Three men hung on crosses. Their flesh pierced by nails. Two of them were guilty, one of them was not. One of the guilty ones hurled verbal abuse at the innocent one—mocking His claims to deity—visibly hardened, blinded to his own sinfulness and need for the Savior. The other—convinced he was receiving his just reward—begged for mercy.
Today, those same two men live in two distinct eternal dwelling places. The first is in Hell while the second is in Paradise. All because of the words of the innocent One hanging between them. Jesus announced to the second thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
While the first thief may have had a fear of death, he had no fear of God. The words of the second thief to his guilty friend confirm this, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”(Luke 23:40). Such is the response of all depraved men and women who are untouched by the grace of God—there is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:18). Such would be the response of every one of us if it were not for the intervening grace of God.
While the first thief was filled with pride, the heart of the second was broken and humble as he recognized “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). While the callused heart of the first thief blinded him from seeing Jesus for who He is, the second thief reached out in repentant faith saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
This is still the way God responds to us when sinners reach out in desperation to the only One who will have mercy upon us. This is grace! Grace motivated the Son of God to receive a guilty criminal, saying “today you will be with me in paradise.”
God takes delight in extending His grace to those who are humble enough to admit they need it. So, as physically difficult as it must have been to do so, I like to think that Jesus spoke those words with a gentle smile on His bleeding face. Equally, I believe it is with sadness that God allows hardened, unrepentant sinners to remain in their depravity. God says, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11).
Grace is defined as unmerited favor. That is, grace is God giving sinners the spiritual riches we don’t deserve, while mercy is God holding back from us our just condemnation.
Why can God do this? Why can He show us both mercy and grace? Only because it was for our sake he [God the Father] made him [God the Son} to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21). At that very moment in history, when darkness covered the land from Noon to 3:00 PM, God judged our sin in the person of His righteous Son. The just died in the place of the unjust (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus propitiated God’s wrath, which now frees Him to freely forgive those who repent and believe (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
Why could Christ give such a promise to the second thief? Because as the repentant man hung in desperation, he looked to the righteous Jesus with eyes of faith. As a result, God reckoned the thief’s faith as righteousness. This is the only way any of us can be saved.
As long as we believe we possess even one ounce of merit before God, we are out of the reach of the grace of Christ. Until God brings us to the point of brokenness over our sin and recognition of our desperate need for mercy, we cannot be saved. But when we look to Christ, happy is He to say, “today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Which thief are you?
Are you the hardened criminal who launches accusations against the Lord? Or are you the humble criminal who knows you are guilty before God, and cry out to Jesus in simple faith, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”?
[*Originally posted April 14, 2022]