You may have heard stories of immediate answers to prayer. A destitute family thanks the Lord for a non-existent meal, and someone knocks at the door with food. A man with an empty bank account prays for help, and immediately finds an unexpected check in the mail.
Christ’s second utterance from the cross marks the first and immediate, glorious fulfillment of His prayer for His killers’ forgiveness. It shows how generously that forgiveness was bestowed, even on the most unlikely of recipients.
From Mockery to Penitence
As the hours of agony passed on the cross, one of the two thieves who had mocked Christ earlier now had a change of heart. What prompted the change is not mentioned. Perhaps the thief heard and was touched by Jesus’ prayer for mercy, realizing that it applied to him. Whatever prompted his turnaround, it was a tremendous miracle.
The man was undoubtedly one of the most thoroughly degenerate people on the scene. He and his confederate were career criminals, men whose lives had been devoted to thievery and mayhem. The deep-down bad-to-the-bone wickedness of their character was shown by the fact that they used their dying strength to join in the taunting of Christ. They obviously knew of His innocence because the repentant thief finally rebuked his cohort, saying, “This man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Yet until one of them repented, they both were heaping ridicule and scorn on Him anyway.
But there came a point when one thief’s taunting turned to silence, and the silence turned to repentance, and the thief’s heart was utterly changed. As he studied Jesus, suffering all that abuse so patiently—never reviling or insulting His tormentors—the thief began to see that this Man on the center cross was indeed who He claimed to be. The proof of his repentance is seen in his immediate change of behavior, as his derisive insults turned to words of praise for Christ.
First he rebuked his partner in crime: “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40–41). In saying that much, he confessed his own guilt, and he also acknowledged the justice of the penalty he had been given. He affirmed the innocence of Christ as well.
Then he turned to Jesus and confessed Him as Lord: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
That confession of Jesus as Lord and King was immediately followed by the second of Jesus’ seven last sayings: “And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:43).
No sinner was ever given more explicit assurance of salvation. This most unlikely of saints was received immediately and unconditionally into the Savior’s kingdom. The incident is one of the greatest biblical illustrations of the truth of justification by faith. This man had done nothing to merit salvation. Indeed, he was in no position to do anything meritorious. Already gasping in the throes of his own death agonies, he had no hope of ever earning Christ’s favor. But realizing that he was in an utterly hopeless situation, the thief sought only a modest token of mercy from Christ: “Remember me.”
His request was a final, desperate, end-of-his-rope plea for a small mercy he knew he did not deserve. It echoes the plaintive cry of the publican, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). For either man to be granted eternal life and received into the kingdom, it had to be on the merits of another. And yet in both cases, Jesus gave full and immediate assurance of complete forgiveness and eternal life. Those are classic proofs that justification is by faith alone.
Jesus’ words to the dying thief conveyed to him an unqualified promise of full forgiveness, covering every evil deed he had ever done. He wasn’t expected to atone for his own sins, do penance, or perform any ritual. He wasn’t consigned to purgatory—though if there really were such a place, and if the doctrines that invariably accompany belief in purgatory were true, this man would have been assured a long stay there. But instead, his forgiveness was full, and free, and immediate: “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
That was all Christ said to him. But it was all the thief needed to hear. He was still suffering unspeakable physical torment, but the misery in his soul was now gone. For the first time in his life, he was free from the burden of his sin. The Savior, at his side, was bearing that sin for him. And the thief was now clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness. Soon they would be in Paradise together. The thief had Christ’s own word on it.