On the cross, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Can we expect God to forgive unbelievers who "don't know what they're doing"?
—Cindy Osborne, Cross Plains, Tennessee

Jesus' prayer is a petition and a disclosure of his own heart, revealing the depth of his love for humanity. He had taught "love your enemies," and now he revealed love in his own attitude to his crucifiers. The Cross made forgiveness available to the world. However, forgiveness extended may not mean forgiveness received. There must be a willingness to accept it if it is to be ours. The Cross made it possible from God's perspective to extend forgiveness, but the imparting of it must await the readiness of each individual to admit a need of it.

Christ prayed, "[T]hey do not know what they are doing." The Roman soldiers had beaten and mocked him, and even as Jesus spoke these words they "divided up his clothes by casting lots." Yet Jesus understood that they did not know who it was they were killing. He knew they were unaware of their need for salvation, so he interceded for them. A similar scenario took place in Acts 7, when Stephen was martyred. Like his Savior before him, Stephen prayed, "Lay not this sin to their account." But does the Father honor this type of prayer? Can sinful men and women be excused for reason of ignorance?

The Bible tells us that God finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked, that he is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). God is long-suffering and determined that men and women would come to faith in him. Thus he patiently continues to work with those who are blinded to his salvation until some arrive at the point where they sense their need of repentance. Consider the young Saul, who was counted among those who murdered Stephen. He did not know what he was doing, and it took some added work by God to bring him to himself (Acts 9:3-6).

The old spiritual says it well when it asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Indirectly we were all there. What the Roman authorities and Jewish leaders did on that day to crucify Christ is what any of us with our sin would have done. We all played a part in beating him, mocking him, denying him, murdering him. It was for our sins that he was crucified. And the forgiveness and salvation that we now have access to through Jesus was made available to us even while we were in ignorance of who he was and what he had done for us.

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On this side of eternity, we cannot understand the fullness of how God chooses to work in the hearts of individual men and women. The gospel tells us that Christ is "the way, the truth and the life," and that "no one comes to the Father" except by him (John 14:6). This is certainly true, but it does not say that all people need to presently know this in order to be saved. The Old Testament saints did not know what we now do about God's plan for salvation, but by faith they settled for whatever way God would work it out. It is unlikely that the prostitute Rahab knew anything about the particulars of how God would make salvation possible, yet the writer of Hebrews lists her as a heroine of the faith. Job shows little knowledge of how God produced salvation, yet he was called a righteous servant.

In the wake of the Cross, however, the world can know more of God's perfect plan. The apostle Paul declares that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). The actual hearing and receiving of the gospel engenders a committed faith, and this leads to a positive response to God's offer of salvation.

Rather than speculate as to whether any who have never heard the gospel can actually be saved, we should let our love for others, even our own opponents, become added motivation to respond to the urgent demand of our Lord—that his disciples would go into all the world and proclaim the Good News.

Yes, God offers grace and forgiveness to those who "do not know what they are doing." (We were all in that position at one time.) But, ultimately, we must all come to a recognition of that offer and then, by faith, put our trust in the work and person of humanity's Savior, Jesus Christ.

Richard Besancon is professor emeritus of philosophy at Judson College in Elgin, Illinois.

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Related Elsewhere

Visit Judson College's homepage.

Be sure to read Christianity Today's January 2000 cover story "The Forgiveness Factor."

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