Jesus may be the most quoted man of all time, edging out Shakespeare and the Beatles. His words are still hotly contested, fiercely defended and grotesquely twisted (depending of course on who you talk to). Of all the things Jesus said, it’s his words from the cross that are most profound and confounding. With the nail still wet from his fresh warm blood and his nerves on fire–Jesus defiantly spilled soft words of peace.
Luke 23:32-34 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
This certainly sounds nice. But did he really mean it? The big question about “Father forgive them…” is:
Does this prayer essentially give salvation to those offenders, there in that moment? Did Jesus’ prayer save the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him?
Truth always corresponds to the evidence and is coherent. Whatever the answer is, it cannot defy the evidence nor can it be true and also contradict another claim that is true. So, what are our options?
Jesus’ prayer saved the Roman soldiers. The problem with this view is that the Roman soldiers and others would never have to place their faith in Jesus. Salvation is simply given even if they never express trust in Jesus. That contradicts many passages in the New Testament. Just a few of which are:
Jesus’ prayer did not save the Roman soldiers. This resolves the problem with the first option. The Roman soldiers and others would have to repent and express trust in Jesus. This would be consistent with the verses listed above and all the New Testament accounts of someone being saved. The problem with this view is that Jesus’ prayer is either ignored or answered with a, “No” by the Father. Either option would indicate a division in the Trinity. This opens a can of worms worse than option 1.
Jesus’ prayer was intended to guarantee not that they would be saved, but that they could be saved. Jesus was saying to the Father, “Put their sins on my bill.” If we go back and read Isaiah 53—the entire passage outlines an exchange where Jesus gets the short end of the stick. He takes all of humanity’s mess and in exchange all of humanity can have peaceful forgiveness.
- By his stripes we are healed.
- He took up our iniquities.
- The punishment that brought us peace was on him.
That exchange was true for the Roman soldiers as well. In that moment, Jesus not only took the brunt of Roman cruelty—he was also paying the price for the sin they were committing right then. He felt the pain of the nail and the pain of the guilt for driving the nail. It was a double whammy.
Wouldn’t this view also create more difficulties? How do we resolve the tension over Jesus paying for all sin, but not all people go to Heaven? It should be helpful to know that this tension is affirmed in Scripture:
1 John 2:1-2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for all sins. Salvation is not granted to every person simply because he paid the price for sin. Salvation is granted to any person who places their faith in him.
Ephesians 2:8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.
In that agonizing prayer from the cross, Jesus asked the Father to put their sin on his tab, to include it in the payment he was making on the cross. The butchery committed by the Roman soldiers wasn’t in a unique category of sin that the cross did not cover. Jesus’ prayer made it clear that they could be saved, not that they would be saved. The Roman soldiers,the thieves on the cross, all those in the crowd, as well as you and me are only saved by placing our trust in Jesus Christ.
So yeah. He did mean it.