Excerpted from the book, Holiness, by J. C. Ryle
‘And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, “If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us.” But the other answering rebuked him, saying, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done nothing amiss.” And he said unto Jesus, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” And Jesus said unto him, “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise”—Luke 23:39-43
There are few passages in the New Testament which are more familiar to men’s ears than the verses which head this paper. They contain the well-known story of ‘the penitent thief’.
And it is right and good that these verses should be well known. They have comforted many troubled minds; they have brought peace to many uneasy consciences; they have been a healing balm to many wounded hearts; they have been a medicine to many sin-sick souls; they have smoothed down not a few dying pillows. Wherever the gospel of Christ is preached, they will always be honoured, loved and had in remembrance.
…we are meant to learn from these verses Christ’s power and willingness to save sinners.
This is the main doctrine to be gathered from the history of the penitent thief. It teaches us that which ought to be music in the ears of all who hear it: it teaches us that Jesus Christ is ‘mighty to save’ (Isaiah 63:1).
I ask anyone to say whether a case could look more hopeless and desperate than that of this penitent thief once did. He was a wicked man, a malefactor, a thief, if not a murderer. We know this, for such only were crucified. He was suffering a just punishment for breaking the laws. And as he had lived wicked, so he seemed determined to die wicked, for at first, when he was crucified, he railed on our Lord. And he was a dying man. He hung there, nailed to a cross, from which he was never to come down alive. He had no longer power to stir hand or foot. His hours were numbered; the grave was ready for him.
There was but a step between him and death. If ever there was a soul hovering on the brink of hell, it was the soul of this thief. If ever there was a case that seemed lost, gone and past recovery, it was his. If ever there was a child of Adam whom the devil made sure of as his own, it was this man.
But see now what happened. He ceased to rail and blaspheme, as he had done at the first; he began to speak in another manner altogether. He turned to our blessed Lord in prayer. He prayed Jesus to ‘remember him when He came into His kingdom’. He asked that his soul might be cared for, his sins pardoned and himself thought of in another world. Truly this was a wonderful change!
And then mark what kind of answer he received. Some would have said he was too wicked a man to be saved; but it was not so. Some would have fancied it was too late, the door was shut, and there was no room for mercy; but it proved not too late at all. The Lord Jesus returned him an immediate answer, spoke kindly to him, assured him he should be with Him that day in paradise, pardoned him completely, cleansed him thoroughly from his sins, received him graciously, justified him freely, raised him from the gates of hell, gave him a title to glory. Of all the multitude of saved souls, none ever received so glorious an assurance of his own salvation as did this penitent thief. Go over the whole list, from Genesis to Revelation, and you will find none who had such words spoken to him as these: ‘Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.’
I believe the Lord Jesus never gave so complete a proof of His power and will to save, as He did upon this occasion. In the day when He seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In the hour when His body was racked with pain, He showed that He could feel tenderly for others. At the time when He Himself was dying, He conferred on a sinner eternal life.
Now, have I not a right to say, ‘Christ is able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by Him’? (Hebrews 7:25.) Behold the proof of it. If ever sinner was too far gone to be saved, it was this thief. Yet he was plucked as a brand from the fire.
Have I not a right to say, ‘Christ will receive any poor sinner who comes to Him with the prayer of faith, and cast out none’? Behold the proof of it. If ever there was one that seemed too bad to be received, this was the man. Yet the door of mercy was wide open even for him.
Have I not a right to say, ‘By grace ye may be saved through faith, not of works: fear not, only believe’? Behold the proof of it. This thief was never baptized; he belonged to no visible church; he never received the Lord’s Supper; he never did any work for Christ; he never gave money to Christ’s cause! But he had faith, and so he was saved.
Have I not a right to say, ‘The youngest faith will save a man’s soul, if it only be true’? Behold the proof of it. This man’s faith was only one day old; but it led him to Christ, and preserved him from hell.
Why then should any man or woman despair with such a passage as this in the Bible? Jesus is a Physician who can cure hopeless cases. He can quicken dead souls, and call the things which be not as though they were.
Never should any man or woman despair! Jesus is still the same now that He was eighteen hundred years ago. The keys of death and hell are in His hand. When He opens none can shut.
‘O Saviour, what a precedent is this of Thy free and powerful grace! Where Thou wilt give, what unworthiness can bar us from Thy mercy? When Thou wilt give, what time can prejudice our vocation? Who can despair of Thy goodness, when he, that in the morning was posting to hell, is in the evening with Thee in Paradise?’ (Bishop Hall.)
Ryle, J. C.. Holiness (pp. 161-163). Heritage Bible Fellowship. Kindle Edition.