By Pastor Glenn Pease
If God did not pardon the guilty there would be no Gospel, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Even so, we feel there is a danger in being too merciful. Abraham Lincoln was accused of this during the Civil War when he seemed willing to pardon just about anyone. He would defend those who broke army regulations, and he would find alibis for those condemned to die. One young soldier, for example, had gone to sleep at his post and was court marshaled and sentenced to be shot. He was pardoned by Lincoln, who gave this defense: "I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of that poor man on my skirts. It is not wondered at that a boy raised on a farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep, and I cannot consent to shoot him for such an act."
There was no question about his guilt, but though guilty he was pardoned. At another time 24 deserters were to be shot and warrants for their execution was sent to Lincoln to be signed. He refused to do. The general went to Washington to see Lincoln. At the interview he said, "Mercy to the few is cruelty to the many. These men must be made an example or the army itself would be in danger." In spite of the forceful argument Lincoln replied, "There are to many weeping widows in the United States. For God's sake don't ask me to add to the number, for I won't do it." With complete knowledge of their guilt he pardoned them, and it was not because Lincoln was ignorant of the law, for he was a lawyer. He was also not ignorant of the importance of justice, but out of mercy he pardoned the guilty.
This is a parallel of what we see at the cross, though the mercy there was infinitely more amazing. We see a king, who was also a lawyer, defending those whom he knows to be guilty. But here it is himself who is also the victim of their sin and crime. Certainly no murder mystery ever ended with a more surprising scene than this. Here the guilty are standing before the judge, who is also the murder victim, and who is acting as their defending attorney pleading for their pardon before he dies. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." He has acknowledged their guilt, for if they were not guilty there would be no need for forgiveness. His case then will not consist in proving them not guilty, but instead that even though guilty there is a basis on which they should be pardoned. There are two questions we want to ask about this defense Christ makes for the guilty sinners who crucified Him.
I. WHO IS HE DEFENDING?
It would be a confusing trial indeed in which one did not know who the defendant was. There is some disagreement as to who is included in Christ's plea for mercy, but this is only because a few authors cannot bring themselves to believe that even the cunning Jewish leaders were included. All agree that the Roman soldiers are included, and that they are the least guilty of all. They are victims of a power machine beyond their control. It is not theirs to reason why, but only to do or die. They have orders to crucify this man, and whether they like the task or not they do it. They could have refused and died, but what reason would they have for refusing to execute a man that has been legally condemned by the state? How could they know that the only sinless hands that ever were are now being nailed to a cross. It was certainly true of them that they knew not what they were doing.
But did Jesus go further than this? Did He intercede also for the Scribes and Pharisees? Did He include Ciaphus and Annas, and the cruel crowd that mocked Him? The vast majority of commentators say yes, but a few say no. Are we to follow the majority and make this plea all inclusive just because it is a majority opinion? The magnitude of this plea for mercy cannot be determined by counting votes, but by searching the Scripture, and as we do we discover that the majority view is not an opinion only but a conviction based on clear revelation.
In Acts 3 we read of Peter preaching to the Jews where he gives credit to Christ for the healing of the lame man. He says of Jesus, "..whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilot, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life..." And then in verse 17 he says, "And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers." Peter knew that even the most guilty acted in ignorance, and so they were forgiven and were able to respond to the Gospel which he preached. Paul adds to the conviction in I Cor. 2:8, "None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."
With these two witnesses we rest our case that Christ's plea for mercy included all who guilty and responsible for His crucifixion. This means that Christ died for all sin, and that included the sin of causing Him to die. No one who was guilty was left without a pardon. The case was closed, for all were forgiven. The plaintiff dropped all the charges. They were all guilty, but they were all pardoned. This fact should have made it impossible for the history of Christian anti-Semitism to have ever happened. It makes the modern debate over the guilt of the Jews for the death of Christ a mockery. There is any dogmatic truth we can learn from the history of the church it is this: When ever professing Christians do not determine all of their attitudes and actions based on the Word of God and the example of Christ, they promote evil rather than the kingdom of God.
Jesus forgave those who were guilty for His death. Peter and Paul repeat this fact, and yet men go on debating whether or not the Jews should be forgiven. This word of Christ ought to enable everyone to see the folly of it all. Even if the very Jews who killed Jesus were alive today, they would be forgiven. How much more contemporary Jews who had nothing to do with it? God forbid that any who name the name of Christ should refuse to forgive the innocent when Christ forgave the guilty. To the question then, who is Christ defending? We answer: Everyone who needs defense, or all who are guilty. Next we ask-
II. WHY IS HE DEFENDING THEM?
When we see that He meant even the most guilty in this plea for forgiveness we are compelled to ask why would He seek a pardon for those who deserve to be condemned? The primary answer lies in the very nature of Christ. The story is told of how in the Scotch Rebellion a man by the name of Ayloff was captured and taken before King James II. The king said to him, "You had better be frank with me Mr. Ayloff. You know that it is in my power to pardon you." The prisoner broke his sullen silence and answered, "It may be in your power but it is not in your nature." And so it was not, and Ayloff was executed.
This was not the case with the King on the cross. If was not only in His power but it was also in His nature to pardon. He never would have come into the world in the first place was it not His nature to seek and to save the lost, and to pardon the guilty. Mercy is one of the greatest attributes of God. As grace means what God does for us that we do not deserve, so mercy means what God does not do to us that we do deserve. We could conclude then that Jesus pleaded for the pardon of the guilty just because His nature of love and mercy made it a natural reaction.
This statement of Christ, however, that they knew not what they were doing shows that there is more to it than that. There is some cause in the guilty themselves that makes Him plead for pardon. Jesus finds a reason for their folly that does not make them not guilty, but does make them candidates for pardon, and that factor is ignorance. It is practically a proverb that ignorance is no excuse, but it is a product of man's wisdom and not Gods. The Scripture says ignorance is an excuse. We have already read Peter's statement that the Jews killed Jesus in ignorance, and to this we can add Paul's testimony in I Tim. 1:13 where he says, "I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him, but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief." He was guilty, but because he sinned in ignorance he was pardoned. Had ignorance been no excuse Paul would have been a flaming Apostle in the fires of hell, and not one flaming against the forces of hell.
The Old Testament makes a difference between the sin of ignorance and the sin of a high hand. One who sins willfully with full knowledge that it is out of God's will sins with a high hand. There is no atonement for those who sin in this way, but there is for those who break God's law in ignorance. We see then that the crucifixion of Christ was a sin of ignorance. They did not know what they were doing. As wicked as they were they would not knowingly kill the Son of God. They were really convinced that they were killing a blasphemer. Ignorance allows men to do the worst evils with the conviction that they are doing right. God accepts such ignorance as a basis for pardon. The fact that the greatest crime ever committed was the result of ignorance ought to open our eyes to see that ignorance is one of man's greatest curses. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," said Jesus. Those who love ignorance are bound to do that which is stupid, harmful and evil. Even so, if their evil is a product of ignorance, it makes a difference in God's attitude.
It made a difference in Lincoln's attitude as well. We saw how he could freely pardon those who became traitors out of weakness and ignorance, but when he was approached to pardon one who was engaged in the slave trade he made this reply; "You know my weakness is to be, if possible, too easily moved by appeals for mercy, and if this man were guilty of the foulest murder that the arm of man could perpetrate, I might forgive him on such an appeal, but the man who would go to Africa and rob her of her children, and sell them into an interminable bondage with no other motive than that which is furnished by dollars and cents, is so much worse than the most depraved murderer, that he can never receive pardon at my hands. No, he may rot in jail before he shall have liberty by any act of mine."
We see the 2 sides of Lincoln with his mercy and justice. We see mercy to the ignorant guilty and justice to the willful guilty. The fact that he had these two attitudes would indicate that he was a man directed by God, for this is God's attitude as well. The mercy and wrath of God are to be understood in the light of this principle. As G. Campbell Morgan says, "All sins of ignorance are forgiven. It is only the sin against light, which has no forgiveness." He probably should have qualified that by adding that sins against light have no forgiveness without repentance. We sin willfully often in the face of clear revelation, and we need to know that if confess He is faithful and just to forgive. The point is, however, that sins of ignorance can be forgiven by God even before repentance, but willful sin only after repentance. Jesus prayed for the guilty sinners around His cross, and they were anything but repentant. But we cannot doubt that God heard the dying prayer of His Son. They were guilty and unrepentant, but they were still pardoned.
Because they were ignorant it makes sense that they did not repent, for one does not repent apart from conviction that one is doing wrong. By necessity then forgiveness must often come before repentance. Jesus often forgave sins and then told the person to go and sin no more, and to turn from evil to God, which is repentance. Paul also says in Rom. 2:4, "Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" Men often need to experience forgiveness first before they can repent. We often fail to represent God at this point by trying to bring conviction by means of condemnation rather than assurance of God's forgiveness.
We cannot begin to understand people as Jesus did, nor can we know their inner motives and the degree of ignorance in them, but it is our responsibility to be both just and merciful. For the unbeliever there is the responsibility of either receiving the mercy of Christ and being pardoned, or of receiving His justice and being condemned. The Jews suffered the wrath of God in 70 A.D. not because they crucified Christ, for they were pardoned for that, but judgment came because they refused to believe in Christ even after the clear revelation of His deity in His resurrection. Ignorance can be forgiven, but sin against light must be condemned.
Seneca the Roman says that those who were crucified usually cursed their executioners and spat upon all who were near. Cicero says that the tongues of those crucified were cut out on occasion to stop their terrible blasphemies. How Satan and all the forces of evil would have delighted had Jesus uttered a curse from the cross, but Jesus, like a fragrant tree, bathed in perfume the very acts, which gashed Him. His first thought was not for himself but for those who were guilty. It is hard to be like Jesus in this way because it is contrary to self-defense. To forgive demands self-denial, for to forgive means to take upon yourself undeserved suffering and demand no payment from those who inflict it. They are guilty of injustice, and you are innocent, but yet it is you that must suffer and the guilty who get off scot-free if you forgive them.
Our very sense of justice fights against forgiveness, for it is not fair, but that is just the point. Grace deals with unmerited favor. If forgiveness was fair it would merely be a legal obligation and moral duty, but it is not fair, and so it is a free choice that rises above the law. Forgiveness is totally of grace, and only those who are gripped by grace can grasp the importance of it, and the ability to express it. I cannot express what I have not experienced. I cannot give away what I do not have, and so we must first be forgiven in order to forgive. We must believe in God's free grace of forgiveness before we can be free to forgive those who sin against us.
The example of Jesus shows us that the innocent party is free at any time to forgive. There is no need to wait for repentance and confession. The people Jesus forgave did none of these. They never said they were sorry, and they were not even looking for His forgiveness. Grace is expressed because of the nature of the forgiver, and not because of the nature of those being forgiven. We have many sins of which we are not conscious. We have many which are called the sins of omission. There is no way we can confess these sins of which we are not aware, and so we need to depend upon the grace of Christ to forgive them, and we can have the assurance that He will because He was willing to pray, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."