“Father Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Do” (Luke 23:34)

Guilt And Forgiveness

“Please forgive me.” These might be three of the most difficult words in the English language to say sincerely. To say these words sincerely is to confess sin, i.e., transgression of the God’s holy moral law. God’s Word says, “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). This is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Transgression results in a personal liability to justice: guilt. As Leon Morris wrote, guilt is liability but it includes more. “Even if the penalty is deferred or even cancelled, the offender remains a guilty person, for guilt concerns the unalterable past. In Scripture, mankind is viewed as guilty because of the evil we have done and cannot now undo.”1 It is not principally a sense of guilt or a feelings of guilt but the reality of our moral responsibility before God and man.

Thus, when we ask forgiveness we are first confessing sin and guilt, which, without satisfaction, leads to death. Paul says, “[t]he compensation of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). A wage or compensation is something earned and that is what sin earns: death and eternal judgment. It is no wonder we naturally hesitate to admit to ourselves and others that we have sinned.

Against the dark background of our liability to death and judgment there shines a bright, clear, wonderful light: the good news of Jesus Christ: the forgiveness of sins. Paul says,

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness (ἄφεσις) of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1:7–10; ESV).

Morris explains the significance of forgiveness:

It is a most important part of the Christian message to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. In the history of the Christian church this element of the gospel has been seen as so significant that it has been taken into our worship. We confess our sins and are assured of forgiveness in Christ. Absolution of this kind has been an important part of worship.2

Jesus, God the Son incarnate, born of the virgin Mary, obeyed God’s law as our righteous substitute. He died in our place, bearing God’s wrath as the lamb of God (John 1:36). “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” whoever does not, however, remains under the abiding wrath of God (Rom 3:36; Col 3:6; Eph 5:6). Whoever believes in Jesus the substitutionary wrath-bearer has been saved from the wrath to come (Rom 5:9) by God’s favor (grace) alone (sola gratia) through faith in Jesus alone (sola fide). Much of the Revelation is a warning about the wrath to come upon those who are outside of Christ.

The traditional way to speak of forgiveness is to speak of the remission of sins (remissio peccatorum). The root of remission is the Latin noun missio which is derived from the the verb mitto to throw or send. Etymologically then (which method does not always work), remission is the sending away of sins. This way of putting works, however, because this is what Psalm 103:12 says: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Those who have trusted Christ may rest assured that Christ, our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), has been sacrificed for us. As under the types and shadows our sins were ritually laid upon the head of the sacrifice, so our sins have been laid upon Christ. He died for them, bearing our reproach, outside the city (Heb 13:13).

All these ideas, covering, carrying away, blotting out, to show mercy, even atonement are all embedded in the word forgiveness. To explore all these aspects of forgiveness would require more than we can do here but we should understand that it is a rich concept and it means that believers are the recipients of a deep, profound mercy and gift.

Forgiving One Another

Just as soon as Paul reminds the Corinthian congregation that Christ is our Passover Lamb, that, his blood has been painted on the doorposts of our houses, as it were, and that the dark, consuming, just wrath of God has passed us by only to consume the firstborn of Egypt, he exhorts us to “…celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8; ESV).

That there are consequent obligations for those who have been forgiven is clearly taught in Scripture. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:11; ESV).

Our Lord explained what he meant by this clause in the parable of the unforgiving servant:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:23–35; ESV).

Either one is in a covenant of grace or in a covenant of works with God. In a covenant of works one relationship to God is a matter of strict justice. God deals with us on the basis of our performance. Adam was in this relationship and he has the power and ability to meet the terms of the covenant of works. Should he keep it, that covenant of nature was to lead to eternal life and blessedness. Mysteriously and tragically he chose not to keep it.

The covenant of grace also promises eternal life and blessedness but on different conditions. For those in a covenant of grace, Christ has met the terms of justice and we sinners come to God on the basis of what he has done for us. We have inherited life and blessedness solely because of hisrighteousness for us. We receive Christ and all his benefits by divine favor alone, through faith alone.

This is what Jesus was telling us in the parable. We, who have received such rich favor, for whom so much has been freely forgiven for Christ’s sake alone—if indeed we have received his favor—can only be gracious and forgiving to other sinners. Who are we, sinners that we are, to withhold forgiveness from other sinners when they ask it—even if they should ask it imperfectly?

When our Lord was dying on the cross he forgave those wicked murderous sinners who unjustly, cruelly, ruthlessly, and abusively scourged and crucified him. When we think about whom we should forgive and who we should forgive we ought to bear in mind our Lord’s words and his parables and their explanation in the gospels and in the epistles.

It is all too easy for recipients of grace to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. “Well, yes, I received grace but you offended me very much and I will not forgive you until you satisfy certain conditions.” What conditions did those who abused and crucified Jesus satisfy before he forgave them? Did any of them seek his forgiveness before he forgave them? Did any of them do anything but mock him and hurl abuse?

“But this is very hard.” It is indeed. In our culture of victimhood we are encouraged to nurture grievances and to fan the flames of bitterness and self-righteousness. The effect of such encouragement is to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. We want our sins forgiven freely but we are not so ready to forgive those who have offended us.

“But I was really hurt.” I understand. The deepest wounds come at the hands of those whom one trusts. I have been there. It really hurts. Suffice it to say that to be so hurt can lead to sadness, anger, depression, and bitterness. Paul understood the connection between the refusal to forgive and bitterness:

Let all bitterness (πικρία) and wrath (θυμός) and anger (ὀργή) and clamor (κραυγή) and slander (βλασφημία) be put away from you, along with all malice (κακία). Be kind (χρηστός) to one another, tenderhearted (εὔσπλαγχνος), forgiving (χαρίζομαι) one another, as God in Christ forgave (χαρίζομαι) you (Eph 4:31–32; ESV).

This is a fascinating and telling set of nouns and verbs indeed.

When we refuse to forgive, when we treasure our grievance—which may be entirely justified—it comes at a cost. The treasured, nurtured, justified grievance does no harm to the offender but it does great harm to the offended. It is a cancer that eats away at one’s soul. It makes one hard-hearted. There is a reason that Paul moves from bitterness to wrath and from wrath to its outbreak, anger and clamor and slander—it is possible to blaspheme our neighbor—and malice, i.e., ill intent.

When one assumes to status of the (self) righteous offended—a status one may have earned at great personal cost—it can bring a kind of perverse delight. In our culture that justified victim status brings a certain power (potential) and cultural authority. That is heady stuff. “That’s right! They did you wrong. You should stick it too them! Go get ‘em.”

Recently I saw someone exhort a public victim to forgive his victimizers. The victim responded by characterizing such an approach to forgiveness as the “doctrine of demons.” No, it is the work of demons and of Satan to stoke our self-righteous anger to bitterness, wrath, anger etc. He wants us, in the body of Christ, to be at each other over our grievances.You must know that he was whispering in Cain’s ear, “You know your sacrifice is just good as his. You deserve what Abel is getting” but the truth is that Abel was a prophet and his blood cries out (Luke 11:50–52).

The good news for us believing sinners is that we have been made righteous through “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24; ESV). We have the power and authority to forgive because we have been forgiven. We must forgive because we have been forgiven. We can forgive because we have been forgiven. We are not captive to our past, however terrible it may have been. We are free to forgive. We are no longer captive to it.

This is not to say that abusers should not also face temporal consequences for their sins. When we can, we should seek to have them corrected so that they will not abuse others. See the resources below for more on this. When the abuse is ecclesiastical, redress should be sought in the church. See the resources below for more on this. When it abuse occurs in the secular sphere, we should seek correction from secular authorities but ultimately, justice for impenitent abusers belongs to God (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30).

Justice for the penitent, believing sinner, one who has trusted in Christ, has been satisfied by Jesus. Dear hurt, offended believer, whatever you do, please do not trade in this precious truth—because you were saved by grace alone, through faith alone too—for the sake of keeping your grievance and your self-righteous anger. That is a bad trade indeed.


1. “Guilt and Forgiveness” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

2.  Morris, ibid.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Thanks to Brad Isbell for his editorial help with this essay.

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  1. Can you tell me what true forgiveness (by the victim) and true repentance (by the abuser) in cases of spiritual abuse? I am thinking about the Catholic and Baptist abuse scandals, but other situations within the church also apply. I wonder if sometimes the Christian doctrine of unconditional forgiveness leads to less than full repentance (for full repentance, I look to Zacchaeus as a model- with compensation for the abuse he had committed).

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      Did the soldiers et al. abuse our Lord? What did he say from the cross? What were the conditions of his forgiveness of his abusers?

      As I wrote in the essay, impenitent abusers (did you read the resources on abuse that I provided below the essay?) should be disciplined/corrected by the church as appropriate and by secular authorities as appropriate.

      Sometimes I hear/read victim advocates (of which I am one) imply or say that our forgiveness of abusers is contingent upon them meeting certain conditions. This unintentionally gives the abuser still more power in the life of the abused. When we do that we give him/her something else to hold over our heads. That is a mistake.

      Forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences.

      What do we pray the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us as we forgive. When we withhold forgiveness because someone (e.g., an abuser) has not met our conditions, we have changed the prayer to: “Lord, I’ll forgive that so and so when…” That’s not the prayer.

      Spiritual abusers, be they Baptist, Papist, or Reformed ought to be removed from ministry and corrected by the discipline of the church. Criminals ought to be placed in the hands of the secular authorities.

      We cannot control the degree to which an abuser repents. We can only control the degree to which we forgive.

      Take a look at the resources on abuse linked above.

    • I read the relevant resources you listed. I guess my question is about how a victim of spiritual abuse can sincerely forgive the spiritual abuser AND seek the purity of the church through the discipline process for the spiritual abuser at the same time, if the spiritual abuser seems unconcerned about their pattern of sin and continues to add to it over a long period of time. I am guessing that the key is the victim’s heart attitude during the discipline process (i.e. not allowing bitterness to creep into the heart, while still moving forward with the disciplinary process for the spiritual abuser via the local church, presbytery, etc.). It is a complicated process from an emotional/psychological standpoint. Also, in the story of Jesus on the cross, he forgave the one criminal who recognized his sin, while the other criminal remained unforgiven. And for the soldiers carrying out the order, Jesus’ comment “They know not what they do.” could be significant, since sin that is unknowing/unaware is different from deliberate, ongoing sin, which would require true repentance (going back to the example of Zacchaeus, who compensated his victims for the impact on them of his deliberate financial sin). I understand that all of us are sinners and that therefore we will fall at times in ways that affect others. So, we must extend forgiveness for the same in others. The difficulty is in the process of seeking the best for the church (the dealing with spiritual abuse), while protecting oneself from the temptation to have an unforgiving, bitter spirit. My guess is that forgiveness is a multi-step process in one’s heart over time, and is aided when the church cleanses itself properly through the discipline process for the spiritual abuser. In the cases of the Baptist and Catholic scandals, it appears there was a breakdown in the discipline process over many years, making it difficult for those victims to believe that the church would ever address the disciplining of the abusers. So, the victims needed to maintain a forgiving, non-bitter spirit toward all involved (many of whom continued to offend against other victims), while continuing forward with their seeking of the purity of their respective churches and denominations, and in some cases, legal remedies. It must have been quite a road to walk…

  2. How do the words of Jesus in Luke 17:3 fit in with this discussion?

    “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”

    • Theo,

      Context matters. The issue in Luke 17:1 is temptation. “Temptations to sin are sure to come…”. One of those temptations is to refuse forgiveness. The sin here would be to refuse forgiveness to one who asks.

      This is material to the post. In one recent rather public (on social media case) someone did ask for forgiveness and it was refused because it didn’t meet the offended person’s conditions. It wasn’t abject enough or whatever. A sinner asked for forgiveness and the offended, now in high dudgeon and full of self-righteousness (conferred by victimhood) refused. The passage continues: “and if he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” you must forgive him” (ESV).

      This is just what I was arguing.

  3. Dr Clark,

    I’m not a big fan of social media, so I wasn’t aware of the context of this article. What I’m wondering is whether you are in favor of unconditional forgiveness? That we have to forgive even if the other person is unrepentant. It would seem so from some parts of this article. Of course, it would be helpful to define the term forgiveness. If we’re talking about psychological forgiveness, this is one thing, but if we include reconciliation in the term forgiveness, then that’s quite another.

    “Recently I saw someone exhort a public victim to forgive his victimizers. The victim responded by characterizing such an approach to forgiveness as the “doctrine of demons.””

    What was this victim asked to do here? Be reconciled with his victimizers? This could be called “a doctrine of demons”. Or was the victim asked to merely abstain from seeking revenge and wishing ill upon his/her victimizers?

    I would think that trying to force someone to be reconciled with her rapists, for example, even if they are repentant, is not wise, to say the least.

    “What conditions did those who abused and crucified Jesus satisfy before he forgave them? Did any of them seek his forgiveness before he forgave them? Did any of them do anything but mock him and hurl abuse?”

    In what sense did Jesus forgive them? Are they in heaven now? Concerning Luke 23:34, Jesus didn’t say: I forgive you. He said: Father forgive them. And the only way for God to forgive someone is to lead him/her to repentance and faith. Isn’t this true?

    • Theo,

      Does God forgive us sinners unconditionally?

      Obviously the word condition is a loaded term. There are certain conditions that have to be met in us: we must be regenerated in order to believe and we must believe and believers repent yet repentance is not the instrument of justification. Only faith has that role.

      Now, when sinners ask for forgiveness, as I read Scripture, we must forgive them.

      Should a believer forgive those who are impenitent too? Yes, I think so.

      What does it mean to forgive someone? When our Lord says “pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) is that prayer conditioned upon anything in or done by the persecutors? When Jesus says,

      “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either (Luke 6:27-29).

      is such love conditioned upon any change in our persecutors and tormentors?

      Reconciliation is another thing. That is a process. That is, in a sense, up to the offender. I’m talking about the attitude taken by the offended, by the victim. Is the victim/offended stoking the fires of resentment etc (as I described in the article) or has he/she said, “I forgive them”?

      In what sense did Jesus forgive his murderers indeed! Let us be careful not to be more righteous than Jesus lest we define forgiveness out of existence.

      If one’s definition of forgiveness can’t include our Lord’s words from the cross then I submit that one’s definition is defective.

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