The penitent thief on the cross whom our Lord, Christ Jesus addresses is the only person recorded in all of the Scriptures that converted to the true Faith in his final hour. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, there are joyous occasions of conversation immediately before death, but they are few and far between. Once, a woman came to worship while recovering from a horrible car accident due to intoxication and promised me that she would present herself for baptism when she could walk. By God’s grace, she healed but quit coming to church, and regrettably, I’ve learned has returned to her former ways. Let no one fool themself and say: “Before I die, I will come to God and find salvation.” Such a thought is a grievous sin. It cheapens the costly grace won for all through Christ Jesus’ “holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Luther’s Small Catechism) and wrongly assumes an opportunity to turn to the Lord in the agony of one’s final temporal hour.
This thief on the cross also presents a remarkable example of sincere repentance. His conscience knows only terror. Not because of his pending death as he readily confesses, he deserved death for his crimes. He is in terror because of the heavy guilt of his disobedience toward God. The Lutheran Confessions states that contrition is “the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.” (Apology XII). The repentance of his heart stands out for us in stark contrast with the other thief’s hardened heart. It is authentic repentance that recognizes that one is not only a sinner but guilty of sin. This now malleable heart confesses that he deserves the wrath of God and the sentence of eternal damnation. “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21).
Amid the shame and the repulsive image of the Lord (the Word made flesh) hanging on the cross, His glory shines brilliantly into the soul of the repentant thief so that he believes, confesses, and worships the Son of God. The thief’s repentance is complete with the declaration of his faith. “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth, one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:10). Now, beyond the thief’s wildest imagination, he hears Christ Jesus proclaiming the Gospel to him! With the death which even now He suffers, our Lord buys redemption and salvation for all sinners with His royal blood. Even while He hangs on the Cross, during His most intense shame, Christ Jesus freely gives to the repentant thief paradise. He snatches the poor man’s soul en route to eternal death and transfers it into His heavenly kingdom by His kingly word. Even in His dying breath, Christ Jesus proves to be Savior and King, as is written above His head!
Blessed are You, Lord Jesus, for all things! We bless You for comforting and promising everlasting life to the repentant thief. Even as You were condemned to death, You took this criminal out of death, and carry him in victory to heaven. By Your Spirit, grant us true repentance and living faith of Your mercy and take us to Yourself in paradise when our time comes to enjoy the fullness of your glory for eternity. In Your name, we pray. Amen.