QUESTION: Were the men who took part in the crucifying of the Lord eternally saved because of His prayer “Father, forgive them…?” (Luke 23:34). Since there is no evidence of either repentance or faith on their part, could there be salvation?
ANSWER: To the second part of this question the answer is a definite “No!” Neither then nor now was there ever salvation for any soul apart from “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
However, the prayer of the Lord was answered — in the sense that the judgment of God was not then and there poured out upon those responsible for the crucifying of His Son. To say, as for instance Krummacher does, that the prayer “embraces the whole register of sins” is, we judge, a mistake. It had reference only to what was being done at the time: “ … what they do.” True, this was the crowning sin of the ages. No crime could have been more atrocious. But it was committed in ignorance — at least in ignorance of its true character and import. And the Lord’s prayer for forgiveness relates itself to this ignorance: “Forgive…for… they know not what they do.”
The word translated “forgive,” while it frequently has reference to the BLANKET forgiveness of ALL sin in the life of one who trusts Christ, has not always that meaning. One occurrence of it is in Luke 13:8, where the thought seems to be closely akin to what we have here. The owner of the fruitless tree would “cut it down.” But the vine-dresser pleads, “LET IT ALONE” this year also … if it bear fruit well: and if not, then thou shalt cut it down.” The word rendered “let … alone”is the same as is rendered “forgive” in the passage we are considering. Clearly the vine-dresser is not suggesting a permanent letting alone of the tree (an eternal forgiveness), but a temporary respite, for if the tree did not “this year” produce fruit, he agreed that it still should be cut down. The crucifiers of the Lord received a similar respite. In Acts 3:17 we find Peter saying to them “ … through ignorance ye did it,” and calling upon them now to repent, that their sins might be blotted out. But they are left in no doubt that, if they do not now repent, judgment would still be their portion. They had been “let alone” or “forgiven” heretofore that they might be pursued in grace and be given the opportunity of facing the issue, no longer in ignorance, but with full knowledge of what was involved.
Stephen’s prayer, as he was being stoned to death, is more or less parallel to the Lord’s. He prayed “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Note, “THIS sin …” It goes without saying, of course, that they were not forgiven all sin or saved eternally in answer to Stephen’s prayer! And the Lord’s prayer had a similar limitation.
Paul’s words in 1 Tim. 1:13 may also be compared. After admitting that he had been “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious,” he adds “I obtained mercy, because I did it IGNORANTLY in unbelief.” The mercy he speaks of is seen in the fact that, though so fiercely opposing himself to the Lord and His people, he had not been summarily cut off in his sins, but was, as the hymn-writer would put it, “Preserved by Jesus when his feet made haste to hell” —preserved that he might yet be shown the enormity of his sin and be given the opportunity of turning from it, in faith, to the Saviour.
— F. W. Schwartz.