39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”
40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?
41 “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
In his beloved hymn “There is a fountain,” poet William Cowper rejoiced in the salvation that he received through the blood of Christ. In one of the verses, he wrote:
“The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day.
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.”
Cowper understood something we all ought to remember: we are no different than those two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus. We are all vile sinners, bound by the consequences of our sins–whether in physical bondage like the dying thieves, or in spiritual bondage that blinds us to the truth of salvation in Christ. The question is this: Do we understand our bondage and seek freedom, or will we defy God to the bitter end?
One thief on the cross blasphemed the Lord Jesus in language that was hauntingly familiar:
And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
9 Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.
10 “For it is written:
‘He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you,’
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”
It’s not hard to see who is really speaking through the mocking thief: Satan. The devil is the father of lies–and, for that matter, the spiritual father of all unrepentant sinners. We hear that same doubting and mocking language from all sorts of people today–from atheists and unbelievers, yes, but also often from one-time believers whose despair at their fate causes them to lash out at God. They ask, “If God is so great, why must I and others suffer?” To which the other thief might reply, “If the Son of God is so innocent, why must He suffer FOR you?”
The other thief understood that the real power of Christ was not in worldly miracles but in the power of salvation. That repentant thief understood that he himself was right where he deserved to be, receiving “the due reward of our deeds” by dying on a cross. And even though he was resigned to his fate, he nonetheless sought mercy by asking for the Lord to remember him.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans:
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach):
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
The two dying thieves each put this into practice that fateful day. The mocking thief believed in his heart that Jesus was not the Christ, that the fate of all three men was simply to die and be forgotten. But the repentant thief believed in his heart that Jesus was the innocent Lamb of God, the Anointed One, the Christ. One thief confessed his unbelief, and the other confessed his belief. Which one was saved?
“But isn’t there more required?” some may ask. “Our hands are not bound to a Cross, so shouldn’t we be doing something more than just confessing our faith?” I’ll let Paul answer that one, too:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Grace, salvation, and even faith all come from God. And God’s grace is sufficient to save us regardless of anything we have done or will do. Does that mean we can just go through our lives sinning like crazy and then make a death-bed confession and expect to be saved? Absolutely not! If we have any faith at all in Christ right now, then NOW is when we should confess and repent, NOW is when our lives should be changed through the power of Christ. No one knows the day or the hour of his own death. I may drop dead the moment I finish writing this, or you may not make it past the end paragraph. We just don’t know, and so it behooves us to act as if each day were our last–just like that thief bound to that cross.
Until we repent and believe in the gospel, we are thieves of God’s grace. We steal time and blessings as if they were ours and not the precious gifts of a loving, living God. But when we repent–literally “change thought”–then our lives are transformed, and whether we die before sunset or live another century, we are a new creation. The question is: What will we do?
Until we repent and believe, we are sure to receive “the due reward of our deeds”: death. But when we believe in Christ and are born again through Him–not through any action of our own but through pure and simple faith–then we are snatched from the jaws of death and receive the gift of life. And if we live beyond that moment when we first repent and believe, then I pray we should have the attitude of William Cowper’s mentor and friend John Newton who wrote those beloved words:
“‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!”
God’s grace is an amazing gift, and it is extended alike to dying thieves and living sinners. I pray we shall all accept that grace, repent our sins, and confess our faith in Christ Jesus. For “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16b) Amen and amen!
Gracious Father God, thank You, thank You, thank You! We cannot say enough how much we love You for the amazing grace You have extended to us. Let me accept that grace, Lord God, and please help me to repent, to truly be changed. You are my beloved God, and before You there is no other. Whether I live another hour or another year, may my new life be acceptable in Your eyes. Amen.