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THE DIFFERENT ENDS OF THE TWO THIEVES CRUCIFIED WITH
LUKE XXIII. 39-43.
And one of the malefactors, which were hanged, railed on him, saya !
ing, If thou be the 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.
The story now read affords us two examples, directly opposite to each other ; but both instructive; and more so by the contrast in which they stand. Here are two malefactors suffering in company with the great Redeemer, one on his right hand, and the other on his left. One dies with a heart full of impiety and a mouth full of blasphemy: The other expires humble and penitent, confessing his guilt and imploring the mercy of the Saviour.
Both these criminals seem to have been under the same external circumstances, as well as of the same vicious character. They
* For some thoughts in this sermon the author is indebted to Bishop Sherlock.
had followed the same course of life, were condemned to the same punishment, and were to suffer at the same time, and in equal nearness to the Saviour. Both had the same need of his help, and the same opportunity to seek it. But one reproached, upbraided and insulted him; the other penitently condemned himself, acknowledged the justice of his sentence, rebuked the impiety of his companion, declared the innocence of his Saviour, applied to him for salvation, and obtained a promise of acceptance. · These two examples are recorded to teach us, that the greatest sinners may hope for pardon in a way of repentance; but that none ought to presume on Divine mercy in a way of sin. The dying example of the penitent thief is a powerful antidote to despair; the awful death of the other is a solemn warning against presumption.
The example of the malefactor who obtained mercy on the cross, is well suited to prevent despair, and to encourage repentance in every thoughtful and awakened sinner. • The causes of despair must be either in the sinner's apprehensions of the Saviour, or in his views of himself.
If you doubt of mercy on any apprehension of the Saviour, it must be because you distrust either his power, or his readiness to save.
If you feel any distrust of his power, look up to the cross: There you will see enough to dispel all your fears.
Never did Jesus appear in so much weakness-never did he look so unlike a saviour, as when he hung on the tree; and yet even here you see him mighty to save. If in this condition he could bend the stubborn heart of a sinner long accustomed to do evil—if here he could wipe off the guilt contracted by the foulest crimes—if here he could open to a miserable criminal the gates of the heavenly paradise ; surely now, since he has loosed the bands of death, ascended to his heavenly kingdom, and taken possession of his glorious throne, he must be able to save to the uttermost all them who come to him; for he was exalted to be a prince and a saviour, that he might give repentance and remission of sins.
Or do you distrust his grace ? Still keep your eyes directed to the cross. If he could, at any time, be regardless of the cries of
sonal distress was wrought up to its highest pitch. Now were his limbs racked with pain ; his head wounded with thorns; his hands and feet pierced with nails; his flesh torn with stripes; his ears filled with reproaches; his soul overwhelmed with anguish. But in the extremity of these sufferings, he felt a tender compassion for a poor malefactor, who hung by his side. He did not indeed exert his miraculous power to deliver the man from death; but he displayed the riches of his grace in saving his soul from hell. What wonderful! what unexampled mercy is here! If this malefactor, who applied to Jesus on the cross, was so readily accepted; surely they who penitently cry to him now, when he sits on his throne of grace, will in no wise meet a denial.
But you will say, “We have no doulot either of the power, or the grace of Christ; our fears arise wholly from a sense of our
If this is the state of your mind, still attend to the example before you. Here is a man who had been a thief and a robber-a man who had run to such lengths in wickedness, that he was judged unfit to live any longer; a man who had neglected the concerns of religion to a late period of life ; and probably had never seriously thought of a reformation, until he found himself in the hands of justice, and in danger of a violent and infamous death. Yet this man by the abundant grace of Christ, was brought to repentance, admitted to pardon, and received to the paradise of God. For this cause the thief obtained mercy, that in him as one of the chief of sinners, Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering for a pattern and encouragement to them, who afterward should believe in him to life everlasting.
“Well then," the careless sinner will say, “here is this remedy of a death-bed repentance; on this I may rely to cancel the guilt of a wicked life. This thief was a greater sinner than I am ; and greater than probably I ever shall be ; yet he, under many disadvantages, obtained mercy, at the last hour. I will dismiss all my troublesome reflections and fearful forebodings, and walk in the way of my own heart and in the sight of my own eyes."
But stay, my friend; consider well what a resolution you are forming. This is not to improve, but to pervert the example before you. The only use which you can reasonably make of it, is to encourage yourself in an immediate application to the mercy of God. Here is not the least ground for presumption on a late repentance.
Consider what a kind of repentance this criminal exercised. If you rely on a death-bed repentance, you must mean by it something which is within the compass of your own power. For if you are dependent on the grace of God, you can be sure of a future repentance, no farther than you are sure that God will vouchsafe to you his grace. You think, perhaps, that the thief's repentance consisted in this petition; “Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdome.” As much as this you may probably say, if you should have the warning which he had. But attend carefully to the story, and you will see, that his repentance was a greater matter. If you expect the pardon which he obtained, seek it by the same kind of repentance, by which he sought it. However wickedly he had spent his former life, he improved the close of it in such a manner, as few had done before, and few, perhaps, will do again.
This malefactor believed in Christ as the Saviour of the world, when one of his own disciples had betrayed him, another had de. nied him, and all had forsaken him. He honoured him as the Son of God and the prince of life, when he was hanging on the cross and suffering the pains of death, as one forsaken of heaven and earth. He proclaimed him the Lord of paradise, when Jews condemned him, and Gentiles crucified him as a blasphemer and impostor. He feared his God, owned the justice of his sentence, and quietly submitted to his punishment, even in the extremity of his sufferings. He condemned himself as a sinner, and justified Jesus, who was crucified with him, declaring that he himself suffered only the due reward of his deeds, but Jesus had done nothing amiss. He expressed no solicitude for the preservation of his life; his only concern was for the salvation of his soul. He asked the Saviour, not that he would rescue him from that infamous cross, but that he would remember him in the kingdom of glory. He rebuked the impiety of his fellow criminal, exhorted him to the fear of God, and put him in mind of the justice of his condemnation. In a word, he did all, that, under his circumstances, could be done. The glory which he gave to Christ by his penitence, faith, piety and charity on the cross, was such as few have given him in the whole course of a long life.
Think not then, that a few expiring words will be accepted for repentance: You must turn to the Lord with your whole heart. If you trust in the example now before you, take it as it stands. It is, indeed, an example of a late repentance : but an eminent example. You will scarcely find another which can equal it. On such a repentance as this, be it ever so late, you will doubtless be accepted. But that you shall exercise such a repentance on a death bed, you cannot promise yourself. It is therefore the greatest presumption to defer till such a time, so serious and necessary a work.
Consider farther; It is by no means certain, that this thief was so late in beginning his preparation for death. It was upon the cross that he gave the striking evidence of his repentance. But can you tell, how much time he had before spent in prayer, huaniliation and self-examination? A season of confinement must have preceded his trial and execution. Do you know what use he made of this season ? He seems to have been acquainted with Christ, the innocence of his life, and the divinity of his character. These things he could not have learnt on the cross; he must have had some knowledge of them before he came there. It is therefore probable, that the time between his first imprisonment and his execution was spent in religious exercises. If so, his case but little resembles that of a sinner, who thinks nothing about religion, till he comes to his death bed. And surely, the example of one who employed weeks, or perhaps months, in the work of preparing himself for eternity, and who embraced the first opportunity that he had to testify his repentance of sin, and his faith in a Saviour, and to express his charity to men, and his submission to the justice of providence, can give no reasonable encouragement