Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34)
Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Collier was killed.
June 17 will mark three years since Dylann Roof shot nine black men and women inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina in the middle of a Bible study and prayer meeting. Roof had shown up, a total stranger, and they had given him a warm welcome. For a whole hour, they included him as they studied and prayed together. Then, suddenly, he jumped up from his chair shouting racist slogans, pulled out a hand gun and began firing at them at point blank range. He killed nine people.
“I forgive you.” Those were the words spoken by Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims. “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” Lance’s daughter told Roof during his first court appearance.
“You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her, ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
Those words received widespread media coverage because, in truth, they are rarely heard. Who doesn’t admire them? That stream of grace, that act of immense generosity flowing out of Nadine, and others as well, softened the hearts of people everywhere. There were no race riots that night in Charleston. It was quiet. And the next morning, millions of people were moved by those words from Nadine: “I forgive you.”
But in his final words before his sentencing, not once did Roof say he regretted his actions. He wrote quite the opposite in his jailhouse journal, stating that he was not at all sorry, and had not shed one tear over his victims.
Rich in forgiveness
This leaves thinking Christians in a quandary. On the one hand, we know that, like our Lord, and Nadine, our hearts are to be rich in forgiveness. Look at our Lord’s very first words on the cross. His immediate response to the callous and vicious brutality that had just been hurled at him by cruel soldiers, hateful Pharisees and a heartless crowd was to plead with his Father for their forgiveness. In that prayer he opened up the depths of his heart for the whole world to see. It was full of pure forgiveness, uncontaminated with even one germ of anger or vindictiveness.
And yet, on the other hand, we know his caution in Luke 17:3: “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” The clear teaching – that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance – is echoed repeatedly in the Bible. Growing up, I heard 1 John 1:9 many a Sunday: IF we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. . . . The “if” is ever present in Scripture: IF my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chron. 7: 14). The “if” echoes often in places like 1 Kings 8:47, Jeremiah 15:19 and Ezekiel 33: 12.
How could Jesus forgive his crucifiers when not one shred of repentance was present? But did he actually forgive them? Look again. The first thing you will notice is that it was a prayer. Jesus was praying that the crucifiers would be forgiven. He was not actually extending forgiveness to them. There’s a huge difference. The second thing to notice is that the words in his prayer are different from the words Jesus used when he actually extended forgiveness to people. To the paralyzed man whose four friends lowered him through a hole they had made in a roof, Jesus said this: “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). Jesus didn’t look at the soldiers and say to them, “Men, your sins are forgiven.” No, he prayed they would be forgiven. When a sinful woman washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then poured expensive perfume over them, Jesus looked right at her and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:49). He didn’t look right at the Pharisees at the foot of the cross and say directly to them, “Your sins are forgiven” or “I forgive you.” There was only one person to whom Jesus actually extended forgiveness that day when he told him, “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 43b). But that thief showed every evidence of repentance, for he had humbly admitted, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (vs. 41).
The ‘if’ of repentance
It may be commonly assumed that Jesus’ prayer means that he forgave his crucifiers. He didn’t, though every beat of his heart longed for their forgiveness. When Good Friday ended, his crucifiers remained unforgiven. Yet his petition was still very much alive, awaiting an answer. Which makes us wonder: do we know if it was ever answered? Might we even know when?
We most certainly do. It was answered on Pentecost, the day when 3,000 people were baptized in the name of the very one they had crucified for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38). But notice what happened before they were baptized! They were subjected to a blistering indictment by prosecutor Peter. Filled with the Spirit, whom Jesus had promised he would send to convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8), Peter boldly confronted the “men of Israel” with the deadly charge of having put to death, with the help of wicked men, a man accredited by God! And what happened? They were “cut to the heart”! They asked, “What shall we do?” And what was Peter’s first word to them? Repent! They did, and they were instantly forgiven! That was when the prayer of Jesus was answered. It happened a second time in Acts 3. Once again prosecutor Peter leveled his charges, this time even more severely: “You disowned him before Pilate! You asked that a murderer be released to you! YOU KILLED THE AUTHOR OF LIFE!” This time the number of repentant, forgiven believers shot up to 5,000 (Acts 4:4).
Jesus did not forgive his crucifiers. He prayed that they would be forgiven. They were, but only after the great, conditional “IF” of repentance was first met. The difference between being forgiving and extending forgiveness is huge, and it is critical. Too many Christians have felt guilty for not extending forgiveness to an abuser. May I say this: if that abuser is unrepentant, you need feel no guilt. We must be forgiveness millionaires in our hearts. But we dare not spend one dime of it on a person who remains unrepentant. To do so is to trivialize grace, waste forgiveness and compromise the holiness of God. Prosecution comes first. Then, if there is sincere contrition, comes rich pardon. Guilt. Then, grace.