April 7, 2020
Seven Last Words of Christ – “This day you will be with me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]
Death-bed conversions and “jailhouse” salvation experiences are very powerful testimonies to which evangelical preaching and ministry has given a strong focus. Pastors often visit dying people and want to make sure that “they are right with God.” Also, the admirable ministry of people who go to the jails regularly to preach and engage inmates can recount a multitude of examples where the men and women who have realized that their lives are a disastrous wreck open their minds and hearts to Christ. This event recorded in Luke 23 is an example of both right out of the life of Jesus.
What is most intriguing about this episode recounted in the Gospel of Luke is that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, both the thieves being crucified with Jesus mocked him at the beginning of the execution they were sharing with Him. Yet, one of them has a change of heart in the midst of his own suffering, while watching Jesus hang there. Why would he have such a change of heart? We are not told. All that Luke tells us is that the thief recognized that Jesus was an innocent victim, not deserving of this fate. Nor are we told why the other thief does not recognize this about the Lord. In this passage, then, we are presented with the mystery of human response to the presence of God in Christ. Some experience Him and turn in penitent faith and others ignore or cannot see Him for who He is. What accounts for the difference?
In theological traditions we find very different suggestions. Some conclude, based on the way they view God’s sovereignty, that the one thief was “predestined” to repent because God had elected him for salvation. His counterpart was not chosen by God to be redeemed by Jesus, but to be damned in the sins of his life, which so richly deserved God’s judgment. Others, recoiling from what seems like divine caprice and growing out of their conviction that human beings have free will, insist that the conversion of the first thief and the refusal of the second is an example of human choice pure and simple. Perhaps both are right and both are wrong!
On the one hand, the idea that God simply creates some people for the purpose of condemning them to eternal exclusion from His love does not do justice to the appeal of the New Testament of the universal nature of God’s love for his human creatures. II Corinthians 5:19 declares, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them. . . therefore, we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” I John 2:2 announces that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice that takes away our sins and God’s wrath, “and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.” Contrary to the “free will” position, however, is a statement such as Paul’s in Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace are you saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves it is the gift of God so that no one can boast.” Somehow, to think about what is happening in the moment that the thief recognizes Jesus in some initial sense we need to bring together both concepts – God’s sovereign grace and the necessity of a true and freely exercised human response to the gift of God’s saving Son.
One of the things we should remember about the moment of realization by the one thief and the occasion of mocking rejection by the other is that they do not arrive on the scene of their crucifixion alongside of Jesus out of nowhere. Each of them has a history. One that we know nothing about, really, but each of them had lived prior to their arrest and crucifixion. So, while the encounter with Jesus at the end of their lives is where we meet them, if we think about their lives prior to that as part of the covenant people of God – Israel – we can realize God’s presence to them and offer of His mercy were active in their lives all the while. This was not their first experience with God. How each of them was shaped by the circumstances of their lives and their choices in the light of God’s ongoing offer of gracious blessing, along with the matter of the development of the thief’s character is a critically important issue, I think. For God who is at work to offer his saving presence to us and enable us to have faith does so in a way that results in one of two unavoidable outcomes.
When one responds to God’s promptings and enablement to recognize one’s need for Him – with any degree of awareness and accepting response – a softened, pliable, and redeemable heart is being formed. The journey into salvation is not something that a person simply “chooses.” It is a gift that one is enabled to receive by the way we respond out of all the workings of grace in our lives to the grace that will save. Each moment of our lives is one in which God is working and drawing and enabling us to open our lives to more of Him – these moments are our responsibility, but only because God initiates the possibility of our realization of need for Him and His loving mercy. If, on the other hand, one resists or ignores or rejects these gracious instances throughout life where God is working to awaken and create an awareness of our need and a desire for Him, then the only result possible is that of a hardened heart, insensitive to the very presence of God. It is like a heart that is shut-in on itself and calloused from the inside to the outside. When that occurs, a kind of self-reprobation is our character, making it impossible for us to hear or see, much less respond to God’s holy, saving presence.
Perhaps this is the way we can understand why one thief sees in Jesus salvation and the other sees a ridiculous figure. Because of grace at work before this encounter, even though the one who recognized Jesus was still a thief and a sinner, there was a sliver of enlightenment possible from the way he had responded to God, even in his sinfulness.
This would mean, then, that we should never presume that we know who is a candidate for saving faith, no matter what their lives look like. We should, therefore, be people who simply offer Jesus over and over to those who we know, regardless of their unresponsiveness. The same Jesus was present to both robbers on the cross. One tried to humiliate Jesus and the other humbled himself, not out of his free will, but out of the lifelong, soul-shaping grace of God.
We never know which thief we are dealing with, do we? So, just share Jesus.