Call to Worship March 17 2019
Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke
J.C. Ryle Luke 23:39-43
“We see, firstly, in the history before us — the sovereignty of God in saving sinners. We are told that two criminals were crucified together with our Lord, one on His right hand and the other on His left. Both were equally near to Christ. Both saw and heard all that happened during the six hours that He hung on the cross. Both were dying men, and suffering acute pain. Both were alike wicked sinners, and needed forgiveness. Yet one died in his sins, as he had lived, hardened, impenitent, and unbelieving. The other repented, believed, cried to Jesus for mercy, and was saved.
A fact like this should teach us humility. We cannot account for it. We can only say, ‘Even so, Father, for so it seems good in your sight.’ (Matthew 11:26.) How it is that under precisely the same circumstances, one man is converted — and another remains dead in sins? Why is it that the very same sermon is heard by one man with complete indifference — and another man goes home to pray and seek Christ? Why is it that the same Gospel is hidden from one — and revealed to another? All these are questions which we cannot possibly answer. We only know that it is so, and that it is useless to deny it.
Our own duty is clear and plain. We are to make a diligent use of all the means which God has appointed for the good of souls. There is no necessity that anyone should be lost. There is no such a thing as decreed damnation in the Bible. The offers of the Gospel are wide, free and general. God’s sovereignty was never meant to destroy man’s responsibility. One thief was saved — that no sinner might despair. But only one was saved — that no sinner might presume.
We see secondly in this history — the unvarying character of repentance unto salvation. This is a point in the penitent thief’s story, which is fearfully overlooked. Thousands look at the broad fact that he was saved in the hour of death, and look no further. They do not look at the distinct and well-defined evidences of repentance which fell from his lips before he died. Those evidences deserve our closest attention.
The first notable step in the thief’s repentance, was his concern about his companion’s wickedness in reviling Christ. ‘Do you not fear God,’ he said, ‘seeing that you are under the same sentence of condemnation.’
The second step was a full acknowledgment of his own sin. ‘We are punished justly — for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’
The third step was an open confession of Christ’s innocence. ‘This man has done nothing wrong.’
The fourth step was faith in Jesus Christ’s power and will to save him. He turned to a crucified sufferer, and called Him ’Lord’ — and declared his belief that He had a kingdom.
The fifth step was prayer. He cried to Jesus when he was hanging on the cross — and asked Him even then, to think upon his soul.
The sixth and last step was humility. He begged to be ‘remembered’ by our Lord. He mentions no great thing which he had previously done. Enough for him, if he is remembered by Christ.
These six points should always be remembered in connection with the penitent thief. His time was very short for giving proof of his conversion. But it was time well used. Few dying people have ever left behind them such good evidences, as were left by this dying thief.
Let us beware of a repentance without evidences. Thousands, it may be feared, are every year going out of the world with a lie in their right hand! They imagine that they will be saved, because the thief was saved in the hour of death. They forget that if they would be saved as he was — they must repent as he repented.
The shorter a man’s time is — the better must be the use he makes of it. The nearer he is to death, when he first begins to think — the clearer must be the evidence which he leaves behind. Nothing, it may be safely laid down as a general rule — nothing should be so little relied upon, as a death-bed repentance.
We see, thirdly, in this history — the amazing power and willingness of Christ to save sinners. It is written that He is ‘able to save to the uttermost.’ (Hebrews 7:25.) If we search the Bible through, from Genesis to Revelation — we shall never find a more striking proof of Christ’s power and mercy, than the salvation of the penitent thief.
The time when the thief was saved — was the hour of our Lord’s greatest weakness. He was hanging in agony on the cross. Yet even then, He heard and granted a sinner’s petition, and opened to him the gate of life. Surely this was ‘power!’
The man whom our Lord saved — was a wicked sinner at the point of death, with nothing good in his past life to recommend him, and nothing notable in his present position, but a humble prayer. Yet even he was plucked like a brand from the burning! Surely this was ‘mercy.’
Do we want proof that salvation is of grace, and not of works? We have it in the case before us. The dying thief was nailed hand and foot to the cross. He could do literally nothing for his own soul. Yet even he, through Christ’s infinite grace, was saved. No one ever received such a strong assurance of his own forgiveness, as this man.
Do we want proof that sacraments and ordinances are not absolutely needful to salvation, and that men may be saved without them when they cannot be had? We have it in the case before us. The dying thief was never baptized. He never belonged to a visible church, and never received the Lord’s supper. But he repented and believed — and therefore he was saved.
Let these things sink down into our hearts. Christ never changes. The way of salvation, is always one and the same. He lives, who saved the penitent thief. There is hope for the vilest sinner — if he will only repent and believe.
We see, lastly, in the history before us — how near a dying believer is to eternal rest and glory. We read that our Lord said to the criminal in reply to his prayer, ‘Today you shall be with Me in paradise!’
That word ‘today’ contains a body of divinity. It tells us that the very moment a believer dies — his soul is in happiness and in safe keeping.
His full redemption is not yet come. His perfect bliss will not begin before the resurrection morning. But there is no mysterious delay, no season of suspense, no purgatory — between his death and a state of glory. In the day that he breathes his last — he goes to Paradise. In the hour that he departs — he is with Christ in glory. (Philippians 1:23.)
Let us remember these things, when our believing friends fall asleep in Christ. We must not sorrow for them — as those who have no hope. While we are sorrowing — they are rejoicing. While we are mourning and weeping at their funerals — they are safe and happy with their Lord.
Above all, let us remember these things, if we are true Christians — in looking forward to our own deaths. To die is a solemn thing. But if we die in the Lord — then we need not doubt that our death will be eternal gain!”