Christology Soteriology

Luke 23:34 and the salvation of the unevangelized

In his book, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ, Robert Peterson has given us a very fine piece of biblical theology. Because of the way the book is organized it will serve as an excellent reference work, but it is also fine devotional reading. I’ve been working my way through it slowly, for its devotional benefit, and I have been blessed in the process. Most of the time, I agree with Peterson’s interpretation of the texts he examines, but yesterday I was quite puzzled by his treatment of Luke 23:34.

At this point, Peterson is unpacking the wonderful biblical truth about “Christ’s Intercession,” and he is in a section on “New Testament Previews of Christ’s Intercession.” In Luke 23:34, he finds what he considers to be a problem. Jesus is on the cross, praying for those who have put him up there, and he says: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” which Peterson takes to be an unmistakable allusion to Isaiah 53: 12: “Yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Clearly, Christ’s intercession is part of his priestly role, but this text brings to Peterson’s mind the disagreement between Calvinists (who believe that Christ intercedes for the elect alone), and Lutherans (who believe that Christ’s intercession is both “particular and universal”) (p. 233). To further complicate the issue, Peterson recalls the teaching of John 11:42 that “Christ’s prayers are always effective” because “his Father always hears him” (p. 233).

Peterson claims that “this is the only New Testament text that Lutherans present in favor of a universal intercession. All other New Testament Scriptures speak of a particular intercession” (i.e., only for the elect) (p. 234). Furthermore, he observes that “the best and earliest manuscript evidence does not contain” this prayer, so he concludes that “although this verse has a place in church tradition, it should not be the basis of a developed theology about Christ’s universal intercession” (p. 234).

If Jesus did not say that, then this text is of no use in regard to the issue between the Lutherans and the Reformed, in which Peterson sides with the latter. I am not a textual critic, so I make no personal judgment on this point, but the footnote discussion in the NET Bible (first edition) gives me reason to think that the text should not be quickly dismissed. The translators acknowledge the manuscript differences, but they find other reasons for both sides. They list the manuscripts which do include this prayer and then they write:

It also fits a major Lucan theme of forgiving the enemies (6:27-36), and it has a parallel in Stephen’s response in Acts 7:60. The lack of parallels in the other Gospels argues also for inclusion here. On the other hand, the fact of the parallel in Acts 7:60 may well have prompted early scribes to insert the saying in Luke’s Gospel alone. Further, there is the great difficulty of explaining why early and diverse witnesses lack the saying. A decision is difficult, but even those who regard the verse as inauthentic literally often consider it to be authentic historically. For this reason it has been placed in single brackets in the translation.

Given the textual uncertainty, Peterson is right to be unwilling to make the text “the basis of a developed theology about Christ’s universal intercession” (p. 234). On the other hand, as the NET Bible observed, this prayer is not inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching concerning the forgiveness of our enemies, or with the intercessory practice of Jesus’ followers, as seen soon afterwards in the event of Stephen’s martyrdom. Given that Jesus directed us to pray in his name, we can validly assume that when Stephen asked the Lord to forgive his persecutors, he believed that he had warrant for this prayer in the teaching (and, very possibly, the example) of Jesus.

I suggest that there may be another reason why Peterson wants to rule out Jesus’ intercession for his crucifiers, though it might not have been in his consciousness at this point. Peterson is a committed gospel exclusivist, one who believes that only those who hear the gospel are capable of having saving faith (see, for instance, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism). As one of the “inclusivists” (though I prefer the term ”accessibilist”) about whom Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson were concerned, I see a paradigmatic principle underlying the prayer which Jesus might well have prayed from the cross. It is the principle that people are responsible only for their response to the revelation which God has given them of himself.

Jesus was stern in his condemnation of the leaders who knew who he was and who knew what they were doing, but the immediate perpetrators of Jesus’ crucifixion did not know that they were crucifying the Son of God. On the day of Pentecost, Peter informed the bewildered crowd that the Jesus whom they had crucified was none other than the “Lord and Messiah” whom God had raised from the dead and exalted at his right hand and who had now poured out the promised Holy Spirit on his followers (Acts 2:33-36). He called upon them to repent of all their sins, including particularly the one of which they had only now become aware, the sin of putting to death their own Messiah.

On a later occasion, while preaching in Solomon’s portico, Peter tells the crowd who were “filled with wonder and amazement” at the healing of the crippled beggar (Acts 3:10), that he knew that they had “acted in ignorance” when they “killed the Author of life,” but then he called them to repent. No one can be expected to repent of wrongdoing of which they are ignorant, except in a very general way, as in the Old Testament sacrifice for “sins of ignorance.” The moment that the Spirit of God makes us aware that what we have done was wrong, however, we become accountable for it.

The principle at work in the prayer which some manuscripts attributed to Jesus is that each person’s guilt is proportionate to their knowledge, that is, not what they have been told but what they have actually comprehended. Spiritual truth is understood only when the Spirit of God gives us understanding. When this is grasped, the Reformed have no reason to fear that the Lutheran position would be supported if we accept this intercession by Christ as historically true. Even now, in his heavenly intercession, Jesus can appeal to his sacrifice as the ground of a request that the Father forgive those who sin in ignorance. In this regard, I see Jesus’ sacrificial ministry as the reality which was prefigured in the high priest’s ministry on the Day of Atonement, when he offered a sacrifice for all of the sins committed by God’s people in ignorance.  


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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