Didn’t Jesus Forgive Unconditionally on the Cross?

Chris Brauns —  February 15, 2008

Knowing forgiveness quotes is essential if we are to find answers for deep wounds and complex questions.Whenever it is argued that forgiveness should be preceded by repentance, some will counter, “Isn’t it true that Jesus forgave those who crucified him?”

The reference in view in this question is the crucifixion account in Luke 23.

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”~ Luke 23:33-34

The short answer to that question is, “no,” Jesus did not forgive them.  If you think carefully about this passage, you will see this is the case. Jesus prayed that those who crucified him would be forgiven in the future, he did not thank God that they were already forgiven. If they had already been forgiven, such a prayer would have been superfluous.

Jesus surely could have forgiven them on the spot himself, had they been repentant on the spot. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that Jesus had authority to forgive sins.  Indeed, there were times when he told people that their sins were forgiven (Luke 5:20-24, 7:49).

Notice also that on the cross, in exactly the same context where Jesus prayed that his killers would be forgiven, Jesus does grant forgiveness to someone else! There were two criminals hanging with Jesus, and one of them repented.  Jesus forgave him immediately: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  He did not say, “I pray that you will be forgiven.”  He forgave him. And, Jesus’ forgiveness promised a new relationship: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Stephen’s prayer for those who stoned him closely parallels the interceding prayer of Jesus on behalf of his tormentors.

And falling to his knees he [Stephen] cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

~ Acts 7:60

I would not be the first to observe that the apostle Paul’s conversion was an answer to Stephen’s prayer.  Paul, who stood nearby holding the garments of those who stoned Stephen, was later saved. But, again, it could be pointed out that Stephen did not say to those stoning him, “I forgive you.” Paul was not forgiven until he repented on the road to Damascus.  Hypothetically speaking, if Paul had lost his life in a chariot accident during the time period between Stephen’s death and his own conversion, Paul would not have gone to heaven.

Others argue that, elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus does not seem to include repentance as a condition for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12,14-15; 18:21-22).  It is true in these verses that Jesus does not explicitly utter a condition of repentance.  However, the requirement is implicit.  In Matthew 6, Jesus told the disciples to forgive as God forgives.  He does not explicitly mention this in Matthew 6, but we learn from other passages that God’s forgiveness is indeed conditional.  So the emphasis of Matthew 6 is to forgive as God forgives, which is another reiteration that we ought to forgive only repentant offenders.

In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus does not explicitly include repentance as a prerequisite for forgiveness. However, the conditional nature of forgiveness is certainly assumed in the context of the chapter. Both in the teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20, and in the parable that follows in Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus describes situations in which people should be forgiven when they repent.

Forgiveness is conditional. The great Reformed theologian John Murray summarized this truth as follows:

Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us on the fulfillment of certain conditions…. Forgiveness is something actively administered on the repentance of the person who is to be forgiven.  We greatly impoverish ourselves and impair the relations that we should sustain to our brethren when we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness.[1]

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John MacArthur writes:

It is important to understand that Jesus’ plea for his killers’ forgiveness did not guarantee the immediate and unconditional forgiveness of everyone who participated in the crucifixion. He was interceding on behalf of all who would repent and turn to Him as Lord and Savior. His prayer was that when they finally realized the enormity of what they had done and sought the heavenly Father’s forgiveness for their sin, He would not hold the murder of His beloved Son against them.

Divine forgiveness is never granted to people who remain in unbelief and sin. Those who clung to their hatred of Jesus were by no means automatically absolved from their crime by Jesus’ prayer. But those who repented and sought forgiveness, like the centurion, or the thief on the cross, or the priests, or the people in the crowd—all who later embraced Him would find abundant mercy in answer to Christ’s petition on their behalf.

Christ’s prayer was a token of mercy offered to all who heard. He prayed aloud for their sakes (cf. John 11:42). Their sin was so unfathomably heinous that if witnesses had not actually heard Him pray for His killers’ forgiveness, most might have assumed they had committed an unpardonable offense.

The forgiveness Christ prayed for is freely offered to all (Revelation 22:17). In fact, God is eager to forgive repentant sinners. The prodigal son’s father is a vivid picture of God’s eagerness to forgive. The Lord pleads for every sinner to be reconciled to Him (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ezekiel 18:3–32; Acts 17:30). To those who repent from sin, He promises to lavish freely with forgiveness. If that offer was extended to those who murdered the very Author of life, how much more is it available to us today?


[1] John Murray, “A Lesson in Forgiveness,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 191.

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17 responses to Didn’t Jesus Forgive Unconditionally on the Cross?

  1. Chris

    How do you interact with Mark 11:25

    God requires forgiveness whether or not the offender has repented and has asked for forgiveness.
    This does not say — “forgive him if he repents” but rather “forgive him right there — as you are praying.”

    Have you seen Tim Keller’s paper on forgiveness? I can send it to you.

    Chris

  2. I have not seen Tim Keller’s paper. I would be very interested.

    My address is “chris at theredbrickchurch.org”. Of course, you have to use the “@sign.”

  3. My quick summary is, it is the obligation of all Christians to maintain a disposition of grace or to offer forgiveness. But, when the person is repentant things go to a different level – – the relationship is restored.

    I think the basic problem is that many people think of forgiveness as a feeling, rather than a transaction between two parties. The former is not biblical.

  4. I keep going from one of your articles to the next. Now I must order your book. This is the most thought-provoking biblical information that I have read in a long while; and, I think, may provide the key to unlock the tangled mess in my heart created my most significant others, who have perpetrated abuse upon me and never repented in the least. Perhaps it is really true that “unconditional forgiveness builds bitterness.”

  5. im so confused by forgiveness, im reading your book and relate to much of it, but i thought God forgave all and we have to do as he did. Having been hurt by the church congregation and much of it ignored and handled badly added to the problem, im at a place of acceptance that it will never be resolved, but not sure if iv forgiven forgiven or not because we haven’t offered it to each other iv done it by myself. I think!

  6. Hurt,

    Thank you for having the courage to comment.

    Because the wounds of life are so deep, there is so much hurt, forgiveness is an especially difficult subject to study.

    Regarding God’s forgiveness, it is clear that God offers forgiveness to all. But not everyone is forgiven. The Bible does not teach universalism (the idea that everyone is saved). But God does offer the package of forgiveness to all.

    Pls feel free to email me at cdbrauns (at sign) gmail.com if you have further questions you want to ask in a less public format.

    Chris.

  7. One important thing to remember, is that God never contradicts Himself.
    If He requires that a person must ask for forgiveness in one place, He will never grant forgiveness to another person, without being asked. Never us a verse that is hard to understand to build doctrine on or that would contradict another clear passage of scripture.

    God’s best to all of you
    Buck

  8. I too am really confused with the “issue” of forgiveness! I thought the Bible taught that we had to forgive no matter what and whether the person asked for it or not. I am afraid I will lose this site once I leave, and I would like as much help as possible in understand this. If you don’t mind emailing me, my email is hedied4us777 “at the hot one”. Thanks in advance

  9. I would like to address Mark 11:25 as I’ve seen comments on this verse. At first this verse seems difficult to reconcile with conditional forgiveness. But when we take the entire verse we see that it not only mentions forgiveness while we stand praying, but it also says, “… so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

    First, this verse says your Father “may” rather than “will” forgive your sins. This means He has not forgiven you, but “may” forgive your sins. Some believe this verse implies forgiveness is unconditional, but may not believe it implies the Father makes forgiveness conditional. If anything, these to implications cancel each other out, meaning we cannot ascertain whether the verse speaks to conditional or unconditional forgiveness. Even if we changed the word “may” to “will”, we should not imply that because we forgive someone of their sins against us that God automatically “will” forgive us of our sins, which someone could imply by this verse, but wrongly so.

    I think there is a purpose Jesus mentioned the Father in this verse, and it is because of the Father’s conditional forgiveness throughout scripture. God’s “conditional” forgiveness is not questioned by any knowledgeable Christian I know (and I don’t know any Universalists). Therefore, if Jesus used the example of the Father’s forgiveness, we must accept that it is conditional and not unconditional in nature. Jesus could have easily left the Father out of this example, but didn’t.

    Finally, it seems imprudent at best and dangerous at worst to ignore or reject Jesus’ “explicit” words in Luke 17:3 and accept our own interpretation of Jesus’ words in Mark 11:25. Yet it happens all the time because we “feel” we must forgive unconditionally. But I would rather place my faith on what Jesus said explicitly rather than place my faith on what I believe Jesus said implicitly, and I think Chris addresses the differences between explicit scripture vs. implicit scripture very well.

    Hope this helps to clarify.

    Blessings to all.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Todd.

  11. It’s all about as clear as mud! Every time I read comments on here I’m more confused. Could you just plainly say what you think forgiveness is in words we can all understand. Thanks.

  12. Carol, see if this simple definition helps. Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to no longer hold a matter against the offender.

    So when God forgives us, he commits that our sin is not held against us. This does not mean forgiveness is cheap. Jesus paid the price on the cross. So holy God (the offended) absorbed the price of forgiveness and promises that there is no longer any condemnation for us if we only believe.

  13. Thanks that bit I get. It’s your comment earlier on here in reply to hurt (me) God offers forgiveness to all but not everyone is forgiven that’s the confusing but for me.
    Thanks.

  14. Got it. Here’s what I mean by that. God is gracious. He holds his arms out open wide to everyone.

    Yet, only those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness become Christians / are forgiven.

    We see this in John 3. John 3:16 tells us that God so loves us that he gave his Son that in believing we might be saved. But John 3:36 warns that whoever does not believe does not have life. Rather, the wrath of God abides on him.

    Does that make sense?

  15. Yes! And that’s how I always thought it was. Yet I wasn’t hearing that in your other comments. Just shows you how confusion can reign in these situations. Thanks for taking the time to clarify.

  16. I’ve never bought into the conditional forgiveness concept as applied to individual Christians. There are countless Bible passages that call us to something more than withholding forgiveness until an offender repents.
    “Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to no longer hold a matter against the offender.”
    So, for every offender who has ever wronged me, I am to withhold forgiveness.
    Despite the fact that most of them have no idea about my own perception of these wrongs. This seems highly impractical and is clearly what the passage in Mark 11 is talking about.
    We also need to make sure not to conflate the church discipline matter in Matthew 18 with the matter of personal forgiveness. The question about how many times should I forgive my brother is often meant to allude to the fact that the offender hasn’t truly repentant, because they keep doing the same thing over and over. Think about it. If someone came to you seven times seventy times, even though they said the right words, most people would deny that they’ve actually repented.

    “God is gracious. He holds his arms out open wide to everyone.
    Yet, only those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness become Christians / are forgiven..”
    Thank you for clarifying the underlying basis of conditional forgiveness – ie, prevenient grace, a la Arminian theology. After Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus wants to know how a man can do this. Jesus tells him that only by those born of the Spirit can be saved – then he rebukes Nicodemus.

    I could go through all of the verses used by conditional forgiveness advocates and find the scriptural evidence not nearly as strong as is supposed.
    Then I could list out numerous passages that support unconditional forgiveness by individual Christians and we could argue about that.

    “My quick summary is, it is the obligation of all Christians to maintain a disposition of grace or to offer forgiveness. But, when the person is repentant things go to a different level – – the relationship is restored.”
    When the relationship is restored, that is reconciliation. Forgiveness is something that one party chooses to grant, deny, or withhold.

    “I think the basic problem is that many people think of forgiveness as a feeling, rather than a transaction between two parties. The former is not biblical.”
    No, people are not thinking of forgiveness as a feeling. It is a tremendously difficult choice that involves a process of self-denial – a type of death and suffering that we choose to take the pain and the burden upon ourselves and entrust the offender to the legal authorities (in the case of a crime) and to the Sovereign Holy Judge – our Father in Heaven, as Romans 12 commands. No, forgiveness is not a feeling.

    According to what I’ve read, “conditional forgiveness” is actually “a restored relationship” But that is not true. One might hope for restoration, if that is even possible. But in the case of a mass murderer who has never met his victims, what could restoration possibly be??
    Forgiveness and restoration/reconciliation are clearly different things. It does no good to imagine that they are the same.

    There are so many issues with this idea of conditional forgiveness. It grieves me.

  17. I would love to see a response to this last comment from JR. Reconciling all of the points below is “rub” for me,

    1) If forgiveness is no longer holding something against someone, and yet,

    2) in the case where there is no repentance, if reconciliation is a very different thing than forgiveness,

    3) how does one forgive, without reconciling?

    I hope this makes sense..