You can be as “lucky” as the penitent criminal was, although the Bible teaches that salvation is not a matter of luck. Salvation is a matter of God giving his grace. You can receive that grace. You can meet Jesus at the cross the way the penitent criminal did. But you have to admit that you are sinful and confess that Jesus is sinless. You have to ask Jesus for the eternal, personal salvation that he offers.
The thief on the cross had to be the luckiest man alive. He was nothing more than a lowlife criminal, a loser. He had com- mitted a crime. He was convicted for it, and he was crucified for it. So he had no future; he was going nowhere; or, worse, he was going to hell. Yet of all the criminals, on all the crosses, on all the hills in the Roman Empire, he was crucified next to Jesus Christ.
Just before he died, just before he plunged into the abyss of eternity, at the last possible instant, he received the gift of eternal life. If he had died on any other cross, at any other time, in any other place, he would have been forgotten forever. But he did not die on any other cross, at any other time, in any other place. He died at the Place of the Skull, outside Jerusalem, on a cross right next to the cross Jesus died on. Because he died on that cross, he was able to ask for eternal life and hear the beautiful words that Jesus spoke from the cross: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” He not only heard those words—he went to heaven that very day and has been there ever since.
If that sounds pretty lucky, you can be just as “lucky.” That penitent thief did not get anything from Jesus that you cannot get from him. You can meet Jesus at the cross the same way he did. You do not even have to be crucified for your troubles. But you do have to do three things this bandit did.
Facing Up to Sin
First, you have to admit you are a sinner. Salvation is for sinners. By sinner, I mean someone who lives life in rebellion against God. That rebellion includes everything you might think of as sin—like lying, stealing, adultery, and hypocrisy—and a few things you might not think of—like impatience, greed, pride, unforgiveness, and prayerlessness.
You might think it would be easy for a convicted criminal, dying on a cross, to admit that he is a sinner living in rebellion against God. Not so. There were two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, one on either side of him, but only one of them repented. The other criminal refused to admit he was a sinner. The Bible says, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at [Jesus]: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” (v. 39). There was no way he was going to admit he had done anything wrong. He was the kind of man who always looks for someone who is in worse shape than he is, someone he can kick when he is down. Even when he was dying a death by slow torture, he took advantage of his opportunity to pour abuse on the Savior of the world.
It is not easy for sinners to admit that they are sinners. It can be the hardest confession a sinner ever makes. We usually try to make ourselves feel better by finding someone who is worse than we are so we do not have to deal with our own guilty consciences. The minds of sinners are confused. They cannot see clearly into their own hearts. They do not realize how rebellious they are. They do not understand how much God hates sin.
That is what makes the confession of the penitent criminal, the criminal who became Jesus’s friend, so amazing. He said to the unrepentant criminal who was hurling insults at Jesus, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” He admitted he was a sinner. He admitted that it was right for him to die for his sins. He admitted that his crucifixion was only a matter of getting his just deserts.
He also admitted that his sins were an offense against God, not just an offense against humanity. Dying on a cross put the fear of God into him. It should have, because a sinner who lives in rebellion against God ought to be afraid of God. Your own con- science will tell you that you ought to be afraid of God . . . if you listen to it. This man listened to his conscience, and he was moved to admit that he was a sinner who deserved to die for his sins. He knew that he deserved not only a physical death at the hands of Rome, but also a spiritual death at the hands of God.
You cannot take your sins with you to paradise. If you want to go there, you have to admit that you are a sinner and thus take the first step to having them removed through faith in Christ.
Confessing That Jesus Is Sinless
You will also have to confess that Jesus was not a sinner. That is the second thing the penitent criminal did: he confessed that Jesus is the perfect Son of God. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Even though he himself was a sinner, he could tell that Jesus Christ was sinless. It was obvious to him that Jesus had done nothing wrong.
He seems to have figured that out while he was dying on his own cross. Remember the first thing Jesus said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The penitent criminal heard those words, and he must have been moved by the forgiving heart of God that was revealed in Jesus’s prayer. He rightly concluded that a man who could pray for his enemies like that must be a perfect man.
In any case, what the penitent criminal said about Jesus was true. Jesus was innocent. He was illegally incarcerated, falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and unjustly executed. It was the greatest miscarriage of justice the world has ever known. Study the teachings of Jesus, and you will see how good and true all his words were. Examine the biography of Jesus, and you will see how right and perfect all his actions were. The more you get to know Jesus, the clearer it becomes that he was the perfect Son of God. You must confess that Jesus is sinless if you want to get to paradise.
Asking for What Jesus Offers
There is one more thing you must do, and that is ask for the salvation Jesus offers. One of the remarkable things about Luke’s history of the two criminals crucified with Jesus is that both of them asked for salvation. Have you ever noticed this? “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at [Jesus]: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” This man met Jesus Christ face to face at the cross; he asked for salvation, and he did not receive it! That fact should terrify us. It is possible to meet Jesus at the cross and fail to receive salvation!
How is that possible? Both thieves were bad men, and they both asked for salvation. So why didn’t they both receive salvation? How can it be that only one thief went to paradise?
For one thing, the unrepentant criminal was not sincere when he asked for salvation. He was insulting Jesus, abusing him with sarcasm. “Aren’t you the Christ?” he sneered. He was asking Jesus for salvation with his lips, but he was not trusting Jesus for salvation in his heart. He did not accept Jesus as King.
But there was another problem with his request. He was not asking for the salvation that Jesus actually offers. “Save yourself and us!” he said. That is to say, “Climb down off that cross and get me out of this mess!” He was not asking for eternal life so much as he was trying to save his skin. He was not trying to get salvation for his soul in the life to come; he was only trying to get protection for his body in the here and now.
Jesus could have delivered that criminal from the cross, of course, but he had more important things to do, like paying for the sins of his people, winning a permanent victory over death, and opening up the pathway to eternal life.
The penitent criminal who became Jesus’s friend and was invited to paradise must have understood some of these things because he did just the opposite of what the unrepentant criminal did: he asked Jesus for the salvation Jesus actually offers. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The penitent thief was asking for an eternal salvation. He was asking for something from Jesus in the future, asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his kingdom. He was not asking to be delivered from the temporary and momentary troubles of this life. He was asking for a lasting and permanent salvation.
The penitent thief also seems to have understood that he would have to wait for that salvation until Jesus had finished his business on the cross. Jesus could not have saved anyone if he had climbed down from the cross. That was part of the unrepentant criminal’s problem: he wanted Jesus to leave the cross. But Jesus had to stay on the cross to win salvation. He had to die first before he could save anybody. Only after he had finished dying for sins could he offer salvation.
The penitent thief was also asking for a personal salvation. Notice how he addressed the man next to him on the cross. He called him “Jesus.” That is not found anywhere else in the Gospels.
Usually people addressed Jesus as “Teacher” or “Master.” But this man, convicted criminal that he was, addressed Jesus intimately by his first name. He talked to him in a personal way because he was asking him for a personal salvation.
That is the kind of salvation to ask for because it is exactly the kind of salvation Jesus offers. When we hear what Jesus said on the cross to this penitent criminal, we think the important word is “paradise.” It is true that Jesus has gone to prepare a place in heaven for every sinner who repents (see John 14:1–6), but salvation is not really about paradise. What Jesus offers is better than paradise. He offers intimacy with himself. “Today you will be with me,” Jesus said. Being with Jesus is what makes paradise paradise. As that penitent criminal hung on his own cross, he finally found the personal relationship he had been waiting for his whole life—a personal, intimate love relationship with the living God.
You can have the same thing. You can be as “lucky” as the penitent criminal was, although the Bible teaches that salvation is not a matter of luck. Salvation is a matter of God giving his grace. You can receive that grace. You can meet Jesus at the cross the way the penitent criminal did. But you have to admit that you are sinful and confess that Jesus is sinless. You have to ask Jesus for the eternal, personal salvation that he offers. When you do, Jesus will give you the same answer he gave to the criminal: “I tell you the truth, . . . you will be with me in paradise.”
This is an excerpt taken from the reprinted edition of the book The Heart of the Cross by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. Originally published in 1999 by Crossway. Reprinted in 2022 by P&R Publishing in hardcover. Printed with permission.