"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