THE SECOND THIEF by J. C. Ryle
if some are saved in the very hour of death, others are not. Men forget that there were two thieves. What became of the other thief who was crucified? Why did he not turn from his sin, and call upon the Lord? Why did he remain hard and impenitent? Why was he not saved? We have no right whatever to say this thief was a worse man than his companion; there is nothing to prove it. Both plainly were wicked men; both were receiving the due reward for their deed; both hung by the side of our Lord Jesus Christ; both heard Him pray for His murderers; both saw Him suffer patiently. But while one repented, the other remained hardened; while one began to pray, the other went on railing; while one was converted in his last hours, the other died a bad man, as he had lived; while one was taken to Paradise, the other went to his own place – the place of the devil and his angels.
There is warning as well as comfort here and a very solemn warning too. They tell me loudly that though some may repent and be converted on their death-beds, it does not follow that all will. A death-bed is not always a saving time. They tell me, above all, that repentance and faith are the gifts of God and are not in a man’s power; that if anyone flatters himself he can repent at his own time, choose his own season, seek the Lord when he pleases and, like the penitent thief, be saved at the very last – he may find at length he is greatly deceived.
There is an immense amount of delusion in the world on this very subject. I see many allowing life to slip away quite unprepared to die. I believe one grand reason is that most men suppose they can turn to God just when they like! You may say, perhaps:
`It is never too late to repent.’ I answer, `That is right enough; but late repentance is seldom true.’ You may say: `Why should I be afraid? The penitent thief was saved.’ I answer: `That is true; but look again at the passage which tells you that the other thief was lost.’ (Luke 23.39-47).
Men look at the broad fact that the penitent thief was saved when he was dying, and they look no further. They do not consider the evidence this thief left behind him. They do not observe the abundant proof he
gave to the work of the Spirit in his heart. I want to show you that the Spirit always works in one way, and that – whether He converts a man in an hour, as He did the penitent thief, or whether by slow degrees, as He does others – the steps by which He leads souls to heaven are always the same.
I want you to shake off the common notion that there is some easy royal road to heaven from a dying bed. I want you to understand that every saved soul goes through the same experience, and that the leading principles of the thief’s religion were just the same as those of the oldest saint that ever lived.
See how strong was the faith of this man. He called Jesus `Lord’. He believed He was able to give him eternal life and glory, and in this belief he prayed to Him. He maintained His innocence of all the charges brought against Him. `This Man,’ he said, `has done nothing amiss.’ Others perhaps may have thought the Lord innocent – none said so openly but this poor dying man. And when did all this happen? It happened when the whole nation had denied Christ, shouting `Crucify Him! Crucify Him! We have no king but Caesar;’ when the chief priests and Pharisees had condemned and found him `guilty of death;’ when even His own disciples had forsaken Him and fled; when He was hanging faint, bleeding and dying on the cross, numbered with the transgressors, and accounted accursed! This was the hour when the thief believed in Christ and prayed to Him! Surely such faith was never seen since the world began. Would you know if you have the Spirit’? Then mark the question I put to you today: Where is your faith in Christ?
See what a right sense of sin the thief had. He says to his companion: `We receive the due reward of our deeds.’ He acknowledges his own ungodliness and the justice of his punishment. He makes no attempt to justify himself or excuse his wickedness. He speaks like a man humbled and self-abased by the remembrance of past iniquities. This is what all God’s children feel. They are ready to allow they are poor helldeserving sinners. Would you know if you have the Spirit’? Then mark my question: Do you feel your sins?
In the penitent thief you see the finished work of the Holy Spirit. Every part of the believer’s character may be found in him. Short as his life was after conversion, he found time to leave abundant evidence that he was a child of God. His faith, his prayer, his humility, his brotherly love are unmistakeable witnesses of the reality of his repentance. He was not penitent in name only, but in deed and in truth. Let no man therefore think because the penitent thief was saved that men can be saved without leaving any evidence of the Spirit’s work. Let such consider well what evidences this man left behind.
It is mournful to hear what people sometimes say about what they call death-bed evidences. It is perfectly fearful to observe how little satisfies some persons and how easily they can persuade themselves that their
friends have gone to heaven. They will tell you when their relatives are dead and gone, that `he made such a beautiful prayer one day – he talked so well – he was so sorry for his old ways and intended to live differently if he got better, or that he craved nothing in this world – or that he liked people to read to him, and pray with him.’ And because they have this to go upon, they seem to have a comfortable hope that he is saved! Christ may never have been named – the way of salvation may never have been in the least mentioned. But it matters not; there was a talk of religion and so they are content!
Now I have no desire to hurt the feelings of anyone but I must and will speak plainly upon this subject. Once and for all, let me say, that as a general rule, nothing is so unsatisfactory as death-bed evidences. The things that men say and the feelings they express when sick and frightened are little to be depended on. Often they are the result of fear and do not spring from the ground of the heart.
When a man has lived a life of thoughtlessness and folly, I want something more than a few fair words and good wishes to satisfy me about his soul when he comes to his death-bed. It is not enough for me that he will let me read the Bible to him and pray by his bedside, that he says, `he has not thought so much as he ought of religion and he thinks he should be a different man if he got better.’ All this does not content me: it does not make me happy about his state. It is very well as far as it goes but it is not conversion. It is very well in its way but it is not faith in Christ. Until I see conversion and faith in Christ, I cannot and dare not feel satisfied. Others may feel satisfied if they please; for my part, I would rather hold my tongue and say nothing. I would be content with the least measure of repentance and faith in a dying man, even though it be no bigger than a grain of mustard seed, but to be content with anything less than repentance and faith seems to me next door to infidelity.
If you die without conversion to God, without repentance and without faith in Christ, your funeral will only be the funeral of a lost soul; you had better never been born.
Prepare me, gracious God,
To stand before Thy face;
Thy Spirit must the work perform,
For it is all of grace.
In Christ’s obedience clothe, And wash me in His blood
So shall I lift my head with joy Among the sons of God.
Elliot and Toplady