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Remembered and redeemed.
Your forgiveness is sure because Christ has secured it through his passion and death.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
There are instances when churchgoers can glaze over when talking about the scene of the cross, which I think is owed to the fact that we know how the story ends, so to speak. By jumping ahead in the narrative to the empty tomb, we do a disservice to ourselves by not allowing the horrors of Calvary sufficiently shock or surprise us. Like watching your favorite movie for the hundredth time, reading the crucifixion narratives in the Gospels is best done with a moderate amount of forgetfulness. Luke’s rendition of those events should catch us off guard by how matter-of-fact it is reported. “Two others, who were criminals,” he writes, “were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:32–33). Absent are any dramatic pauses; only facts remain.
Luke’s version reads almost like a physician’s post-op report, which, of course, hints at his occupation. Additionally, it is in keeping with how we should consider the carnage of Calvary. There is no need to delve into all the graphic and gory details of what that afternoon looked like, precisely because any human description of the brutality of the cross wouldn’t go far enough. If Luke and the other Gospel writers were to indulge in relaying the minute-by-minute sufferings of Christ on the cross, that would actually be doing us a disfavor. It would limit our comprehension of Jesus’s agony and suffering to the borders of their depictions of it. By not recording all of those gruesome details, we are left to imagine in humble contemplation how horrific that scene was, which is often worse.
The closest account we get to the savagery of the cross is Isaiah 52:14, in which the prophet says that “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” Ages before the cross, Isaiah foresaw that the Savior’s cruciform suffering would be so great that he would barely even resemble a person. Which is to say, when we see the cross portrayed in any media, it’s never entirely accurate. Crucifixions were, essentially, elongated deaths. These horrid affairs often lasted for days, as the sufferer’s agony was purposefully prolonged. The Romans perfected this form of torture, augmenting every aspect to heighten the shame, disgrace, and humiliation of the crucified. This is why Roman crosses were often close to ground, bringing the trauma of a crucifixion painfully close to any and all passersby. The battered and bloodied bodies of the crucified served as disturbing reminders of what Rome was capable of: “If you resist, this is what you’ll get.”
Christ’s crucifixion, therefore, is the ultimate example of Christ taking the place of sinners. He hangs there among the worst of the worst, dying the death of a common criminal (Luke 23:32–33, 39). This, by the way, was Pilate’s way of sticking it to the Jews. But what Pilate meant as mockery was, in fact, a fulfillment of God’s Word. “Therefore,” says the prophet Isaiah, “I will divide him a portion with the many and he shall divide the spoil with the strong because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). The point being, this was Christ’s mission from the very start. “I have come to seek and to save the lost,” Jesus says (Luke 19:10). And there is no better portrait of what that looks like than the Christ of God ascending the cross and taking his place among the vilest of criminals and foulest of sinners in their place of death.
The Jewish jesters and the scoffing soldiers bellow at the Lord in his languor, mocking the notion that he, as weak and emaciated as he was, could be “the Chosen One” of God. “If you are who you say you are, then come down off the cross, save yourself!” the mob jeers. Little did those jesters and scoffers realize that unless he stayed on the cross, he couldn’t be the Redeemer. Tempting Jesus to “save himself” is nothing but an attempt to rob him of his very identity as the world’s Savior. This, you see, is the culmination of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as well as Peter’s words from a few hours prior, all of which had a mind for Jesus to forgo the cross altogether. But to forgo the cross would be to forfeit salvation. The cross, with all its blood-soaked horror and humiliation, splinters and spit, is God’s salvation of sinners in action.
Case in point, while this horrific display of shame and mockery carries on, what is Jesus doing? He’s shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins. “Father forgive them,” he says from the cross, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). God in Christ stares down those who are mocking him and ridiculing him and beating him and says, “You are forgiven. You are absolved. In the reservoir of my blood, you are made whiter than snow.” Even as he was dying, the heart of God poured itself out for sake of sinners.
As the racket intensifies, one of the criminals hanging next to Jesus joins in and starts railing on him. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he cries (Luke 23:39). This, of course, is nothing but a last-ditch effort to cheat death and save his own skin. “If you can do something, do it already!” he shouts. Such is when the other criminal speaks up, reprimanding his fellow-malefactor. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” he probes. “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40–41). While the first criminal was only concerned about himself, the second criminal somehow understands that something deeper was occurring that afternoon.
He perceives a difference in the Man on the middle cross. While they were being hung for crimes they committed, this Man was not. He was being hung even though he was innocent. This thief recognizes that this Man wasn’t getting what he deserved, even though they were, prompting his desperate plea: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Much time and energy has been expended in an attempt to parse what this thief confesses in order to ascertain what he knew. Did this thief know that Jesus was the Messiah? Did he know that Jesus was the Savior? Did he believe in a resurrection? What was his understanding of the eternal kingdom? Did he, perhaps, know something from his childhood days in the local synagogue?
Frankly, those are unanswerable questions — and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what this thief knew or even how much he knew. It only matter Who he knew. His confession is an expression of trust, of hope beyond hope, that the Man dying next to him was more than a mere man, even if he didn’t fully know what that meant. His closeness to Jesus, to grace incarnate, to God in the flesh, brought about his surprising and sudden confession. He knew himself to be a sinner of the worst sort. What’s more, he knew that he was dying. Thus, he repents and flings all of his faith onto the shoulders of the One who was dying next to him. Little did he know that his desperate cry for pardon was the very thing for which Jesus was bleeding out.
Gaspingly but unfailingly, the Lord replies to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This statement has, likewise, begotten no shortage of debate, leaving scholars and students to ponder, What does the Lord mean by “today”? And what does he mean by “paradise”? Theories abound on those points. But, for my own part, the simplest explanation is often the right one. “Today” means “right then and there”; in the exact moment of death, that thief would be with the Lord. With him where? “In paradise,” that is, “the place of blessedness,” which is the same Greek word the Septuagint uses for the Garden of Eden. Consequently, the dying Savior gives this thief the guarantee that upon his confession of faith, he would be “with him” in the New Eden that he was then and there establishing by his passion and death. That criminal closed his eyes in death and opened them again to new life in glory. And the point is, that criminal is all of us.
I once got sucked into an online debate with a “friend” about this very text. My friend insisted that what Jesus did for this criminal was an outlier, an anomaly, an exception to the rule for the way God normally works. After all, this thief did not “bear fruit” or join a church or grow in grace or participate in discipleship or do any of those things we normally associate with someone being a “Christian.” And yet, Jesus pardons him anyway — which for my friend meant that this was a special case of grace. One that shouldn’t be looked to as normative within the paradigm of the gospel. But, needless to say, my friend was wrong. Because Jesus’s absolution of the thief on the cross is how grace always works.
That thief hanging adjacent to the dying Savior did nothing, zilch, nada to secure his spot in the Good Place. He believed, as faint as that belief was, and Jesus said, “That’ll do.” And he could say that precisely because he was already doing everything necessary for that thief’s salvation, as well as the soldiers’ and the mob’s and his disciples’ and the world’s, along with yours and mine. He was buying every last sinner’s only hope with his very own blood — that is, he was securing and enacting the good news: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). That thief was never baptized, never discipled, never memorized a verse, never learned about church, never did any “Christian” things. And yet, at the same time, he probably did the most “Christian” thing there is: repent and believe.
This, to be sure, doesn’t mean that going to church, engaging in discipleship, getting baptized, studying the Scriptures, and the like, are activities we are free to set aside willy-nilly. Rather, those things are the express privileges, gifts, and blessings which God in Christ delights to bestow upon us in his grace, the “good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We should pity this thief that he never got to enjoy the fellowship of the redeemed. He never got a chance to celebrate Christ in worship through the Word and the sacraments. He never got an opportunity grow in grace with fellow sinners. But the point is this: if you were to die right now, what would you point to as evidence that you are redeemed? What would you say if you were asked to give proof that you are a son or daughter of the Living God?
If you point to anything other than the Christ on the cross, you’re wrong, dead wrong, in fact. Whatever else you might’ve done in hopes of getting into God’s good graces is not going to cut it. God’s law is that strict. It doesn’t accept good effort, it demands perfection. Up against that, we’re all just as hopeless as that feckless thief on the cross. We deserve death because of our sin. That is the wage we are owed (Rom. 6:23). But, like this thief, our pitiful confessions are greeted with the surest pronouncement of pardon. He was given the gift of Jesus’s vicarious life and death, even before the Lord had “breathed his last” and given up his spirit (Mark 15:37; John 19:30). That thief was the first recipient of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Your forgiveness and mine is just as sure — sure and certain because Christ has secured it through his passion and death. He has finished the work of reconciliation, such that the worst of the worst and the vilest of the vile are welcome to fall on him and find salvation to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25). He saves the worst because he took the place of the worst when he went to the cross. He swallows up every last drop of judgment reserved for you. Indeed, the good news is that there is no judgment awaiting you that God’s own Son hasn’t already endured on your behalf. Jesus has cleared your record and mine, wiping it clean with his own blood. The verdict has already been passed. “No condemnation,” announces the Judge. And this court never tries a case twice. Your case of sin isn’t at risk for being re-opened or re-adjudicated.
Your hope of forgiveness is sure because of Jesus. He gifts that to you in the giving of his own self on the cross. The assurance of God’s pardon isn’t something we have to work our way into, it’s not something we have to win by our own effort. It’s yours by faith because of what Christ has already accomplished. You are remembered and redeemed because of one thing and one thing only: the Christ who stayed on the cross and died for your forgiveness.