A Plea From The Cross
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To the godly heart there is a brighter light on Calvary than anywhere else beneath the sun. He who often resorts to Golgotha, if his spirit is right, must be wise. It is the University of Saints! He who would know sin–its heinousness, its penalty–must see the Son of God making Expiation for it by His death on the accursed tree. He who would know love–the love which many waters cannot quench, and which the floods cannot drown–must read it in the Savior’s face–or, if you will, written in crimson lines in the Savior’s heart, pierced with the spear. He who would know how he may get his sin forgiven, must resort to the Cross. There, and there only, is seen the way by which sin can be pardoned and the sinner accepted with God! And he who, finding pardon there, would seek to be useful to his fellow men and bring them into the same condition, must, himself, keep near that Cross, that he may speak much of it and, in the power of it, may be able to persuade and to prevail with the sons of men. Abide at the Cross, Beloved–there is no air so healthy and quickening as that which is breathed there! There was the birthplace of your hope! There its native air! There must be on earth, the climax of your joy! Live upon a Crucified Savior as you live by a Crucified Savior!
And now this word which we hear at Calvary, the first word of our Savior after He had been fastened to the Cross–this word I shall not attempt to fathom, or go into the depths of it, but shall rather touch the surface of it, skimming it, and uttering a few such sentences, as it were, one after the other that have arisen to my mind while listening to the voice of our Lord in this, His plaintive cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I will suppose that I have many here, and I fear I need not make it a supposition, who as yet are unpardoned, unreconciled to God. Will you come with me and make a pilgrimage to Calvary? Will you look at your Savior? He has just come up the hill of doom! They have thrown Him upon His back. There is the Cross–the executioners have stretched out His hands and His feet–they have taken the nails–they have driven them through His hands and feet! He is fastened to the wood, and now as they are lifting Him up, before it jars into the ground, you hear Him cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I want you to learn a few lessons out of this. And the first shall be, see here–
- THE SAVIOR’S LOVE TO SINNERS.
It is His last hour, but He thinks of them! He had searched for them in His health and strength. He went about doing good. He came to seek and to save the rebellious and He had spent His active life in their service. He is about to die, but the ruling passion is strong in death. He is still seeking sinners and if He can preach no more, yet He can pray! And if He will not speak to them, yet He can speak to God for them, and so He continues to show which way His heart runs, by theprayer for those that nailed Him to the wood, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He had been 30 years in their midst and His holy soul had been much vexed by them. He had endured the contradiction of sinners against Himself, but you see He has not cast them off–He has not turned His love to wrath. He is not weary of them, but He still pleads, “Father, oh, forgive them.” What love is this! One would suppose that the pain which He then felt might have distracted His mind from others, and His prayer might have been for Himself, that patience might be given, that strength might be sustained! But no, oblivious of Himself, His only care is still for those He seeks–the sinful sons of men! Just as an arrow from a bow shot forth with such force that it speeds onward to its target, His whole strength and soul speeds onward to the mark of the salvation of the sons of men! One thing, one thing only, does He do–He seeks their good! And I say again, if not now by active ministering to them, yet by ministering for them, He prays “Father, forgive them."It is one thing to love persons at a distance and to have philanthropic desires for their good–it is quite another thing to live with them and still have the same fondness towards them. And it is quite another thing by far to receive bad treatment from them–contumely, scorn and a worse thing even than that, to be about to receive your death from them–and still to pray for them! But such is the perseverance of Jesus' love that it cannot be turned aside. They have spit into His face, but still He prays for them. They have scourged Him with their cruel lashes. They have hounded Him along the streets. They have, at last, pierced His hands and feet, and stripped Him! And they now hang Him up upon the Cross between Heaven and earth–but still nothing can diminish the flame of His love, nor turn aside His heart’s desire from them–it is still for them He lives, for them He dies. "Father, oh, forgive them,” is the sign and proof that He is still holding to the one great work He undertook! Now I would, O Sinner, I would that you would learn this lesson. Herein is love, behold what love! Will you not come and share in it? What keeps you back? Can you hold your heart from Immanuel? Can you refuse to love such a dear lover of the sons of men? I think if our hearts were not adamant or worse, they would melt at the sight of the pleading love of Jesus upon the Cross. Come, Soul, have done with your hardness–let a drop of Christ’s blood melt that heart of yours! Have done with your carelessness–let a spark of love set your heart on fire towards Him! Are you afraid to come, afraid of Him who died for sinners, afraid of love, terrified at mercy? Oh, be not so, but come and welcome! Put your trust in Him who, with His dying breath, proves the strength of His Almighty love by pleading for His foes! Let that stand for the first remark. Here is the strong love of Christ. Here, next, we see–
II. HOW LOVE SHOWS ITSELF.
How did Jesus prove His love in this last great moment? It was by prayer! Love shows itself in prayer. Prayer, alone,would not be a sufficient proof of love, but He who dies and prays, whose life is a prayer, and whose death is a prayer, proves His love by adding to His life and death the vocal utterance of both in this cry, “Father, forgive them.” If Jesus Christ would prove His love to you, He does it by praying for you. Observe, then, the extreme value of prayer. It is a ripe fruit of the Cross. It is, if I may call it so, a golden apple of the Cross–intercessory prayer! See, then, Sinner, the need there is for you to pray. If Jesus prays and proves His love by prayer, and if the saints on earth who love you pray for you, depend upon it, prayer is no light thing. Bend those knees of yours, lift your eyes to Heaven and let a prayer go up from the depths of your spirit, “Father, forgive me! Your Son has prayed, so pray I. He says, ‘Father, forgive them,’ and I pray, ‘Father, forgive me.’” Ought not this to bring every sinner to his knees? Would it not, if men were in their senses? Would not the sight of a dying Christ pleading for the guilty make the guilty plead? Oh, who can restrain prayer for himself when Jesus leads the way? When He says, “Forgive them,” will you not say, “Amen”? Oh, deserve you not right well to perish if you cannot join your assent to the Divine Intercession of the pleading Savior! Sinner, I beseech you now, in the secret of your soul, to pray, “Father, forgive me.” “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Is there no woman, is there no man, that could pray that now? You need not speak–let but your lips move. But, oh, since Jesus Christ tonight is set forth before you in the delightful attitude of an Intercessor praying for the guilty, I implore you pray for yourselves–and may God send you, this night, an answer of peace–may your pardon be signed and sealed to the comfort of your spirit!
And now leaving that observation, we pass to the next. We saw the love of Jesus. We saw how that love shows itself in prayer. See next–
III. WHAT IT IS THE SAVIOR ASKS.
He asks forgiveness, “Father, forgive them.” If the Savior should pray for all of us here present, He need not amendthat prayer. It was suitable to those who nailed Him to the tree. They needed pardon for the murder of their Savior. It was suitable to the clamoring multitude, who had said, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” They needed forgiveness for that blood which they then brought upon themselves, but it is equally suitable to each one here present, “Forgive them.” May I ask you to look back upon your past lives? Have you been kept from grosser sins? Thank God for it, but your sins of heart, of mind, of tongue, your sins of omission. What? Are these nothing? God grant you may feel them to be something and may you feel, tonight, that what you need is even as if you had been an open offender–you need forgiveness and if, perchance, there are some here who have gone into open sin with a high hand and an outstretched arm, yet, my Brother, yet my Sister, this prayer needs no enlargement to suit you, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them,” forgiveness covers all! A man receipts a bill. He puts his name at the bottom. If that bill were for ten thousand pounds or ten pence, it is the same, the receipt has covered all–and Jesus' hand, when He puts it with the bloody red nail prints upon the great record of our sins, draws a red line down the page and blots out the whole–and leaves not a single sin on the page! “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as wool; though they are red like crimson, they shall be whiter than snow.” Oh, the greatness of that word, “forgiven”! Blessed be the Lord Jesus for praying such a prayer as that! Do you know, I do not think it need be altered for the best man and the best woman here, for even our best things need forgiveness. When you have prayed the best prayer you ever prayed, you might well ask God to forgive it! If you have preached the best sermon you ever preached, you may ask to be forgiven it, for some sin has mingled with your holiest action, so forgiveness is needed at best, and always needed at the worst–needed today, tomorrow and all through life, and needed when the breath leaves the body–always needed that blessed prayer that sweeps the compass of mortal existence–that comprehends so much, “Father, forgive them.” This is the great thing love asks, for the forgiveness of those for whom she pleads. But passing on you will observe–
IV. FOR WHOM IT IS THAT OUR SAVIOR, IN THIS CASE, OFFERED THE PETITION. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now that little word, “them,” is a great word because it is so little. “Father, forgive them.” The Savior is explicit–He does not mention the names of the four soldiers who pierced His hands andfeet. No. He meant them, but He meant more. He does not mention the names of these in the crowd who were gazing upon Him with insolent stare–He meant them. He does not mention those that had cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him”–He had meant them. He does not say, “Father, forgive them, for they knew not what they did”–for that wouldlook as if He only prayed for sins that had already been committed. He does not say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they shall do,” for that would look as if He only prayed for sins that would be committed! But He says,“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And putting it thus in the present, it seems as though the petition had one hand to reach out to the past sins of mankind before He died, and another hand to the sins to come of mankind after He had offered the Sacrifice. “They know not what they do.” It is put so indefinitely, the, “them,” and the, “do,” the tense of the verb and the pronoun–they are so indefinite that I bless God for the wide extent of their range! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Who, then, is included in that word, “them”? I venture to say every man that is willing to be included–every man that feels he is included! Did you slay Christ? Have your sins caused Him to die? Do you know, tonight, that your sins fastened Him to the cruel tree? Could you join in the hymn we sung just now? Then, when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” He included you in thatprayer, and me in that prayer, and tens of thousands besides in that word, “them.”
Yet, yet you will observe in that word He put it specially. He does not exclude any, but He does include some more peculiarly than others, for His prayer is for those who knew not what they did. Can I get in there? I think I can. I believethat most here present can. I do not think all the sons of men can–Judas, for instance, I fear he did know what he did, and deliberately sold his Lord and Master. I am half afraid that Pilate, to a great extent, knew what he did, and there are some of whom it is written, “There is a sin unto death; I do not say that you shall pray for it.” A great Doctrine, but it is in the Word–a terrible Doctrine, but there it stands! You know how Peter put it in that first sermon. He said, “I know, my brethren, that through ignorance you did it, as did also your rulers”–as if he felt that had they known what they did, their sin had been unpardonable. And the Apostle Paul, himself, speaking of his own persecution, said, “Because I did it ignorantly, in unbelief.” There is a deliberate Crucifixion of Christ as Christ, knowing what you are doing–doing it out of sheer malice to the Christ of God, out of intense hatred to Him, to Him personally–which is unpardonable, for this reason, that the man who commits it never repents. Could he repent, the pardon were sure, but the capacity to do that argues incapacity to ever be made penitent. The man is given over, hardened–he perishes in his sin!
But the Lord Jesus in this prayer felt that those around Him did not know what they were doing–the most of them did not know He was God’s Son. They would not have crucified Him had they known–they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. They did know–most of them knew–that He was a righteous Man and they must have felt they were doing very wrong in putting Him to death, but they did not recognize Him as the Messiah and as the Son of God–otherwise the most of them would have held back their hand. Now, though I have sinned against light and knowledge, and you have done the same, my Brothers and Sisters, yet in our past sin we did not deliberately intend to put Christ to death. We did not, like Satan of
malice propense, desire to overthrow the Kingdom of God and Christ. Blessed be God,
He saved us from that! We went far, very far, horribly far, but restraining Grace kept us back from that, and the Savior puts it there–makes such the object of His prayer. I do not say He excludes those who did it knowingly, but He does include peculiarly those who did not know what they did–whose sin, to a great extent, as to its far-reaching heinousness was wrapped in ignorance. He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then the prayer of love is offered for a vast company of sinners in darkness and ignorance, who have sinned, but who have not been allowed utterly, knowingly, willfully, viciously to crucify the Son of God and put Him to an open shame!
Now I want you to notice what this prayer of love admits. There is something in it that ought never to be forgotten. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” You see, then, this prayer, even of a patient, loving, gentle Savior, who wishes to plead all He can on the behalf of those for whom He prays–this prayer admits that they need to beforgiven who have sinned ignorantly. Some people have thought, “If I did not know it to be sin to the full extent, then it was not sin.” Ah, not so! It was sin, for Christ asks to have it forgiven! If I, doing what I did not fully understand, yet didwrong, I am not excused the wrong because I did not know to the fullest extent how wrong it was. I am just as guilty as if I did know, from some points of view, though not from others, but from any point of view, I still need to be forgiven. Ignorance of the law does not prevent the guilt of him who breaks it. As you know, my Brothers and Sisters, human law, the law of the land, for instance–never takes ignorance of the law as a complete excuse for the breach of the law! The laws of England always assume that every man knows the law. The law is made–it is a public law and he who breaks it cannot go before the Magistrate and say–“I did not know it was the law; you must discharge me.” The Magistrate may, as a
man, say, “Well, if you did not know it was law, there is some excuse for you.” As a Magistrate, he must not say that, for the law judges the man on its own self as publicly known, and does not allow for the excuse of not knowing the law.
If the Savior, in His infinite mercy, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it was a plea–of course, but not a plea of law. Sinai has no room for that excuse, for Sinai says, “If you don’t know, you ought to have known.” And in this particular case, especially, if they did not know Christ to be God, they ought to have known it. The prophecies were so clear. The Person of Christ so exactly fitted in to every type and every prophetic declaration, that it was “a willful blindness that had happened unto Israel.” They ought to have known it. One sin is never an excuse for another sin. It was a sin for them not to know! That sin, therefore, did not excuse them for committing the other. It is only Sovereign Grace that brought that in as a plea–it is not justice, nor is it law–it the heart of mercy that pleads that.
What I want you to notice, now, then, is though I did not know when I sinned as child and as a young man all that was meant by sin, though I especially did not know that I was crucifying Christ, yet the guilt is just the same as before God, and I need to be forgiven for it, or else it will be laid to my charge and I shall be punished as surely as God’s Law stands fast. Do you think the Savior would say, “Father, forgive them,” if it were not a wrong? He never prayed a superfluous prayer! The prayer, “Forgive,” is a sentence in itself, teaching us that sins of ignorance are sins. Oh, my dear Hearers, there are none of us who know to the full extent the sin of our sin! The most tender heart here does not know the blackness of its sin! I have sometimes talked with persons under conviction who have told me what dreadful sinners they were, and they have looked a little surprised when I have said, “But you are ten times worse than you think you are.” No, they scarcely thought that could be possible, yet I would venture to say that to the most tender-hearted penitent that ever lived, you have no idea, my Friend, of the aggravation of your sin, nor is it possible you should have, nor do I know that it is desirable. So long as you know enough of your sin to hate it, and to flee to Christ for the pardon of it, that will suffice. But, oh, the scholarship that would be needed to understand all the depths of sin, it were the scholarship of the Cross over again–you would have need to die like Christ to know what sin means in its infinite, its boundless guilt! Do not ask to know that, but do pray that the Lord would search you and forgive you your sins. You did not know of pardoned sins you have committed, manifold sins that have passed by your notice, that you have not observed and, consequently, could not have confessed in particular. Beseech the Savior, whose cry is, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” to pray for unknown mercy by His unknown agony for your unknown sin! It is a wondrous prayer, this, but we cannot stay much longer on it.
We make yet another remark, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
- THIS PRAYER WARNS US.
I have felt intense pleasure in thinking it over, but at the same time that pleasure has been mingled with great bitterness. There is such a warning there, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” It does not say, as I have already said, that if they did know, Christ would not pray for them, but it does seem to hint that. In the background I seea something–not that every sin committed against light is unpardonable–God be thanked that is not so, but some sins committed against light and knowledge so harden the heart that the man never repents! He never will, he will go to Hell hardened like steel! And I am afraid some of you are in great likelihood of committing it. Those who have not heard the Gospel cannot very readily commit this, unless their conscience has been desperately violated, but some of you who have been hearers often, and perhaps were once professors–who have knowingly chosen the wrong path and have deliberately sacrificed your character for drink or gain or lust–I will not say that you have passed that boundary, but I do tremble as I hear the booming of that text, “There is a sin unto death; I do not say that you shall pray for it,” even as I hear the Master’s words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But these persons knew what they did, did it deliberately, did it over again and again, and again–perhaps went to the Lord’s Table and deliberately went to their uncleanness, stood up in public, it may be, and then deliberately went to their filthiness. Or they listened to the sermon on Sunday and they said, “I’ll do better”–and then deliberately went on Monday to their drunken companions again! Oh, Man, you may have stood in the street, perhaps, and said to yourself, “Now, which shall it be? I feel as if I were called to serve God, but yet how can I give up such-and-such a darling lust?” There is a point in men’s lives wherein if they deliberately choose the wrong, knowing it is wrong, with the Light of God shining on their eyeballs–yet they deliberately give up Christ, Heaven, pardon and they choose Hell and their own delusions–I fear that with many from that hour the wax is cooled upon their death warrant and it will never be reversed, for this text, though it gently flows from the Savior’s lips and drops like dew, has about it the lightning flash and thunderbolt that startles, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
But there are some who know what they do and take the hammer and nail Christ up to the Cross! They take a spear and pierce His side and do it knowing what they are doing! And all the while they are glibly talking of religion, taking the Bible to make jokes out of it, taking the very ministers they once professed to love and scoffing them, taking the Doctrines of the Gospel and making these a cloak for their sins–these men–what will I say of them? God have mercy upon them, but I fear, I fear, that He never will, for they will never seek it, and He will never grant it! Could they seek it, He would give it. While a man can seek, he shall find. While a heart can melt, God will pity. There is never a contrite soul but what God looks with love upon it. But here is the mischief, for these men, who know what they do, repent not, but are seared as with a hot iron–they become wandering stars, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever!
But I must close here. This shall be a closing word. At the same time, you see the text woos. It warns, but it woos. How it woos the ignorant, especially! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Oh, some of you have dropped in here tonight who, perhaps, don’t often listen to the Gospel. You have been living a life of sin. You knew it was sin, You knew it was sin, but you did not know that you were nailing Christ to the Cross. You sought your own pleasure, you sought your own gratifications. You have been very guilty. You have lived a careless, Godless, Christless life, but still you did not mean to sin against God so as to crucify Christ. You see you have done so–now you feel you are guilty of it–but before, you had not that Light of God that you now have. Then Jesus says, “Come to Me, come to Me! My prayer goes up to Heaven for you, you ignorant one.” Sinful, but without light, Jesus intercedes! Oh, join your prayer with the prayer of Jesus, and say, “Father, forgive Your ignorant child, Your sinful, wayward child. I do not plead, ‘I knew not what I did,’ but Christ pleads it for me! I plead that Jesus died. Oh, for His sake, have pity! Hear His blood as it drops from His hands and feet; hear it and plead for me, ‘Father, forgive them.’”
Oh if you will seek the Lord, you shall have Him! If you will but turn your eyes to Him upon the Cross, you shall live! Whoever among you in this house will but trust Him, shall find Him able and willing to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by Him. Oh, come and welcome, come and welcome! And may God grant that you may come tonight–
“But if your ears refuse
The language of His Grace,
And hearts grow gross like stubborn Jews,
That unbelieving race.
The Lord in vengeance dressed
Will lift His hand and swear
‘You that despised My promised rest
Shall have no portion there.”
God bless you. Amen.