Father forgive them, they know not what they do – Part 2

Father forgive them, they know not what they do – Part 2 December 26, 2023

In the first part of this series, we explored Jesus’ perfect unity with the Father – when he prayed on the cross, forgiving the entire crowd, he reflected the Father’s heart. We looked at the ways in which Jesus reframed Old Covenant teachings with his words and deeds, empowering us to do the same. Most of all, we looked at the consistent, singular, and eternally merciful nature of God.


In this second instalment, I want to consider the implications of Jesus’ heart cry of universal forgiveness, and what that reveals about ‘reformed theology’ – one of the foundations of Evangelical belief.


One of the key elements of reformed theology is a belief in predestination – that God determines who will be saved and who will be damned. Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity states that people are dead in their sins and therefore fundamentally incapable of responding to God. Reformed theology teaches that the choice is God’s alone, and we have no ability to do other than go along with it – those chosen by God for salvation are called the Elect, and everyone else is destined to an eternity in Hell.


To be clear, I believe this doctrine has poisoned the church since its first utterance and remains a prison for Evangelical believers to this day. The false doctrine is derived from a painfully shallow understanding of the book of Romans, and in particular, Romans 9. I’ll save the exegesis for now or this will become far too long, but want to establish a couple of overarching points:


Romans had an audience and a purpose


When reading Romans, it is crucial to understand it was written to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) believers, and that Romans 9 is addressing assumptions that would have been held by the Jewish group – that they were God’s special, chosen people, preferred by God over the Gentiles. This notion was a hangover from the Old Covenant, and a transition to the New was proving difficult for many. It is always hard to give up one’s privileges.


Ironically, the Abrahamic Covenant, which is the foundation of the Hebrew relationship with God, is fundamentally inclusive. Genesis12:3b,


‘Through you, all families of the Earth will be blessed.’


This idea of Hebrew specialness was something Paul challenged both in Romans and Galatians, explaining that through Christ, the promise God made to Abraham has been extended to all people on Earth. Romans was written in part to persuasively communicate this inclusive message.


Romans 9 is a dialogue


The book of Romans was written in a discursive style, using rhetorical language to represent both sides of the argument. Calvinism misses this entirely, cherry-picking the harshest verses and interpreting them literally. For example, verse 22:


‘What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?’


The notion that God might have designated specific individuals as ‘objects of wrath’ is meant to be shocking, but this is a theoretical question (what if?) rather than a doctrinal statement. Paul has an important point to make (verses 23-26):


What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:


“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”




“In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.”


This is Paul’s punchline – that though God has the right to choose whomever he sees fit, he has sovereignly chosen to extend grace to all families of the Earth. God has sovereignly chosen to include, rather than exclude, as was his intention before the very foundations of the Earth.


Calvinists would argue we have to take Paul’s harsher hypotheticals as doctrine, but the Holy Spirit will not allow me to do that, because it would nullify so much of the rest of scripture. Reformed theology sucks the heat out of much of the Bible, neutering calls to choose God, to choose life, and to seek the Lord. It makes a mockery of the Lord’s patience as he seeks to woo humankind with his love. 2 Peter 3:9,


‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’


Why would the Lord be patient with us if our eternal destiny has already been decided? For me, Calvinism is Christian fatalism and empty of goodness. It makes us powerless pawns of a wilful and arbitrary God, who is more concerned with his right to do what he wants than loving the people he made in his image.


Does that sound like Jesus? Did God not send his son because he loved the whole world? Did he not die for all? Is he not good to all? Will mercy fail to triumph over justice?


Why forgive the whole crowd?


Let’s return to Jesus’ cry of compassion, issued while suffering the agonies of crucifixion:


‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.’


If only the Elect are saved, and the Damned have no choice but to end up in Hell, what use is it to extend forgiveness over the entire, baying mob? If Calvinism is a true reflection of the heart of God, Jesus’ prayer would have been quite different:


‘Father forgive the Elect among them, they know not what they do’.


Instead, he extended mercy to all, reflecting the Father’s heart. The ultimate goal of the Gospel is to win every human heart and bring us into unity and reconciliation with God and each other. Let’s not underestimate the goodness of God. Let’s not play down or diminish the Good News of grace and mercy for all. Our God has chosen to express his greatness through mercy rather than wrath, and through inclusion rather than exclusion. Ephesians 1:8b-10


With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.


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