Our Lord’s first words from the cross are universally and foundationally meaningful. As his accusers and tormentors accomplished their goal by giving Him the appointment with death through the torturous Roman cross, the Savior called out the intercessory absolution, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We here emphasize the first words, “Father, forgive them.” (Indeed no sinner knows what he is doing; man’s mind is set against God.)
His wondrous words are universally meaningful because there is the universal sinful condition of mankind. Many theologians have concluded that Christ’s absolution from the cross was for more than those who directly crucified Him. Scripture indicates all humanity—all sins—put Him to death. St. Paul states, “He died for all.” St. John wrote: “He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” From these inspired statements and many others we realize the universal payment for sin that was made by Christ at the cross. It was thus not merely the sins of those who were present at His crucifixion that nailed Him to the tree, but it was the sins of all humanity, from Adam to the end of time, that crucified Him. Even as He dies for all He also speaks absolution for all by praying, “Father, forgive them.” He thus intercedes for all humanity; His is a universal absolution.
As the crucified Son of God speaks to His eternal Father, “Father forgive them,” His words are foundational to all Christian truth and works. Holy Scripture echoes the foundational need for man’s forgiveness from God. What is the basis for such forgiveness? Getting more specific, why would God forgive Adam and Eve? Why did the animal sacrifices offer forgiveness in Old Testament times? What was the foundation for the forgiveness pronounced, for instance, by Nathan to King David? Why do Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Holy Supper bring forgiveness? Indeed the work of the cross creates the reason behind all forgiveness, but Christ’s prayer—Father, forgive them—marks the foundational petition behind all forgiveness—past, present and future. This foundation is thus that the Father in heaven forgives because of the crucifixion and because of the cross-supported request of His Son.
This forgiveness of God toward mankind creates other wonders of the Christian faith as well. In our Father’s forgiveness of us there is the reason and the power to forgive one another. In Christ we are tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God in Christ has forgiven us. Additionally our gift of eternal life only flows from God’s foundational forgiveness of our sins, for, as Luther Biblically concluded, where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation.
Would the Father be forgiving us without the specific request made by the Son? Indeed the crucifixion of Jesus is in itself the absolution of humanity, but what joy and comfort is found in the absolving words, “Father, forgive them.”