I have good news and bad news.
No one wants to hear those words from a medical doctor. Most would rather just hear the good news alone. But often the good news isn’t truly good until we truly understand the bad news.
The same principle applies to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The word gospel is a synonym for good news, but the true goodness of that news hinges on the bad news that precedes it. And it is the bad news of our guilt that is a pill too bitter to swallow for many.
That’s why, as John MacArthur observes, the gospel has always aroused hostility and resentment.
Although all people like to think of themselves as basically good, the testimony of God’s Word is precisely the opposite. Scripture states unequivocally that the entire human race is evil. In the vernacular of our times, humanity is bad to the bone—corrupt to the core. To put it in familiar theological terms, we are totally depraved.
We are naturally, intuitively, painfully aware of our guilt too. A ubiquitous sense of shame goes with being a fallen creature. It’s what made Adam and Eve mask their nakedness with leaves. That’s a perfect metaphor for the futile ways people try to paper over the shame of their wickedness. They don’t want to face it. They try to eliminate that sense of guilt by adopting a more convenient kind of morality, or by silencing their crying conscience.  John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Paul (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2017), 27.
Natural men refuse to accept God’s verdict—they reject the evidence put forth in their prosecution by His Word. Sinners want nothing to do with their guilt, preferring to cling to delusions of personal goodness. Such false notions keep their self-esteem and false sense of respectability intact.
Conceding to God’s Verdict
The anthropology—that is, the doctrine of man—displayed by the repentant thief on the cross stands in sharp contrast to the default perspective of fallen humanity. We’ve already seen that the thief had excellent theology—he feared God. And his basic grasp of God’s holiness produced a sound and sober assessment of his own undeniable guilt.
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “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.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43 emphasis added)
Don’t assume that the thief was some petty criminal. It’s important to remember that Christ’s cross was originally intended for Barabbas—a violent insurrectionist and murderer (Luke 23:18–24). In all likelihood, the two thieves on either side of Jesus were probably convicted of similarly egregious crimes. They were utterly wicked men.
Yet amazingly, one of them was willing to humble himself and concede the judicial fairness of his punishment: “We indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” (Luke 23:41). The fact that he believed crucifixion was the just punishment for his crimes means he must have understood how evil his sins were. John MacArthur highlights the necessity of biblical anthropology as the natural companion to a right view of God.
Closely connected to fear of God’s judgment is the second evidence of a changed heart, a sense of sinfulness. The repentant thief’s further rebuke of the other malefactor reflects his acknowledgment of his own sinfulness. “We indeed are suffering justly,” he reminded him, “for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds.” Like the prodigal son in Christ’s parable (Luke 15:17–19), this man came to his senses and admitted that he was a sinner. He understood that justice operates in the world of men, but more perfectly in God’s realm.
Here is an example of the true convert who confesses his guilt and absolute spiritual bankruptcy. He recognizes that he has nothing to offer God, nothing to commend himself to Him. He knows that he needs mercy and grace to escape judgment and be forgiven, because he is an unworthy sinner, a crouching, cringing, cowering beggar mourning over his transgressions (Matthew 5:3–4).  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 18–24 (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 387.
That is the bad news sinners must accept before they can appreciate the good news of the gospel. They must acknowledge their need for a Savior in order for salvation to make sense. And they must understand the immense cost of their crimes—more on that next time.
The contrition and confession modeled by the thief is an extremely rare commodity in our therapeutic culture overflowing with victimhood. The whole world resonates with a false cry of innocence. As Solomon lamented, “All the ways of man are clean in his own sight” (Proverbs 16:2). “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness” (Proverb 20:6 KJV).
Just as all good theology begins with a reverential fear of God, it should also produce a biblical view of man. Like the thief, true Christians would sooner humble themselves than protest their innocence. We should go to the seminary we find in Luke 23:39–43, emulate the thief, and agree with God and what He says concerning our condition. The thief reminds us that it’s never too late to confess our sins.