THE THIEF WHO WAS SAVED
The Truth of Salvation by Grace Revealed
Contained within this passage is, I believe, an important key to understanding salvation. It is a most beautiful passage, and we would be the poorer without it.
"One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at (Jesus): ' Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!' But the other criminal rebuked him. 'Don't you fear God,' he said, 'since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said: 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.' Jesus answered him: 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:39-43, NIV)
What, we do not know, touched the heart of one of the robbers who was crucified next to Christ. It may have been His prayer for His murderers and this may have caused him to repent in his dying hour and to cry out to the Saviour: "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom". Notice the thief did not say: "Save me!" or "Get us both down from these crosses!" The thief accepted his punishment. He knew he wasn't worthy of the Kingdom -- He didn't beg for admission. No, he asked only to be remembered, not expecting Jesus' astonishing reply: "TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE."
If you want to understand the doctrine of salvation by faith without works, then you can find no better illustration. This penitent thief believed and was saved. He couldn't do any works -- he couldn't bring forth any actions to prove his "savedness" because he was nailed to a cross. But he was saved! He was given unconditional admission to Paradise, the Home of the Saved. That very day he was promised a place in Heaven.
What a glorious testimony of the power of forgiveness! We don't know what kind of a life this thief had led. He might have been thieving all his life. He might have robbed countless hundreds of people. The point is, we don't know because we aren't supposed to know. The Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The writers wrote only what God told them to write. And with purpose. The Gospel accounts are unfrivolous and to the point. We have all we need to know for salvation.
If you want to understand the love and forgiveness of God then you must understand this vital point: when forgiveness comes, it is total and complete. It's like a curtain comes down between your past life and your new life. As far as God is concerned, when your heart is right, the debt is paid -- by Jesus -- on the Cross. There are things you have to do which, as it were, are a condition of your savedness. If the thief had been sent to prison and been released, he would have been required by Jesus to pay back all that he had stolen, according to his abilitity, as stipulated by the Law. Only then would he be fully justified before God and men. But as far as his relationship with God was concerned -- his justification -- he would be in fellowship, enjoying the blessed companionship of the Holy Spirit, once he had repented and resolved to change direction.
The thief on the cross had no possibility to make physical ammends for his crimes because soon after his conversion he was dead. He was nevertheless justified by what was in his heart. There are many Christians who refuse to believe that this man was saved, calling it "death-bed repentance". But it was far from that. There are many who make repentance at death's door not out of genuine sorrow but out of fear of going to hell. Such repentance does not save, because it is not rooted in love. And repentance not rooted in love cannot change a soul or reform it.
Parable of the Vineyard Workers
Jesus taught this principle in a parable which is related by Matthew in the 20th chapter in his Gospel. It is called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a landowner who hired people at the beginning of the day and at different times throughout the day, such that by the end of the day, when the time came for the payment of wages, those who had worked all day and those for only an hour received the same wage. In the secular world people would be horrified at the apparent unfairness of this, and so it would be unfair if Jesus were only talking about secular employment. But He wasn't. You see, all that we have -- our energy, talents, even our very lives, are from God. They are His. Our "payment", if we dare call it that, is the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Everything. Would a loving Father give less? Do you parents not want all you children to receive everything that is good? Would you wish to punish some children and show favouritism to others? In your heart of hearts, you would not.
What is salvation? It is to be free from sin. Do you think God would ever say: "Well, you've only been in Gospel service for 7 years, whereas this brother has been in it for 20, so I can't possibly remit as many of your sins as I can his"? How horrible!
God, through Christ, has suffered for our sins. He remits sin, not us. If He, who is the Most Exalted One, has chosen to humble Himself to become of no consequence and to suffer the punishment for all our wrong-doings -- and if He then chooses to remit our sins by forgiving equally, no matter what the sinner may have done, who are we to complain? Have we earned our salvation? By no means! We haven't paid for the millionth part of our wrong-doings; and were we to do so, it would take us billions of years of suffering.
Now I can't give you a mathematical equation for forgiveness, because none exists. And even if it did exist, God would not wish us to know it. There is none in the New Testament, and we should not try to seek for one. Instead, Jesus says: Forgive! Forgive! Forgive...not 7 times, but indefinitely. You -- we -- have no right to set boundaries on how much we shall or shall not forgive -- we are to forgive unconditionally. And why? Because that is the only way love can flow uninhibited.
Remember the father of the prodigal son -- how he forgave his son in an instant and then honoured him. Only love does that. He did not sit down and say: "O son, you did this, and this, and this, let's work out a suitable punishment". The boy's own inner desolation was punishment enough. It was quite enough. The boy had seen the light, made genuine repentance, and was willing to serve as the least in his father's household. He wanted no honours. Nothing. Just to be accepted.
The thief on Calvary was exactly the same, wasn't he? He didn't ask for any special favours, like the apostles did -- no "Let me sit at your right hand, Lord". None of that. Not even the apostles received the promise the thief received. Note that! Do you think the apostles are better than the thief? Do you think they are more saved? They are all in Paradise! They are all in heaven...together, as equals, joint partakers of the miracle of salvation.
Now, we have looked at all of this from the thief's point-of-view. But what of the Saviour's? Under what circumstances did the Lord of Creation forgive and admit this wretched man into Paradise? Jesus was in agony of death, yet in His dying moments He could yet give life to a dead soul. Though bearing upon Himself the horrendous burden of all of mankind's sins -- the sins of BILLIONS -- though He was drinking the cup of gall, the cup He begged His Heavenly Father to remove from Him, yet He was sensitive and conscious enough to give the cup of blessedness to one who was repentant.
Do you, when you are in distress, have time to minister to another? Can you, when you are in inner pain, find time to relieve the sorrows of another? When you are ill, can you minister to another who is sick? Or do all the barriers go up? Do you say to yourself: I am sick, I have the right to ministry. Are you grumpy and bad-tempered when you don't feel well, as though sickness somehow gives you the right to forget Christian behaviour? If that is your response, then, beloved brethren and sisters, the love of Christ is not in you. If that is your response, then, with all the masks down -- as is so often the case when we are in need -- then our egos in all their ugliness are revealed.
Though His hand was nailed to the cross, yet it carried the Key of Paradise, and opened the gate to allow a repentant soul to enter. Do you want to know if you have received the keys of the Kingdom? Then here is your test -- see if you can pass them on when you yourself are in distress -- ask yourself whether all you can see is your own distress, or the distress of others. You won't like what you discover, but you'll thank the Lord for having your selfishness revealed if you truly love Him.
Kingly Love in Action
If you want to see kingly love -- royal love -- divine love -- then go to Jesus' dying moment on the Cross. In the agony of physical crucufixion and under the oppressive load of mankind's filth and grotesqueness, He took time to bring salvation to one poor, pennitent soul. O, brethren and sisters, look at this picture hard! Feast on it! Breathe it in! THIS -- THIS -- is the GOSPEL OF LOVE AND OF FORGIVENESS. And it can only come about under the influence of a power of One who is supremely loving and forgiving.
There are so many terrible lies in the world, so many wretched doctrines that rob men and women of all hope. That accursed doctrine of reincarnation which says that the soul must walk through corridors of darkness for millions of years, walking through sorrow and tribulation until he has paid -- paid -- PAID! No, it's a wicked lie! It is Satan's wicked, hateful lie! Look at the thief on the cross -- look hard! There is no long dark passage through which the soul must go to reach blessedness. TODAY -- NOW -- YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE. There is no purgatory in which the soul must wait to be prepared for glory. No pennance to be made through priesthood intermediaries. At once a soul truly and completely repents and forgives, that soul goes RIGHT AWAY into the presence of Christ.
The apostle Paul taught that death is departing to be with Christ, and he says that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord for those who are in Christ. Therefore none of us, who has truly repented, and forgiven need ever fear death. The only thing we need fear is our lack of love, for a lack of love is born of a stubborn and unrepentant soul.
You will be with Me. The moment Christ died and was ascended, and the moment the thief died, the two were together...in paradise, in glory. Do you see, therefore, the power of repentance? If, through genuine, heart-felt repentance we can enter straight into glory, imagine what you can do by unconditionally forgiving and loving others! You can open the door to repentance and glory too! No grinding mathematical equations -- go and do this, this, this, and this. That will follow naturally out of love.
No Salvation by Knowledge
I wonder if this people fully realise what I am saying. We are so well informed, so knowledgeable about principles and mechanisms -- I wonder if we have not sometimes missed the central point of the Gospel altogether. These principles -- this knowledge -- means absolutely nothing without the power of unconditional repentance and forgiveness. Nothing. The thief on the cross didn't say: "Oh, yes, I understand the mechanism now. My father didn't love me, I suppressed my feelings, I did this, that, and the other...." There was none of that. There was no discourse on Biblical psychology. He simply saw in the reflection of supreme love his own pitifulness -- his own nothingness. Against the background of the dying Christ he saw his own sinfulness and knew that he was alone -- desperately alone. He esteemed himself as nothing because Christ esteemed Himself as nothing. We can't expect others to repent until they see that we are not trying to lord it over them, not trying to stand above them in superiority. No, never!
The Tender Messiah
Do you want this love -- this love of Christ? Do you?? Then you have got to be prepared to walk the way of Christ. Do you want the recipee? Then hear this:
Mark you Bibles in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah when you get home -- mark these words. Tender -- tender. What is tender? Gentle, soft, fragile...affectionate, warm, embracing. Are you tender? Or are you tough, proud and "cool"? No way are you going to reach soul unless you are tender and sensitive.
"He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricked by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isa.53:2-5, NIV).
A root out of dry ground. We have no roots in this world. We aren't nourished by it. We look dug up and exposed. But we have invisible roots in Him who is an enless supply of living water! Our roots are in heaven...in paradise.
No beauty or majesty. No self-image. No attempt to project oneself. Just the way you are. The same with everybody, high and low. One personality, not many. Are you that? Or do you wear different masks?
Despised and rejected. Do you want to be popular? No way! The world isn't interested in a tender shoot, a root out of dry ground, and body that isn't dressed up to impress. To love as Christ loves, be prepared to be despised and rejected.
Carrying other's sorrows. There's a hard one...and when you yourself are full of sorrows too? Christ's light shines out in such moments. Suffering is a necessary part of redemption and final glory. Flee it, and you'll never be whole, and never be able to help others be whole. You've got to fight like Jacob did until the Lord blesses you. You've got to face reality and overcome your weakness.
Stricken of God. Today there's a counterfeit Christian movement which says that God isn't with you unless you're wealthy and healthy. For them Isaiah 53 would be incompehensible. To reach another, like Jesus reached for the thief on the cross, we must be stricken. We must be acquainted with grief, know what sorrow is. We can never empathise with others if we don't. Every man and women will be struck; everyone will have their own Golgotha.
Do you still want that love? Do you still want to mediate that love to others, and show them the way to Christ? Then bear your infirmities with patience, grace, strength, and, above all, cheerfulness, for God is remaking you inside so that you can be an instrument in His hand. If we were nailed to a cross like that thief, O, how much quicker would our repentance be! But that's just the awful truth -- we are up on that cross -- the cross of our own materialism, greed, selfishness, and lack of love. Millions are.
A Personal Revelation
A few days ago I had a revelation that has changed me. All of us have our "dark night of sorrow", sometimes many of them, during which the Lord steps back to allow us to work things out on our own. It is a fundamental Gospel principle. Even the Father stepped back from the Cross so that His Son could work it out on His own. So must we. In the last year I have been quite ill, and this has humbled me and slowed me down quite alot. It has made me do alot of soul searching. For many months I have been listening to the Lord in almost total silence, hardly uttering a word in prayer -- just listening, waiting.
At the end of last month, just before I went to sleep, I opened my Bible and I saw a familiar passage of scripture: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you received your calling, with one hope; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and father of all, who governs all and pervades all and is in us all" (Eph.4:4-6, Revised Berkley Version).
For the first time in my life, like a blinding flash, I suddenly understood this passage. I thought I had understood it before but I hadn't. For weeks the concept of "oneness" had been going through my mind, like the Spirit when it brooded over the mass of water before the creation. It was only a word with some vague associations, but suddenly it exploded into meaning. Back to the Old Testament: "The Lord (Yahweh) your God (Elohim) is One God (Elohim).."..."There is but one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live" (1 Cor.8:6, NIV).
I dreamed so peacefully that night -- I dreamed of my "father" and "mother" together, something I've never done before, and they were in complete harmony with each other. There was a great love in them. They represented, of course, my inner condition.
There is a oneness in all things and that oneness exists because of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is totally independent of the forms and outer structures which so captivate and blind us in this material sphere. There is one creation and one principle of Christ-love that is in it everywhere. All the divisions are but illusiory, a product of this lawless, fallen plane of existence. Lying above everything we see is a supreme unity or oneness.
When the Thief Became One
That thief on the cross entered that oneness in a moment of supreme remorse. He suddenly saw everything in perspective -- his whole life, the meaning of what Jesus was doing on the Cross. In that moment, he became enlightened -- he changed his whole way of seeing and doing things. He saw the great illusion that this material plane is, distorting and categorising, limiting and hiding. He saw that the only meaning was Jesus -- He saw the gate between life and death. He saw and understood what mortal life was intended to give him -- a perspective of everything.
That was all he needed to make a 100% decision to follow Christ. He asked for no great reward because he knew he didn't merit one. He knew only that he had to put his entire trust in the One who was dying for him, the One who was opening the door between heaven and Paradise. And that, brethren and sisters, is all we have to do. But first...but first...must come the vision of the reality, the awful state of our lost state. And to do that there must be a complete surrendering of pride, a total submissiveness to God, a willingness to be obedient to all the commandments, a desire for nothing but the truth and righteousness, and a willingness to give of everything for the Kingdom, no matter what the wage is, no matter whether we do more or less than others, because the price is the same for everyone.
We need not wait for death's door to make that choice -- God is calling us to that now. Go and search, and you will surely find. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
This page was created on 31 May 1998
Last updated on 31 May 1998
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