About a year ago, I was witnessing to a young woman at the AT&T store while our family was getting help setting up a phone. I’ll never forget the response that the young woman gave me when I told her about God’s saving grace for sinners. She responded by saying she could not believe that God would forgive and pardon a murderer or a child molester. In her mind, these were the worst of sinners who deserved nothing but God’s wrath. And in fact, she went on to say that forgiveness by God would make him outrageously horrible. Well the woman rightly understood the justice of God, but what she did not understand was the mercy of God. She also failed to understand that all sin is equally wicked before God so that every sinful human deserves the wrath of God (Rom 3:23).
From a human perspective it does seem that God’s grace toward the worst of sinners would be unbalanced. But this is the message of the cross and the message of Good Friday. As a child, one of the first questions I asked about Passion Week was, “Why is Friday called ‘Good Friday?’” It didn’t seem like a good day at all! Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, was crucified on a horrible cross unjustly. But when you understand the story, it is clear that the “good” part of Friday is that Jesus provides forgiving and extravagant grace to sinners, yes even to the worst of sinners. The valuable lesson we learn from the Good Friday story is that God’s grace is extravagant! The cross of Christ makes grace available to all sinners regardless of their wickedness saving them not by works but through faith in Christ alone (Rom 5:10, Eph 2:8-9, Tit 3:5)!
There is no greater story to display this extravagant grace than the story of the two thieves who hung on the cross next to Jesus on that “Good Friday.” The criminals were hung on the cross with Jesus from the third hour (9am) to the ninth hour (3pm) for a totally of 6 hours (Mark 15:15, 33). They were both there, suffering the just punishment of their sins, while Jesus suffered unjustly. Both of the thieves were sentenced to death because of their wicked deeds. Luke tells us that both of the men were criminals (Luke 23:32). Mark’s Gospel tell us that these men were “rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). So, these men were the worst of men (Is 53:12).
And yet over those six hours, one criminal’s heart began to change. And in the last hours of his life, one criminal began to seek the Lord’s forgiveness and began to exercise faith in Christ. While the man did not hear a sermon, he certainly had seen the placard that was put above the head of Jesus declaring Jesus to be the “King of the Jews.” He had probably also heard about all the miracles that Jesus had done. It would be difficult to believe that anyone in Israel had not heard about Jesus, His words and His works. And also, the criminal heard firsthand the soft gentle words of Jesus asking His heavenly Father to forgive those who were killing Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In a moment, this one criminal began to exercise faith in Christ. His faith is evidenced in a couple of ways.
Repentance of Sinfulness: First, the criminal’s mind and heart began to change about his own sinfulness. He began to recognize and acknowledge his own wretchedness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that at first the man began to hurl insults at Jesus (Mt 27:44). But then something radically changed in his heart. When the other criminal began to mock Jesus, this criminal began to rebuke him saying, “Don’t you even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:39-41). What a change! This man now began to have a sense of the holiness of God. As he hung there naked, he began to fear God, maybe for the very first time realizing his own sinfulness. And his repentance was further evidenced by his efforts to witness to the other criminal.
Recognition of Jesus: Second, the man’s faith began to understand who Jesus truly was. First, the man acknowledged that Jesus was innocent. Second, He recognized that Jesus was truly a King. About three hours before his death (at the 6th hour), the man made a remarkable request. He begged Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). The criminal acknowledged by this statement that he truly believed that Jesus was a king and had a future kingdom.
Now this is where the story turns dramatically. Humanly speaking we would expect condemnation. But Jesus extends grace to this wretched sinner in the last moments of his life. The criminal’s faith was small at best, and only had a few hours of works to prove itself. But it was enough for Jesus to tell him emphatically, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Jesus promised him salvation immediately. Instead of going to Hell, this man was going to be with Jesus in heaven for all eternity.
Both men died along with Jesus. But their eternal destinies were totally different. The unrepentant criminal died and immediately went to hell, while the repentant criminal who had put his faith in Christ went straight to heaven. Steve Lawson said, “People who go to hell deserve to be there. People who go to heaven do not deserve to be there. The first is justice, the second is grace.”
There are many valuable lessons from this story. For sure, as long any one has breath, there is opportunity to repent and believe on Jesus Christ for salvation. It is never too late, until death comes. But the major lesson of this story is about the extraordinary grace of Christ to even the worst of sinners. This story teaches us that the blood of Jesus is greater than all our sin. There is never a sin too great for the blood of Jesus to forgive (except the rejection of Jesus). Yes, even murderers can be forgiven of their sin (1 Tim 1:12-17).
This story should help us understand why “Good Friday” is good! It is good for wretched sinners who put their trust in the cross work of Jesus and His atonement for sin. It is good because sinners can be saved by extravagant grace. While the world may not forgive, God is both just and the justifier of those who put their faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:26). Just like the criminal, we are all saved by grace alone.