One Taken, the Other Left
“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, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
He did not learn it until he was in hell; but in hell the rich man learned that between him and Lazarus “there is a great gulf fixed; so that they who would pass” from one side to the other cannot (Luke 16:26). So it has been, so it shall be, and so it is. The human race is divided into two parts: sheep and goats, elect and reprobate, Jacobs loved of God and Esaus hated by Him, vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath. Goats will never become sheep; and sheep will never become goats. Elect will never become reprobate; and reprobate will never become elect. Jacob will never become Esau; and Esau will never become Jacob. Vessels of mercy will never become vessels of wrath; and vessels of wrath will never become vessels of mercy.
The gulf was fixed in eternity. The division was made in the decree of God. The distinction was established in eternity. It will be made clear to all at Christ’s second coming, in that great day when the Son of God sits in judgment upon His Great White Throne (Luke 17:33-36). In that day, “one shall be taken, and the other left.” As it shall be in that day, so it is today. When the appointed time of love is come for the salvation of God’s chosen, one is taken, and the other left.
We see this fact vividly set before us in the two thieves who were crucified with the Lord Jesus. Only Luke was inspired to tell us of our Savior’s abundant mercy and distinguishing grace bestowed upon this dying thief. It is a story that deserves to be written in gold, told often, and remembered by all.
Salvation by Grace
The first thing that is obvious in this story is the fact that salvation is altogether the work of God’s free grace, altogether without works. This dying thief had no merit of any kind. He had no pre-disposition of heart toward the Son of God. He rendered no service to the Lord. He observed no ordinance. He was not baptized. He never united with, or even visited a church. He never observed the Lord’s Supper.
Everything we know about this man tells us that he was a depraved sinner, a moral degenerate, whose life of infamous shame was about to be ended by penal execution. Yet, this poor, wretched, degenerate man was saved. No explanation can be given for that fact except this: — “By grace ye are saved” (Romans 9:16; Ephesians 2:1-5, 8-9; Titus 3:3-7).
Sovereign, Distinguishing Grace
Second, God’s saving grace, in every instance of it, is set before us in Holy Scripture as sovereign, distinguishing grace. Certainly, that is obvious in the story of these two thieves. Both of the other malefactors crucified with the Lord Jesus were guilty thieves, justly condemned. Matthew and Mark tell us that both joined in the rabble of Pharisees and the soldiers, mocking the Lord of Glory and railing upon him.
Then there was a sudden change. One of the thieves ceased to curse the Savior and sued Him for mercy, crying, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” Both were equally near the Savior, one on His right hand and the other on His left. Both saw and heard all that happened during the six hours that He hung on the cross. Both were dying men. Both were suffering acute, torturous pain. Both were alike wicked sinners. Both needed forgiveness. Yet, one died as he had lived, hardened in sin, proud and without repentance, unbelieving and without hope. The other repented, believed, cried to the Son of God for mercy, and was saved.
What made the difference? Grace! Grace alone! The penitent thief was made penitent because the Lord Jesus gave him life and faith by the power of His omnipotent grace. He snatched the dying thief from the very brink of hell and took him with Him to heaven as a trophy of His rich, free and sovereign grace. His conversion cannot be accounted for in any other way. We can only say, “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight” (Matthew 11:26).
How can two people hear the same sermon, from the same preacher, in the same condition, and one be converted, while the other remains dead in sin? How can one be totally indifferent and the other bowed in brokenness before God? How can one pray for mercy, while the other blasphemes? How can one see and the other remain blind? There is only one answer that can be given to those questions. — “The LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel” (Exodus 11:7; 1 Corinthians 4:7). In election, in redemption and in effectual calling it is God, and God alone, who makes the difference between men.
Third, this dying thief shows us an example of the fact that grace is always on time. Many say, concerning this man, “He was saved just in the nick of time.” But that is hardly the case. He was saved precisely at the divinely appointed time. He could not have been saved at any other time; and he could not have been saved at a better time.
He could not have been saved at any other time, because, for him, this was “the time of love,” when he must be called. As illustrated in Gomer, the Prodigal Son, Onesimus, and this dying thief, there is an appointed time for the salvation of each of God’s chosen (Galatians 4:4-6). Some are saved in youth. Some are saved in the middle of life. And some are saved in old age. But all who are saved are saved at the only time they could be saved, because for each of us it took the whole experience of our ruin to bring us to our Savior.
And he could not have been saved at a better time. You might think, “But, wouldn’t it have been better for him to have lived longer, that he might serve and honor Christ upon the earth?” Let me answer that question by asking you what human being has ever been more useful. What man has ever been more influential for good? What person has been such a blessing to so many others? Who has ever been more instrumental for the glory of his maligned, blasphemed and ridiculed Redeemer than this man?
Every saved sinner is saved at God’s appointed time; and each one is saved at the best time.
The Means of Grace
The fourth thing that strikes me about the conversion of this man is this: — The means of grace is not always obvious. We know that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). We know that sinners are “born-again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever… And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:23-25). But many point to the dying thief and say, “That man was saved without hearing the Gospel.” Was he? — No.
Let me remind you of the things he heard, as he hung upon the cross. I do not know what he heard, or did not hear beforehand. But as he hung by his dying Savior, he heard and saw the Gospel as clearly as anyone ever could. He heard the Lord Jesus hailed as “the King of Israel” (Matthew 27:42). He heard that the Man hanging beside him had claimed to be the Son of God. — “He said, I am the Son of God” (Matthew 27:43). He heard the chief priests and scribes say, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save” (Mark 15:31). He heard the Lord Jesus Himself pray, probably just as he and the other thief had railed upon him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). How many times he heard people that day crying, “Save!” Save!” “Save!” to the Savior, as they derided Him! He read Pilate’s testimony, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38; John 19:19). And he saw the Lamb of God dying as a substitute in the place of a guilty man (Barabbas), who was released from death because He died in his place.
The Character of Faith
Fifth, the dying thief shows us the character of true, saving faith. This man stands before us as a defining example of God-given faith (vv. 39-42).
“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.”
Here are seven things that are always characteristics of that faith that comes to chosen, redeemed sinners by the gift and operation of God the Holy Spirit. True faith…
This man’s faith was, in all those respects, precisely the same as that which God gives to every heaven-born soul. Yet, his faith in Christ is the most remarkable display of faith to be seen in all the Word of God, the most remarkable faith to be found in the history of the world! He trusted Christ as God his Savior, his Lord and King, when all others had forsaken Him, as He was dying!
A Willing Savior
Sixth, this inspired narrative declares in bold letters that the Lord Jesus Christ is willing to save all who come to God by Him, and “able to save to the uttermost” (Hebrews 7:25). The Lord Jesus Christ is able to save any sinner in any circumstance, in any place, at any time. And He is willing to save. But that is not all. — The Son of God will save all who come to God by Him (John 6:37-40).
Seventh, this brief history of the dying thief tells us how near we are to Glory. Heavenly Glory is but a breath away! What a consolation that fact ought to be to all God’s saints, especially when we find ourselves dying. Heaven is but a breath away. Our Savior said to this new-born soul, who would soon cease to live in his tortured body, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” Without any past works to commend him, without possibility of future goodness, altogether by the work of Christ, he was assured of everlasting salvation with Christ in heaven!
That word “today” speaks volumes. It tells us that as soon as this earthly house, this tabernacle of clay is dissolved, we have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. — “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 4:17-5:9). And in that blessed state, in that place called heaven, we shall be with Christ! What is heaven like? Look yonder to the assembly around the throne. What are their joys, their feelings, their happiness? All is explained by this simple statement: — They are with Christ.
If the sheep are with the Shepherd, if the members are with the Head, if the saints are with Him who loved them and gave Himself for them, if the Bride is with her Beloved, if the redeemed are with the Redeemer, if the saved are with the Savior, all is well. Nothing is lacking. Their joy is full!
I do not know and cannot describe what heaven is; but the name of that city is Jehovah-shammah, “the Lord is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). I want no more. I ask no more. I can have no more. — “Christ is All!” Well did the Psalmist sing, “In Thy presence is fulness of joy” (Psalms 17:15; 27:4).
“Jesus, Thou art the sinner's Friend; as such I look to Thee.
Now in the bowels of Thy love, O Lord, remember me.
Remember Thy pure word of grace, Remember Calvary,
Remember all Thy dying groans, and then remember me.
Thou wondrous Advocate with God, I yield myself to Thee;
While Thou are sitting on the throne, Dear Lord, remember me.
I own I'm guilty, own I'm vile; yet Thy salvation's free;
Then in Thy all abounding grace, dear Lord, remember me.
However forsaken or distressed, however oppressed I be,
However afflicted here on earth, do Thou remember me.
And when I close my eyes in death, and creature helps all flee,
Then, O my dear Redeemer God, I pray remember me.”
One Taken, the Other Left
When Joseph had interpreted the chief butler’s dream, how pathetically does he plead with him! “Think on me when it shall be well with thee” (Gen. 40:14). But such is the base ingratitude of man, that all was in vain. When the butler was restored, he cared nothing for Joseph in prison. Exalted men seldom care for needy souls. But it is not so with the King of kings. He is ever the Friend of poor sinners. He remembers us in our low estate. For us He hung on the accursed tree between two accursed sinners. One was taken, the other left. You and I are represented by both.
In the saved thief we see the marvellous power of God’s sovereign grace. Here is a reviler changed into a suppliant. What caused the change? Let every proud notion of self-righteousness, self-worth and freewill forever perish! Fall down before the Son of God and adore His distinguishing grace. One malefactor was left to himself and went to hell blaspheming. The other died in faith, trusting Christ and praying, worshipping him. He was snatched, by omnipotent grace, from the jaws of hell, as a brand our Savior would not allow to be burned. Do you see your nature to be as wicked and your state as desperate as this thief’s? If so, your soul is humbled before God. Do you see that nothing but the same grace of Christ can save you? If so, you will exalt the free grace of God in Christ. Oh my soul, exalt the mercy, love and grace of Christ!
Oh, may God the Holy Spirit teach you to pray as he taught this man to pray, “Lord, Remember me. There is no Savior but You, no salvation but by You. I am a hopeless, helpless sinner; unless You save me, I must be damned forever. You are the King. Yours is the kingdom. Oh bring me with You into Your kingdom!” If God will grant you such faith in the Savior, Christ Jesus, you will soon be in Glory with the same Lord, who “is rich” in mercy “unto all who call on Him” (Romans 10:12).
Oh, what a great magnet the crucified Christ is to poor, needy, helpless sinners! — “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:32-33). Let every member of Immanuel’s Bride cry as we are taught of God, “Draw me, we will run after Thee” (Song of Solomon 1:4).
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