We have a family ‘Whatsap’ and the day after Christmas one family member posted a “thought for the day … Job 1:5”. This text speaks of Job being in the habit of making sacrifices to the Lord for his children in case they had offended God in their hearts during one of their festivities. It’s a beautiful example of fatherly concern for the wellbeing of his children before God.
A well-regarded commentary explains that, “Job is afraid lest his children may have become somewhat unmindful of God during their mirthful gatherings. Sacrifice (which is as old as the sin of mankind) was to Job a means of grace, by which he cleansed himself and his family every week from inward blemish.”[i] Rev P de Jong says, “[Job] acted as priest for his family, and sought atonement for the unconscious sins of his children”.[ii] That doesn’t mean that the sacrifice itself paid for sins but it pointed ahead to Christ through whose anticipated sacrifice believers could receive forgiveness.
Responding to this text, one family member wrote, “Job’s action is a fine example for us to pray for forgiveness, not only for our own sins but also for those of one another.” The “one another” does not refer to unbelievers but to members of the family, brothers and sisters of the ‘household of faith’ who also seek their salvation outside of themselves in Jesus Christ.
This led another member to write, “I always found that a strange concept… asking for forgiveness for others.” She referred to Luke 23:34 where Jesus prays, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing.” And she added: “Does this mean they weren’t held responsible on account of Jesus praying for them?”
This is a pertinent question: May we ask the Lord to forgive others? After all, isn’t that what Jesus did in Luke 23:34?
Jesus’ prayer: “Father, forgive them…”
First, we note here that the ones for whom Jesus prayed are the ones who caused Him to be crucified. They are clearly not those of the household of faith. Although many were Jews, they did not have the faith of Abraham (Romans 9:6). Instead, they had caused Christ to be crucified and they ridiculed and blasphemed Him because He had repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God. their terrible blasphemy and action was enough to arouse God’s righteous indignation and immediate punishment, yet Jesus prays that this may not happen now.
But this now raises the question: How can Jesus ask that of His Father knowing that God is not only perfect in His love but also perfect in His righteousness, in His justice? Wasn’t it because of God’s perfect justice that Christ hung on the cross, suffering hellish agony and dying the cursed death on the cross for the sins of all those who believed that He was the eternal Son of God and who confessed their sins and put their trust in Him? How then can Jesus pray for the forgiveness of these murderers and blasphemers who don’t believe and certainly don’t acknowledge their sins?
The solution, Schilder explains, lies in the fact that a close examination of the original language shows two uses of the term forgiveness. “There is a forgiveness which, on the basis of law, says to someone: I shall cancel that which you have done amiss… But there is also a forgiveness which consists solely of a temporary suspension of the charge or of the sentence.”
In other words, forgiveness can mean, first, cancelling the wrong someone has done, or second, a temporary reprieve, a postponement of the judgement. It’s this second meaning that is used here.
That doesn’t mean the person gets off scot free, since that would be an injustice. It simply means that for the moment no action will be taken against the person. The execution of the law is merely detained. But the person could be arrested and condemned anew. Schilder explains it nicely:
“It was such a detention of the execution of law, preliminary and incidental, which Jesus had in mind. This detention is not a plea for the justification of the sinner, and is not a plea against justification; it simply desires that God will temporarily withhold the terrible punishment, the catastrophic annihilation which must necessarily follow the condemnation and cursing of the Prince of life by this generation of vipers. May it please God not immediately to let the powers of the last judgement break through against them. May it please God to wait and not to send the storms of the last judgement into this scene. May it please God, ‘not to make any work of it’. Today, not to make any work of what is being done by human hands, by Adam and his generation today.
I pray Thee Father – My prayer rests in a confident sense of My own worth – that Thou suspend the judgement for a time. I ask forgiveness for these sinners. I would leave some room, some room for the future. I would leave room for the justification by faith of all those who are present here, and are included in the election. And I would also leave room for my living Word to become effective and so persistent, that the measure will presently be full and the judgement can come.
The fact that these people do not know what they are doing is not an argument for their eternal salvation, but a basis for suspending the judgement. Time must come when they must know what they are doing. Golgotha must be explained by the Word; and may God grant the time necessary for those fisher-folk, who will be apostles later, to preach that word to the world. The world must know what is happening here, in order that the hearing of the preached word may bring the one to true repentance and faith, and may aggravate the responsibility of the other, if he does not subject himself sincerely to Him who speaks on Golgotha.
Hence Christ is not praying for a cancellation of the execution, not even for a postponement of execution, but for the suspension of the judgement of wrath which is sure to come in any case. Christ is praying for a period of time in order that, on the one hand, all those souls who would seek acquittal in the execution of Christ might seize on grace to that end, and in order that, on the other hand, an even profounder legal basis may be placed under the condemnation of those who are here condemning their God in Christ. Father, the Mediator’s voice cries out, the world must pass away, but keep back Thy catastrophes for a period, and let Me stand alone in My catastrophic curse. Father, there are many branches on Israel’s tree. According to right and reason all these dead branches must be broken off by the storm of the last judgement at once, and the whole tree be cast into the fire. But do Thou withhold Thy four winds for a time, Father; let the tree of Israel stand today in order that there may be occasion for grafting new shoots to the old trunk, and in order that thereafter the dead branches may by a more conclusive gesture be thrust into the oven.” [iii]
We all know that sometime later, as Stephen was being stoned to death, he echoed Christ’s words, crying: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). Here again, one must understand forgiveness in the sense of delaying justice. Stephen could pray this through the Spirit of Christ at a time when the New Testament church was in its infancy and a postponement of God’s judgement would allow time for the spreading of the gospel. If people embraced the gospel, Christ would pay for their sins. If, however, they rejected it, their punishment would be the heavier.
We see how the prayers of both Jesus and Stephen bore fruit. At Pentecost many “were cut to the heart and cried to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37) and later Paul, who was at Stephen’s stoning and consented to it (Acts 8:1), was brought to the faith (Acts 9).
Pray for acknowledgement of sin and repentance that leads to forgiveness
So, to come back to the original question: ‘May we pray for people’s forgiveness?’ the answer would need to be: not directly. It’s quite clear from Scripture that God does not forgive unless one is convicted of sin (Acts 2:37), repents (Acts 8:22) and confesses (1 Jn 1:9). To be sure, all too often we don’t even see our own sins; nevertheless, we are aware that we sin continually and we implore God’s forgiveness through Christ. We know that God forgives sins only on the grounds of Christ’s atoning sacrifice (Acts 10:43). Therefore, we need to pray that people, including ourselves, will come to see and acknowledge sins, repent from them and turn to Christ through whose perfect payment alone there is forgiveness.
But, to come back to the original context, supposing a present-day ‘Job’ knows his children are feasting and may unwittingly have committed sin, may he pray for God to forgive them? I think he may on the ground that he is aware that those covenant children love God, know their sinfulness and confess Christ as their only Saviour. I say this because when Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to address God in the plural as “our Father” and to ask not only collectively for “our daily bread” but also collectively “forgive us our sins”. Ursinus, author of the Heidelberg Catechism, says that even when Christians pray this prayer at home, they are not only praying for themselves but for the whole church “for all the members, with desire and affection … It is for this reason that Christ, by placing the word our at the very commencement of this prayer, would admonish us of the duty of cherishing mutual love … For if we come into the presence of God, having no regard for our brethren, the sons of God, he will not regard us as his sons …”.[iv]
So, may we pray that God will forgive unbelievers while those unbelievers remain in their sin? No, since there must be confession of sin and earnest prayer for forgiveness by the sinner. (Children are here one with the parents.)
May we pray for God to forgive the sins of our believing (including adult) covenant children (or siblings and friends, etc) who are one with us in the faith. Yes, since they too belong to Christ and His body, the church, and know themselves dependent for their salvation on Jesus Christ alone.
[i] C F Keil and F Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. IV: Job, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, p. 51.
[ii] P de Jong, Job’s Perseverance, ILPB, p. 5.
[iii] K Schilder, Christ Crucified, Klock and Klock, Minneapolis (translated from Dutch).
[iv] Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, p. 628.