no forgiveness; for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). 





[Source: Covenant Reformed News, vol. 6, no. 1-3]


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