Monday, July 4, 2011

For They Know Not What They Do

WARNING: the following blog entry contains more musings on God, Jesus, the Bible, theology and the like.  Read on at your own risk.

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."  (Luke 23:34)

This utterance appears only in the Gospel of Luke with nothing similar recorded in the other three gospel texts.  Not only that, this particular sentence does not even appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, but was determined to be a worthy inclusion in the canon of scripture as it was found in most of the copies of Luke's gospel that were distributed out to the early churches and is reinforced in other passages (Acts 3:17-18; I Timothy 1:12-13). 

Meditating on this verse has been refreshing, rewarding; yet at the same time, confusing.  Of late, I've been questioning the theological concept of limited atonement (or as some would call it -- particular redemption).  Limited atonement is the Reformed view that Jesus' death only redeemed the sins of those chosen by God to be ultimately saved.  Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology explains that Reformed theologians come to this conclusion for the following reason:
If Christ's death actually paid for the sins of every person who ever lived, then there is no penalty left for anyone to pay, and it necessarily follows that all people will be saved, without exception.  For God could not condemn to eternal punishment anyone whose sins are already paid for: that would be demanding double payment, and it would therefore be unjust.
Luke's verse highlighted above does not mesh well with the idea that Jesus did not love all or was only willing to die for the elect.  For here, Jesus is clearly asking God to forgive the very people who brought about his unjust crucifixion and grisly death.  Not only that, he appears to be offering up a valid excuse for their sin in that they did not realize and understand what it was that they were doing.  He is playing the role of advocate (see I John 2:1-2) for the very people who are acting out of unbelief.  I find this to be a very interesting glimpse into the heart of Jesus.

This leads me to ask a number of semi-rhetorical questions.

What would Jesus' motive be in asking God to forgive a rather large group of people who do not appear to be part of the salvation plan?  Is this a one-time exception-to-the-rule type of desire on the part of Jesus?  Or does this idea affirm what Paul wrote to Timothy that the Savior "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"?  (I Timothy 2:4).

Will God honor Jesus' request?  (Surely He would, based upon what we know of the Trinity.  John 5:19)  If so, would not God always forgive in similar circumstances?  For God is never arbitrary, never capricious, never inconsistent, as far as we can understand those concepts in light of the Ultimate.  (Please know, I am not trying to draw lines and put God in a box to win an argument or to sway anyone to think in a certain way.  On the contrary, I'm trying to stretch my own mind to grasp just a little more of the unbelievableness that is the Divine.)

If Jesus wants to forgive those who brought about his death, and in fact does so, is this forgiveness limited to this particular sin or does it extend to all of the sins committed out of ignorance by this class of people?  Or perhaps such a forgiveness of sins even wipes the whole slate clean at that point?  How often does God forgive when there is no repentance and no request for forgiveness?

There are no good answers to these questions.  (If you disagree, please feel free to comment and contribute to the discussion.)  My guess is that an appropriate analysis would show that this addition to Luke's gospel is not about who gets saved and whose sins are forgiven, but instead about the undeniable compassion of Jesus; yet I feel like there is something more going on here.  This is the heart of Jesus, not just in an isolated incident (though it was a rather momentous incident), but an indication of his desire that all would be forgiven.  It's a fairly scandalous idea.

As I have contemplated these things, my initial conclusion is that Jesus is more incredible than I previously thought.  (Always a solid conclusion to come to!)  However, I cannot put into words (or even a coherent thought) precisely why I have come to such a conclusion.  The only way I can think to describe it is this: limited atonement makes Jesus look smaller.

When the Apostle Paul wrote that grace abounded much more, I think he was talking about something really amazing -- so amazing that even in our best theological constructs we are unable to grasp what really happened when Jesus died on the cross.  Even as I type this, my heart burns and I wonder if this is anything like what those two disciples felt when they unknowingly traveled with the resurrected Savior.

In conclusion, I would submit that the doctrine of limited atonement is lacking in a very fundamental way.  While it is a view that has some scriptural support, it is also based upon logic in its attempt to describe something which is more than likely indescribable.  (That's not to say that I think we should all throw up our hands and say: "What's the point in trying to figure all this stuff out?"  I believe we should continue to search the scriptures and plead with the Holy Spirit to unlock the truths contained therein.)  Where I find fault with this doctrine is that it reeks of exclusion and limitation -- two things which in my humble opinion should never be applied to Jesus when it comes to his saving grace.

I believe the gospel message really is good news.  In fact, it is the proclamation of news so amazingly good, it can be difficult to believe.  Jesus himself was the agent which made this good news a reality.  He must increase.  He must always increase.  Surely there must be a better explanation than to exclude and place limits on the ultimate effects of what certainly had to have been the perfect sacrifice.
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.  (Hebrews 2:9)
A CHALLENGE: I am not a theologian, but in this post I have made a number of theological statements.  I welcome debate and would love to be shown the errors (if any) that I have made here.  Please comment with any objections, affirmations or anything in between, that we may all be edified.

Bibliography: Love Wins; Systematic Theology


  1. Beware any conclusion that starts with the premise "God could not..." :-)

  2. I find that there is a hell that is spoken about. God will say to some people, "I do not know you". A place is described where there is gnashing of teeth, not such a pleasant thought. I also find that scripture speaks of God reconciling all things to himself, as in Colossians 1:20. This is the scripture where universalism goes for support. The parable of the vineyard is interesting in this discussion, where those working in the vineyard were upset that those who came in the last minute got the same wage. Somehow I think this will apply to those of us who have been striving to walk a Christian walk.

    I also find very harsh words for the self righteous. Paul calls them dogs. And I think those who have rested upon their own good works and lived in the fruit of that work, which is judgment of others who did not do the same work, will find God is opposed to them.

    These will be the people who did not allow Jesus to wash their feet. These are the people that believe that you have to do the right things for God to be pleased with you. Again, I find these folks cannot help but judge others. This is why I think Paul declared his own righteousness as rubbish. Many people use the scripture in Philippians 3 to support the thought that we count all the worldly stuff we have as rubbish, but the context of the scripture is pointing to our counting our own personal righteousness as rubbish, when compared to knowing Christ.

    I do not think we can know Christ apart from the humility of recognizing we are broken and without hope apart from His gift. I do think that most people know they are broken deep in their hearts. One universal experience of all mankind is the feeling of shame. I define shame as the fear that if this thing(insert your own thought)was known about me, people and God will reject me. Yet, when I have experienced God, I have found him loving with no reservations, I have felt accepted completely, understood by him completely. At the same time, I have felt undone and overwhelmed by his kindness.

    God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. I think we will find God's grace to be bigger than we hoped, and his requirement for faith to be smaller than we imagined.

  3. Hugh, good point.

    Scott, lots of good stuff here. Thank you for your comments. I find that the parable of the vineyard workers closely parallels the parable of the prodigal son. But even more interesting is that the landowner keeps going back to the marketplace time and again, bringing more workers into the vineyard, so that at the end of the day ALL who were still without work were brought into the vineyard. This idea of God continuing to open his arms wider and wider is where I feel that our view of limited atonement fails. Of course, that parable ends confusingly with "For many are called, but few chosen." Huh?!?

    You started your comment with God telling some that He does not know them and conclude with the fact that He opposes the proud. This is one of the great themes of the Bible that I believe we should use to always be checking ourselves. Jesus responds with grace and love to everyone, yet challenges (outright opposes) those who think they've got it all figured out and deserve to be rewarded for the good things they have done. As I grow in my understanding of the Lord and the Bible, I always want it to be about Jesus increasing and not about anything to do with me.

    Again, thank you for contributing to the blog.

  4. I think a key verse that applies to this discussion is Matthew 6:14-15. Since the focus of Jesus words on the cross were forgivness, this seems critical. Not all sins are forgiven, otherwise all WOULD be saved. I would say Jesus certainly had all the desire and authority to forgive sins, however, forgiveness and atonment cannot be the same.

    If we say that Limited Atonement is flawed, then a paradox exists, because then some other aspect of God is limited.

    If all sins are atoned, but not forgiven, in spite of Christ's desire that they be so, then Jesus is lacking something in order to make that forgiveness take place. What could Jesus be lacking? If we believe he lacked nothing, we hit the paradox.

    Limited Atonment fits well with the doctrine of election. I like that term "particular redemption" In God's soveregnty, he chose certain ones, this is the crux of it all. Destiny is that word that people often don't like to confront, because we all feel it. Many people have this fixation with making or their own destiy, the Bible is clear that we cannot. It can be easy to become offended at God that he would be selective, but he is. Although our will exists, it is not truly free.

    So we see that God must not forgive atone for all sin outright, no matter what price was paid. Atonement from my perspective requires two things, a sacrifice and an object of forgiveness. Those who reject Christ will not be forgiven, because they cannot be.