The Dying Thief
I’ve said before, and I’ll continue to reiterate it, that God’s Word really is his matchless Word of grace. The story which the Scriptures tell is one of redemption, deliverance, and forgiveness: it’s the story of God’s Son, the embodiment of the Father’s mercy. It’s the account of the Lord’s “doings in grace with this world of ours,” which has “brought back something like sunshine” into this dark and dreary life we live. God has sovereignly woven his grace into mankind’s tapestry of time, and there’s no truer depiction of this than the cross of Christ.
The Paradox of the Cross
Jesus’s cross really is an interesting conundrum. It’s a paradox, it’s counterintuitive. It wonderfully shows the upside-down nature of following Christ; for, that “which was meant to increase his misery revealed his majesty.” (Spurgeon, 82) The cross, that which was to bring utter shame and humiliation upon this Jesus of Nazareth, actually revealed and violently displayed more of the infinitely loving and merciful character of the Godhead. It’s completely upside-down! “It is life, yet it is death,” writes Horatius Bonar. “It is honour, yet it is shame. It is wisdom, but also foolishness. It is both gain and loss; both pardon and condemnation; both strength and weakness; both joy and sorrow . . . It is grace, yet it is righteousness; it is law, yet it is deliverance from law; it is Christ’s humiliation, yet it is Christ’s exaltation.” (140–41)
It is on the cross that God’s righteous law is exacted and the freedom from that very law is secured. It’s there that Christ’s shame becomes our honor; that his death becomes our life; that his humiliation becomes his own exaltation as the Messiah. It’s there that grace and righteousness pour out like never before, proving that “with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26) It’s there that God proves, once for all, that “light will come out of darkness, and good out of evil.” (Spurgeon, 84) The cross, while being the most appalling and monstrous form of execution ever conjured by man, serves as the fullest manifestation of the heart of God, a heart that loves to forgive and tender grace to the penitent. “It is not at Bethlehem, but at Golgotha, that we get the full interpretation of God’s character,” continues Bonar. “’Unto us a child is born’ is the dawn; ‘It is finished’ is the noon. The cross carries out and completes what the cradle began.” (144–45) Truer, still, while enduring the most abject form of suffering, Jesus still turned his thoughts to man’s salvation, crying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Always Christ was bent on his mission of redemption, and we see that no clearer than when he pardons the dying thief.
Eleventh Hour Deliverance
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)
In this picture of redemption, we’re given the simple yet complete plan of salvation, and from first to last, it’s all of grace. This little account is, truly, a wonder of grace, proving, once more, that “grace can transform a reviling thief into a penitent believer.” (Spurgeon, 86) In these few verses, you must realize that we’re given the full program of salvation, as God designed it. This might surprise you, seeing as this thief cried out in the eleventh hour for a special dose of mercy. And surely, God doesn’t recognize those calls! Surely, there must be an outward display of inward grace before we can truly call one “saved.” Besides, you can’t just live like you want, and then expect God to save you at the last minute, at the edge of hell . . . can you?
Those notions are utterly false. It matters not the time of your call, just that you call! Whether you’re in the dawn of youth or the leaning into the cold night of age, the same Savior tenders the same saving grace, that renews the heart and restores the soul and redeems the life. Your indebtedness to divine grace is the same, whether you were saved at 5 or 50 or 90!
A Quick Caution
Permit me, though, to proceed by first giving you a word of warning. For, in this age of grace, every cry of “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13) is met with “salvation to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25) and “grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) But the warning must be heard, for this age of grace will soon be at an end. There will come a time when God’s rivers of mercy will cease their flowing and a time of judgment will ensue. The holiness of Jehovah will rule, and those who never cast themselves upon the Son will be cast into eternal flames. Don’t wait till your lust is gone and your pleasures spent and your life is wasted before crying out to God! Don’t delay in giving your all, your life, to the Father! Don’t bank on time to be there, for time is merely another creature of the Creator, frail and fragile and finite. Time will soon be at an end, and no more desperate wails for mercy will then be heard. Don’t reject God’s tender of pardon and justification, which is waiting for you! Open his “unspeakable gift” this moment, and receive “life everlasting!” (2 Cor. 9:15; 1 John 2:25) That’s my burden for you, reader, that there would be no hesitation or reservation or delay, only absolute surrender, pure gratitude, and unreserved obedience.
Now, let me proceed by telling you how to engage in this design of your salvation.
The Simple Gospel
Notice, supremely, in this plan, here mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, that there’s no mention of merit or attainment or achievement. There’s no commands for discipleship or sanctification or any such thing that we might bank on. This is precisely because, in the gospel-chain of salvation, all that’s necessary for saving grace to dwell is the empty space of acknowledged guilt. The grace of Jesus’s fullness fills our empty souls with the “newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4) True, saving faith involves a repentance, a change, a turning from wrong and recognition of full and free pardon—it means feeling the weight and load and burden of your sin, and then, feeling that burden lifted by Christ. (Matt. 11:28–30)
“True faith confesses Christ, and, at the same time, confesses its sin,” writes Spurgeon. “There must be repentance of sin and acknowledgment of it before God if faith is to give proof of its truth . . . He who never felt the burden of sin, never felt the sweetness of being delivered from it.” (94) That’s what this thief did: he acknowledged his own part, his own guilt in this story (Luke 23:40–41), and at the same time confessed the sovereignty and deity of Christ. (Luke 23:42) Nothing more is required of you. By God’s law, we’re made to see our filth. But through his gospel, we’re made to experience his forgiveness. We must feel and recognize our own despair before we ever hope to experience our deliverance. We must be acquainted with grief before we can be met with grace. It’s in the dark spaces of your sinful soul that the grace of God shines the brightest. And it’s then that we’re given the great gift of God’s instantaneous and immediate salvation. (Luke 23:43) “Faith brings instantaneous pardon,” declares Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers. (103)
There’s no delay, no waiting period! Saving faith is immediate and swift and prompt. As soon as our soul grasps the hand of grace extended to us, we’re “saved to the uttermost.” “We shall be saved,” writes John Calvin, “provided that he remember us; and it is impossible that he shall forget those who commit to him their salvation.” It’s impossible for God to turn away one who comes to him in true penitence, in genuine humility, feeling the agony and pain of his sin, and longing for the sweet relief and liberation of grace.
For the thief, that relief and liberation culminated in the restful presence of Jesus in Paradise, in heaven! For you, that relief and liberty resides in the confidence of a secured righteousness through Christ and of an immovable Rock of salvation in his gospel. Call out to Jesus, reader, and experience the saving flood of God’s love and forgiveness! Let his transforming mercies sweep over you and envelope your soul! Let his cross forever be a reminder of his redemptive plan intricately woven with the thread of grace!
O cross of Christ, tell us more and more of this grace of God! Preach reconciliation to the alien, pardon to the guilty, assurance of God’s free yet holy love to the dark and suspicious soul! (Bonar, 147)
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Charles Spurgeon, Seven Wonders of Grace (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1877).