Last-Second Salvation

Luke 23:43

May 15, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

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“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:32-33).

Three men died that day.

They were crucified side by side outside the walls of Jerusalem at a place called Golgotha (“skull hill”) where the Romans did their killing. It was located not far from the Damascus Gate so that people going into the city would have to see the executions.

Jesus of Nazareth hangs on the middle cross.
Two men were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Portrait of Two Thieves

Who were they? The translators use different words to describe them . . . “Thieves, robbers, malefactors, bandits.”  Luke’s word means “members of the criminal class, professional criminals, members of the underworld.” These men were hoods, thugs, cutthroat killers, men who killed for fun and profit, assassins.

Some writers suggest that they were political revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the yoke of Roman rule. If so, we ought to think of them as terrorists who thought nothing of using violence to achieve their political aims.

Beyond that, we know little else about them. We do not know their names or their hometowns or the specific crime they committed. We assume that they had been partners in crime, but that is not certain. Some suggest they were brothers, but there is no way to be sure.

No two men could be more different

We would not know them at all except for this: they are supporting players in the greatest drama of all time, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

It may appear that these two men are exactly alike. They were both criminals who were sentenced to die together at the same time at the same place on the same day. Both had been severely beaten before they were crucified, both were stripped naked before the leering crowd, both were covered with blood and dirt. Both men were dying and both would soon be dead. No one could look at them and tell any difference.

But in reality, no two men could be more different. These two men who were crucified on the outer crosses differed on one main point: how they viewed the man in the middle. They saw him differently and therefore asked him for different things.

One man wanted escape, not forgiveness.
The other man wanted forgiveness, not escape.

Amazing Faith

Let’s take a closer look at the man who wanted forgiveness. Was any man ever in a more desperate situation? Brutally crucified, he is dying in agony for crimes he had committed. He is a guilty man justly punished. He deserves to die and he knows it. By sundown, he will be dead.

His case has been tried, the judgment announced, the sentence carried out. All purely legal avenues have been exhausted. This man is as close to death as you can be and still be alive.  Now at the last moment he makes one final appeal to the Supreme Court of the Universe: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42).

I submit to you that here we have the most amazing example of saving faith in all the Bible. Jesus is hanging next to him, a bloody mess, a sight awful to behold. The man’s feet and arms are nailed to the cross, ropes hold his body upright so it won’t fall off. Every movement is agony, every breath torture. Beneath him and behind him the howling mob screams for blood. They jeer, they hiss, they curse, the spit, they roar like wild hyenas. They cheer as he coughs up blood, they shout with approval when someone aims a rock at a piece of tender flesh. It is garish, hellish, brutal and inhuman. Yet it is here—amid the blood and gore—that this man comes to faith.

Somehow this thief saw Jesus bleeding and naked and yet he believed that he would someday come in his kingdom. He saw Jesus at his weakest moment, and still he believed in him. He is a crucified sinner trusting in a crucified Savior. No man ever looked less like a king than Jesus did that day, yet this man saw him as he really was.

He saw Jesus at his weakest moment

This is made more amazing when you consider that this man had none of the advantages the disciples had. As far as we can tell, he never heard Jesus teaching by the seashore, he never saw Jesus heal the sick or raise the dead, he knew nothing of Jesus’ great parables and never saw any of his miracles. This man missed all the outward signs of Jesus’ kingship. Yet he believed.

He evidently knew nothing of the virgin birth, the Old Testament prophecies, the conversation with Nicodemus or the raising of Lazarus just one week earlier. The coming miracle of the resurrection was unknown to him. All the things we take for granted, he knew nothing about.

Yet there on the cross, he came to understand the heart of the gospel. In the crucified Jesus, beaten, mocked, forsaken, his life blood ebbing away, this thief saw a king and another crown than the crown of thorns.

One crucified man saw another crucified man and believed in him.
That made the difference between heaven and hell.

Saved at the Very Last Second

In that light his words seem all the more remarkable. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” By saying that, he didn’t mean “Remember my name” or “Erect a monument to me.” He simply meant, “At the end of the world, make a place for me in your kingdom.” It is the modest prayer of a man who knows he does not deserve what he is asking for.

When we put the totality of his words together, we can clearly see how great this man’s faith really is:

“This man has done nothing wrong”  
Faith in the Person of Christ

A crucified sinner prays to a crucified Savior

“Jesus, remember me”      
Faith in the Power of Christ

“Jesus, remember me”        
Faith in the Mercy of Christ

“When you come into your kingdom”  
Faith in the Kingdom of Christ

What about this prayer? It is a bit unusual. But it reminds us that God judges the sincerity of our hearts and not the accuracy of our words. When you go to the doctor, you don’t usually know exactly what medicine you need. You just need to go to the right doctor and he’ll make sure you get the right medicine.

Likewise this poor dying thief didn’t know all the right words to say, but what he said was good enough because he said it to the right person. When he said, “Jesus, remember me,” he didn’t know all that he was asking for; before sundown he received far more than he expected.

This thief on the cross was dying for his sins—a guilty man justly punished. He cried out to Jesus and at the very last second he was saved.

A Promise with Three Parts

How do we know this thief was saved? We know he was saved by the answer Jesus gave in verse 43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Jesus answered his request by giving him a promise with three parts.

1. Immediate Salvation. Note the word “today.” Jesus put it first for emphasis, meaning, “This very day, the day of your crucifixion . . .” Wherever “paradise” is, Jesus told this thief that he was going there that very day.

2. Personal Salvation. The phrase means to be “with me in a very personal way.” It is not “You over there and me over here” but “You and me together, side by side.” It means to be in the personal presence of another person. Wherever Jesus was going, this thief would be right by his side.

Sometimes we focus on the details of heaven so much that we miss the big picture. We wonder what our loved ones are doing in heaven. But even in our best moments, we “see through a glass darkly.” We know so little of what life is like on the other side. But this much is true. Heaven is where Jesus is, and to be with him is to be in heaven.

If I’ve been on a trip, away speaking for a week, I may say to someone, “I can’t wait to get home again.” But I’m not talking about the literal bricks and the literal carpet. It’s not as if when I come in, I say, “Hello, drapes, I’m glad to see you again. Hello, dining room, I missed sitting in those chairs.” You’d think something was wrong if I talked like that. No, home is precious to me because my sweetheart is there. When I say, “I can’t wait to go home,” I mean that I can’t wait to see Marlene again. It’s the same thing with heaven. The glory of heaven is not the streets of gold or the gates of the pearl or even the River of Life or the angels of God. The glory of heaven is Jesus. Heaven is wherever Jesus is, and when we finally get to where Jesus is, we will be home for all eternity.

Heaven is where Jesus is

3. Heavenly Salvation. “Paradise” is the crucial word. Scholars tell us that it originally referred to the walled gardens of the Persian kings. When a king wanted to honor his subjects, he would invite them to walk with him in his garden in the cool of the day. This same word was used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to the Garden of Eden; in Revelation 2:7 it refers to heaven. It is a place of beauty, openness and inexpressible blessedness.

If we take these three promises together, we can see what a remarkable thing Jesus is saying. He is promising that this thief—who has lived his entire life in crime—will, upon his death, be transferred to heaven where he will be in the personal presence of Jesus Christ. Truly, this thief received much more than he asked for.

What a day this was for that misbegotten criminal. In the morning he’s in prison, at noon he’s hanging on a cross, by sundown he’s in paradise. Out of a life of sin and shame, he passed immediately into eternal blessedness.

From this we take great comfort as we bid farewell to our loved ones who die in the Lord. At the very moment a believer dies, he passes immediately (“Today”) into the personal presence of Jesus in heaven. That is what Paul meant when he said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Heaven begins the moment we cross the narrow divide between this life and the next. Not 50 years after we die, or  150 years later, or 1500 years later but today. We have the word of Jesus on this.

This man—this thief, this scoundrel, this wastrel, this professional criminal–this man who, if he showed up in church today would scare us to death, this man who, if he moved to our town would make us want to move out, this man went directly from the cross to paradise.

Lessons of Hope and Encouragement

As I read this story, I take from it three lessons of hope and encouragement.

1. It is never too late to turn to Christ.

Sometimes people say, “I’m too old for this” or “I’m too old to try that.” Sometimes it’s true on the physical level. As you get older, there are some things you just can’t do any more. But no one can ever say that about turning to Jesus. It’s never too late to turn to him. As long as there is life and breath, as long as the heart still beats, the invitation still stands.

Can someone be saved at the last second? Because of God’s amazing grace, the answer is yes. Brian Bill shared this with the Keep Believing team several days ago:

“Wanted to pass along that a man died this past weekend. But not before he was saved through his niece reading An Anchor for the Soul to him. He was blind but now he sees!”

Thank God for the niece who loved her uncle enough to read him a book that would show him the way to heaven. Sometimes we say, “I’m eternally grateful” when a friend does us a favor, but we don’t literally mean we are grateful for eternity. But in this case that’s an appropriate response.

Her uncle is now eternally grateful for a niece who shared the Good News with him.

It’s never too late to turn to Christ.

Those of us who are praying for our loved ones should take great hope from stories like this. Sometimes we look at people and say, “They are just too far gone. They will never come to Jesus.” Then we get discouraged and stop praying for them. But this story teaches us that no one is ever too far gone. It’s true, he waited until the very last second . . . but it’s also true that in that last second he was saved. Don’t ever give up on those you love. They may, like this wretched thief, waste a lifetime and then at the end turn to Jesus Christ.

Don’t despair . . . for yourself or for anyone else. It’s never too late to turn to Christ.

2. Even the very worst can be saved at the very last moment.

Sometimes we hear people make fun of “death-bed” conversions, as if such things never happen. Well, let me tell you that they do happen. And why not? If a man knows that he is dying, is he not likely to think about the hereafter and where he will spend eternity?

I do not mean to suggest that anyone should wait until the last moment to be saved. Far less do I intend to suggest that anyone should live a profligate life with the intention of coming to Christ just before he dies. People who live that way aren’t serious about salvation. I have a friend who spends his days ministering to the dying. When I asked him about death-bed conversions, he said, “People die the way they have lived.” I’m sure that’s true in most cases. No one should think they can laugh at Christ for years and then at the last second repent and be saved. To be sure, such a thing could happen, and it sometimes does happen, but it is not the usual course of events.

People who live that way aren’t serious about salvation

As far as we can tell, the thief who believed in Jesus had no prior knowledge of him, which makes his conversion all the more remarkable. Let no one use this example as a reason to delay coming to Christ.

Do not put off until tomorrow what you should do today. I’m sure if we could speak to this thief who was crucified with Jesus, he would say, “Don’t delay. Don’t wait. Give your heart to Jesus now.”

Remember that two thieves were crucified with Jesus that day, but only one believed. As J. C. Ryle put it:

One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair; but only one, that none should presume.

The fact remains that this man who was a very bad man was indeed saved at the very last moment. Thank God it is so. He had lived an absolutely rotten life, yet he died a Christian death. It happened by the grace of Jesus Christ.

He was pardoned before he lived a single rightoeous day

I know that some people feel that they are too far gone in sin to ever be forgiven. Some feel so enslaved by their habits that they despair of ever being set free. Many people would do anything to be forgiven but they think that forgiveness is impossible.

Let me put the matter plainly. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been sleeping. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been drinking. It doesn’t matter who you’ve been hanging around with. It doesn’t matter what sins you’ve committed. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve broken the Ten Commandments—all of them, one by one—this week. It just doesn’t matter. You can be saved right now.

If this man can be saved, anyone can be saved. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for you. If he can make it to heaven, so can you. If Jesus would take him, he’ll certainly take you.

3. God has made salvation simple so that anyone can be saved.

Consider what we have in this story:

—Salvation independent of the sacraments. This man was never baptized, never took the Lord’s Supper, and never went to Confession. But he made it to heaven.

All that God wants from us is simple faith in Jesus

—Salvation independent of the church. This man never went to church, never walked an aisle, never attended catechism class, and never gave his money. But he made it to heaven.

—Salvation independent of good works. This man could not lift a hand for the Savior for his hands were nailed to a cross. He could not run any errands for the Lord for his feet were nailed to a cross. He could not give his money for he had not a penny to his name. For this man, there was no way in but the mercy of God.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels) says it this way:

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, belonged to no visible church, and never received the Lord’s supper. But he repented and believed, and therefore he was saved.

He was pardoned before he lived a single righteous day. In one transforming moment, a man who was not fit to live on earth was made fit to live in heaven.

There May I, Though Vile as He

I take my stand with him. I claim the same mercy. We all get to heaven the same way, by the grace and mercy of God.

Over two hundred years ago William Cowper wrote a famous hymn called There is a Fountain that includes a verse about the dying thief. To my knowledge, this is the only hymn that mentions this man:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins.
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see,
That fountain in his day.
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
All that God wants from us . . . and all that he will accept . . . is simple faith in his son, Jesus Christ. When we place our faith in the Lord Jesus, in that very moment we are saved.

The question is simple. Are you ready to die? You have nothing to fear if you know the Lord.  You are not ready to die if you don’t. Do you know him? What will you do if you don’t know him?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?