A much better sermon on the thief on the cross by Dr. Carl Hoefler can be found here. This is a greatly abbreviated version of an evangelical sermon of my own which addresses common misapplications of lessons from the thief. It may be criticized as belonging to another century. The critic is right. It’s from the first century.
The thief on the cross has probably been the go-to excuse for sloth since the first day his story was told. The thief on the cross never…went to church, was baptized, tithed, taught Sunday School, nor did anything other than confess Jesus as Lord. Before we follow that wide and deadly path let us consider first, have we ever done as much as the thief on the cross, secondly the great difference between unable and unwilling, and lastly the danger of waiting to a late date before begging to be remembered.
First, have we ever come close to offering of ourselves near as much as the thief on the cross did? We confess Jesus from a place of comfort. We worship him behind closed doors where we avoid the derision of the world. We know when to keep quiet in public places, schools, or on the job. The thief confesses Jesus when he is helpless before the very ones who are tormenting and mocking Christ. Have we yet gone that far? Do we confess Jesus in the presence of powers that oppose him and could inflict a painful price on us? If so, then we have only begun to do as much as the thief on the cross.
He confessed his guilt and accepted the due punishment for his sin, and from that moment became known for his most notorious sin. He had a name. He had a mother and father. At some point in his youth he probably imagined a nobler life and thought he might leave this world with a nobler name. But he is forever known as Thief. Are we willing to publicly confess what we are guilty of and let the world know us by our most notorious sin from which we are redeemed? If so, then we have only come close to doing as much as the thief on the cross.
The thief accepted his suffering and did not ask to be relieved from it. Suffering is all he had left…and he offered his suffering to Christ to use as he would. All he asked was to be remembered by Jesus. He confessed Jesus without making it a trade for comfort, or prosperity, or so his children might behave better.
The thief identified with Jesus when it was most costly and he was most vulnerable. He publicly admitted his guilt and due punishment for specific sin. He accepted his suffering and made an offering of it to Christ. When we have done all this we have still fallen short of the faith of the thief. He offered all that he was able to offer…he was nailed to a cross.. and he was unable to do any more.
Secondly, we need to be reminded that God does not look on unable and unwilling as equals. This is especially needful in North America where we have become accustomed to treating them the same. Our schools are reluctant to make allowances for the student who was unable to complete an assignment (perhaps because of a family emergency) because they would then have to make allowances for all who were unwilling. We are discouraged by society from inquiring as to whether one is unable or unwilling to work because we treat them as identical situations. We do not distinguish between those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibilities to family and community.
The whole testimony of Scripture is that God does not look on the two the same way. It is true that God makes provision for the prisoner in a concentration camp who cannot gather with the saints for worship, but one ought not presume to receive the same provision who has every opportunity and is stubbornly unwilling, slothfully negligent, or willing ignorant of God’s word.
Lastly, and of greater importance, one ought to be aware of the danger of using the example of the thief for waiting until the last hour to confess Christ, or of supposing they can delay the walk until the last mile. “It cannot be too often, or too loudly, or too solemnly repeated, that the Bible, which ranges over a period of four thousand years, records but one instance of a death-bed conversion—one that none may despair, and but one that none may presume” (Thomas Guthrie).
I can testify that in all my years of ministry I have been privileged to be present at only three deathbed conversions. Three times when one who lived their entire life apart from Christ yet left this world with an assurance that Jesus would remember them. Far more are the haunting memories of those who desired that assurance but did not receive what God would freely give. No matter how simply, how plainly, or how passionately the offer was presented…and no matter the number of witnesses who made the appeal…they had so trained their doubting soul to not accept so lenient an offer and they left this world without the assurance that Christ was waiting to receive them. These are the nightmares of which I rarely speak.
The time to accept the gift of Jesus is now. You are able. Are you willing? It is likely that you will not do as much as the thief on the cross in the first day, or the first year, or you may not accomplish so much with the rest of your life. That’s okay, because none of the things the thief did earned him a place in the Kingdom. That was all his grateful response. All the hard work is done by Jesus on the cross. Somehow, and we are not told exactly how, the work Jesus is doing on the cross forever shuts the gates of hell and opens the gates of Heaven for all who will trust him. In all his teaching and healing while he walked with us Jesus only claimed that one thing was for him an, “I must.” There is only one thing that Jesus said was essential for him to accomplish while here on Earth. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” On a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem he must be on that cross. The thief on the cross somehow recognized that Jesus was doing all the hard work and only asked if he might be included too.
While you are still able, are you still willing? Publicly? Acknowledging your sin? While still in your suffering? Will you receive the assurance that Jesus so freely gives that you, also, will be remembered in the Kingdom? There is a cost. The first cost is your stubbornness, slothful negligence, and willful ignorance.
You are able.
Are you willing.