There can be no forgiveness without repentance. That's Kingdom principle taught by God himself in the bible. Yet, Jesus prayed on the cross: "Forgive them for they know not what they do." Well, did God do it? Did he forgive them? Did they repent?
Obviously God didn't. Countless times in the bible, God never forgave anyone without repentance. It's his righteousness principle. But why did Jesus still pray to the Father about forgiving the unrepentant? It was to demonstrate to us for all time the proper attitude when being persecuted for righteousness' sake. You want them forgiven in your heart and their misdeeds not counted against them, as Stephen later also prayed.
Yet, know for sure that God does not forgive without repentance.
How do I know they never repented (at least majority of them didn't)? Well, take the soldiers who guarded Jesus' grave, for instance. They saw the resurrection with their own two eyes, and saw mighty angels rolled away the stone covering, but later opted to tell a lie for a sum of money. The Pharisees also never repented because they sought a cover-up story to belie the Resurrection. And there was no traditional mass ash-covering that happened to show people's repentance. There were only 120 disciples when Jesus resurrected and ascended to heaven. No mass conversion.
Saying in your heart, "Forgive them," even if your detractors and persecutors do not repent is really for your own soul's sake, not theirs. This makes your heat pure so that you see God more. God tests our hearts.
But What if God Did forgive Them?
Let's say, everything Jesus prayed for was answered "yes" by the Father--even forgiving his unrepentant persecutors. Did that benefit the unrepentant any? No. Because salvation is not just being forgiven of sins--it's first and foremost surrendering your life to Jesus, receiving him as your Lord and Savior. That never happened to Jesus' persecutors at the time of his crucifixion.
Listen: you can be forgiven of sins and still end up in hell after your die IF you never surrender your life fully to Jesus. In fact, many people live good moral lives (even "holy" lives) and yet end up in hell. The rich, young ruler lived a pleasing life to God (Jesus "loved" him on hearing that he was so religious about the bible) and yet rejected Jesus, so that Jesus commented how "impossible" it was for rich people to enter God's Kingdom.
Yes, you can be forgiven and at the same time be rejecting the Savior. Thus, there are millions of "forgiven" souls in hell.
I'm not belittling the importance of forgiveness. It is vital for real holiness. And I deeply believe in living a holy life daily, each moment for and through Jesus. And yet, a form of holiness without total surrender to Jesus is a waste of everything. It's zero. Null. Void. Pfft! Paul said certain people in his time had a form of godliness while at the same time denying its real power.
A hardened criminal has better chances of going to heaven than one who lives a "holy" but unsurrendered life to Jesus. If the hardened criminal repents of sin and receives Jesus as Savior and Lord just moments before succumbing to lethal injection or firing squad or even decapitation, he is saved and will go to heaven after dying.
Holy and yet unsurrendered to Jesus? Is that possible? Well, the rich, young ruler seemed to be like that, and so were Jesus' persecutors and killers--if they were forgiven by the Father as Jesus had requested on the cross. At the moment of being forgiven, you become holy.
Another way of looking at it is, they were probably forgiven of a specific sin, and that was killing Jesus on the cross. But they were never forgiven of their other sins. It's possible that the Father may have granted Jesus' request of forgiving his persecutors, Jesus being the Mediator between man and God. A sort of Jesus asking a special favor for them. And we know (as Paul said) that in Christ all things are "yes." However, Jesus never said, "Please forgive them of all sins." He delimited it to "what they are doing." Remember, he put it this way:
"Forgive them because they don't know what they are doing." It talks about a specific sin, not sins in general.
Now, what if the Father didn't forgive them? Does this mean the Father said "No" to Jesus? Does the Father also give a NO answer to his Son, the One in whom he is so pleased with? If the Father didn't forgive them, it didn't mean he said "No" to his Son. As I've said, Jesus merely demonstrated what was in his heart--that he had no hatred for his persecutors and in fact wanted forgiveness for them. I'm sure both the Father and Jesus Christ knew the Kingdom principle of forgiving and repentance well.
So, what was it really--did the Father forgive them or not?
Well, you decide in wisdom. Make sure you use the Spirit's mind. If you think the Father did, you're right. If you think the Father didn't, you're still right. In Christ, all things work together for good--if you love Jesus and do his will. If not, truth will twist you into a creature of hell and make you believe you're doing okay. Evil heart plus God's truth equals damnation in hell.
The vital lesson here is that Jesus showed us what our hearts' content should be when being persecuted for his Name's sake. Have a forgiving heart. But if you sin, God won't forgive and have anything to do with you unless you repent and totally surrender your life to Jesus, and do his will to the end.