The first saying of Christ from the cross is “Father, forgive them for the know not what they do.” There is so much implied in those words: That there is wrong that needs forgiveness. That the only one who can forgive is God himself. And wonder of wonders, that that forgiveness was offered even as the most atrocious injustice was being committed.
R.J. Neuhaus speaks of the four great truths of atonement implied in these words in his book Death On A Friday Afternoon: Meditations On The Last Words Of Jesus From The Cross:
“First something has gone terribly wrong. Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible. Then, third, something must be done about it. Things must be set right. We cannot go on this way. False gospels of positive thinking or stoic exhortations to make the best of it are worse than useless—they are obscene. They are invitations to make our peace with a corruption at the core of everything….
“And this brings us to the fourth great truth of atonement: Whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it….What can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured or killed?
“We cannot even put our own lives in order, never mind setting right a radically disordered world. The Apostle Paul declares, ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ There is an answer to that question, but do not rush to the answer. Stay with the question for a time if you would understand why the derelict hangs there on the cross.”