In his book, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit, James Buchanan has much to say about the work of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of sinners. After dealing at length with the necessity and nature of that work in the first section of the book, he includes a section devoted to what he calls “illustrative cases” or examples from the pages of Scripture of the Holy Spirit bringing various individuals to saving faith in Christ. Among these examples are the Philippian jailer, the Apostle Paul, Cornelius the Centurion, and others. All of these examples are instructive and encouraging in many ways, but of particular note is his treatment of the conversion of the thief on the cross.
Luke 23:32-33 tells us that there were two “criminals” who were led away to be put to death alongside of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they were crucified with Him, “one on his right and one on his left” (ESV). In Luke 23:39-43 it is written:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”” (ESV)
Here we are told of the marvel of the grace and power of God in saving a sinner, even at the 11th hour, so to speak. While one of the criminals was railing at Jesus for not saving Himself and them, the other man rebuked him for it, even going so far as to remind him that both of them were justly “under the same sentence of condemnation” and deserved to die, while the Lord Jesus had “done nothing wrong.”
And then he spoke to Jesus as well, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (v.42, ESV) What faith! And the Lord Jesus saved him, didn’t He? He told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). While one of the criminals railed at Jesus for not saving him from the sentence of death that he rightly deserved; the other believed on Jesus and was indeed saved, not from crucifixion, but from his sins!
Buchanan offers no less than five (5) lessons that all sinners may derive from this account of the conversion of the thief on the cross:
First, he says that it “exhibits a remarkable proof of the Savior’s power.” (p.151) The fact that the Lord Jesus was willing and able to save such a one as this thief, who was no doubt in many ways as vile and notorious a sinner as can be found among men, teaches us that the Lord Jesus really is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25, ESV). Buchanan reminds us that Christ indeed has the power “to subdue the most hardened sinner,” as well as to “cancel the most aggravated guilt,” and even to “open the gate of heaven, and secure our admission there” is all demonstrated and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by the conversion of the thief on the cross. Let no sinner, no matter how guilty, corrupt, and even notorious, despair of Christ’s willingness to save any and all who repent of their sin and turn to Him by faith for salvation!
The second lesson that Buchanan points out is that the conversion of the thief “exhibits a precious proof of the perfect freeness of his grace.” (Ibid) What could a sinner like this thief ever hope to do on his own, through his own effort and works, to save himself? Nothing! He had no righteousness of his own to offer, no works, and could not even offer up or promise the reformation of his life henceforth from that day if the Savior were to show mercy. The only thing that could possibly save him (and really any other sinner as well) was the free and unmerited grace of God alone! As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (ESV) Each and every sinner that has been or ever will be saved from the wrath to come, will be saved exactly the same way as that thief on the cross – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone!
The third lesson we may learn from the conversion of the thief on the cross is that it may well serve to guard us against the twin dangers of presumption and despair. He notes, “It has been remarked, that in the Bible this is a solitary example of a man being converted at the hour of death; there being one such instance that none may despair, and only one, that none may presume.” (p.152) So let no one presume that he or she can continue on in the course of unrepentance and sin, and will always have the opportunity to turn to Christ for salvation later, since one and only one of the thieves was saved at the 11th hour. But at the same time let no one despair of Christ’s power and willingness to save even them at the 11th hour, because the Lord Jesus so wonderfully saved this one thief on the cross, snatching him as a brand from the fire!
Fourth, he says that “[w]e learn from this narrative how little of God’s truth may serve for conversion, if it be suitably improved by the hearer, and savingly applied by the Spirit.” (Ibid) Now this is not to minimize the truths regarding Christ’s person and work that he indeed believed. No one should take the example of the conversion of the thief on the cross as a license to attenuate or minimize the truth of the gospel in any way. But the fact that we cannot always teach sinners everything all at once should not serve to discourage us from sowing the seeds of the gospel at times even in the most brief and simple terms, trusting that the Holy Spirit is more than able to use it unto the conversion of sinners.
Last but not least, he says that here we learn “that on the instant of his conversion, a sinner acquires all the rights and privileges of a child of God, and that if he die immediately thereafter, he will immediately pass into glory.” (Ibid) What a wonderful truth! What a comfort and encouragement even to those who are converted on their deathbeds! The thief on the cross was told simply, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, ESV) No probation, no purgatory, no delay. He was in many wonderful ways as saved as he was ever going to be the moment he believed on Christ for salvation! He was immediately as justified, forgiven and accepted, adopted, and reconciled to God as he would ever be!
Truly the example of the conversion of the thief on the cross has much to teach us about the Lord’s power and willingness to save even the worst of sinners, and even at the 11th hour at that! As the Apostle Paul himself tells us in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (ESV) He not only came to save sinners, but He even saved one particular sinner as He Himself was dying on the cross!