A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

Sermon Index

Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/28/1996

Luke 23:32-43

The Thief on the Cross Luke 23:32 And two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up his garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if this one is the Christ of God, his Chosen One.” 36 And the soldiers also mocked him, coming up to him and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 Now there was also an inscription above him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” INTRODUCTION

We have been studying in the last few weeks the most profound and inexhaustible theme in all the Bible: the love of Jesus Christ for his own. For we have seen something of the magnitude of the price he paid for our redemption. We have seen his agony in Gethsemane, his betrayal by his friends, his rejection by his people, his mocking by Herod, his condemnation by Pilate, and his stumbling beneath the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. And now, finally nailed and dying, we see him still steadfast in his commitment to commend God’s love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. In the passage we reach today, all this is revealed in two ways: by the Prayer of the Savior, and by the Penitence of the Sinner.


“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The most astonishing thing about this whole prayer may be the context in which it was uttered. Let’s let one of the Roman soldiers, the centurion in charge, set the stage for us:

THE CENTURION SPEAKS Sonnet XLIX No question but it was a dirty job. The scourging by itself was bad enough; To drive the spikes, though, really takes a tough And calloused character. The women sob, The victim screams, and even as the mob Cries out for more, men wince. The really rough Part comes when all four soldiers huff and puff To raise upright the heavy wooden stob, For then the man’s own weight begins to work: The tendons crack, the flesh begins to tear— And when he thinks it’s more than he can bear, They drop him in the socket with a jerk. And after we did that, he said (it’s true!), “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (D.T.W.)

One feels out of one’s depth trying to say anything at all about such a mystery as this. But a few things we may attempt, as homage more than exposition. Something we need to consider is the Objects of this Prayer. Who is the “them” that Jesus wants to forgive? The nearest antecedent to the pronoun would be the Roman soldiers. They certainly fit the criterion: they literally had no idea what they were doing. They were just following orders. They certainly had not gotten up that morning and thought, “I think I’ll murder God’s Son today.” Yet they still needed forgiveness, for they had heard Pilate declare Jesus innocent, and so they knew that they were following unethical orders. They ought rather to have resigned or even faced death themselves rather than execute an innocent man. Isn’t that the way it is with all of us? We rarely have a full knowledge of what we are doing, for good or for ill. But we do know enough to know better. Yet Jesus wants people like us to be forgiven! He said this of these soldiers even as they were continuing the job of torturing and killing him. When you are tempted to think that you are too far gone to turn back, you need to remember that Jesus apparently intended for you to overhear this. For it applies to you as well.

The second group to be considered is the crowd on the hillside. These are the people who have been calling out for Jesus to be crucified and are now gawking and mocking at him. Their guilt is greater than that of the soldiers; they have less excuse than the soldiers, because they had heard Jesus teaching. But still they did not have a full understanding of what they were doing. They did not really know what it meant for Jesus to be the messiah in the first place, and they were caught up in an unthinking mob reaction. They are in their own way parallel with many of us, with our Christian backgrounds and our many opportunities to hear the Gospel. Truly they were, even more clearly than the Roman soldiers, without excuse—yet Jesus wants them to be forgiven too. From the very Cross on which they had demanded for him to be nailed, he asked it.

But there is a group here to whom this prayer does not apply. The Jewish rulers, the high priests and the Sanhedrin do not fit the criterion, for their ignorance was willful and culpable. Luke has shown them in this light consistently. “The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). “The one who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects the One who sent me” (10:16). “Woe to you, lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in, you hindered” (11:52). Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? And the Pharisees shuck and jive and equivocate, and Jesus tells them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (20:8). “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you a question, you will not answer” (22:67-8). No sin is excusable; the forgiveness for which Jesus prays is not dependant on that; it is dependant on God’s love and Christ’s atonement. But there is no forgiveness possible while the attitude of willful ignorance and knowing rejection prevails. As long as we are like that—well, if you will pardon the expression, we don’t have a prayer.

But for those who do not willfully remain ignorant and stubbornly turn away, the Importance of this Prayer can hardly be sufficiently emphasized. Not only does it reveal the unsearchable love of Christ, who at the very climax of his physical suffering prays for those who are causing it; not only does it reveal the spirit of forgiveness that we as his followers should also have; but what greater encouragement to our own repentance could there be? “I’m not good enough and never could be.” No, you’re not; no, you couldn’t; but what of that? This forgiveness isn’t about your worthiness; it’s about Christ’s. “You don’t know what I’ve done!” No, I don’t. But it would have to be worse than this not to be covered. Don’t even try to convince me of that! There is only one sin that excludes anyone from this forgiveness, and that is a knowing rebellion against the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, a willful rejection of the truth about him that you really know is true. The only thing that can exclude you from the power of this prayer is a stubborn refusal to accept it. Whatever the burden you are carrying, you can be forgiven! Give your life to Christ today. Having prayed such a prayer for such sinners at such a time, he will not refuse you.

It remains then to consider the Effects of this Prayer. Was it answered? Not for every individual in any ultimate sense, of course. They would all still have to make an individual decision to accept or reject God’s forgiveness. But a sure welcome was guaranteed by it to whosoever would come. And consider the fact that the whole crowd of them was not immediately exterminated for their presumption in killing and mocking the Son of God, as they ought to have been! As a generation, they were granted forty more years of opportunity for repentance before judgment fell on them in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. Was that not an answer to this prayer? And some of them, no doubt as a result of this prayer, were among the three thousand added to the church in Acts 2:41, or the others from Jerusalem who continued to be added in Acts 6:7. And let us not forget that the very fact that you are here today is an answer to this prayer! But there is one more effect of it that was much more immediate, and that is the response of the Thief on the Cross himself—which leads us to our next point.


The most immediate effect of Jesus’ prayer was the salvation of the convert we know as The Thief on the Cross. How do we know he was genuinely saved? First, because Jesus said so: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” But what interests me even more is the evidence of conversion shown by this man who had, of all men, the least opportunity to show any. There always is evidence of real conversion to Christ, you know. And if the Thief showed it, no other convert has any excuse not to! There is no genuine conversion without the accompanying evidence. Even the classic passage that most clearly eliminates the idea of salvation by good works also eliminates the idea of salvation without them. “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God that no man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created unto good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). Salvation is never by good works but it is always unto good works. Therefore any real conversion to Christ will always manifest itself in at least five ways. Even the Thief manages to exhibit them all in the few minutes of life he had left.

First, there is a Change of Attitude toward Jesus Christ. From Mark’s account of this event (15:31-32), we know that at first both criminals were mocking Jesus. Something—I suspect Jesus’ prayer might have had something to do with it—caused one of them to change his mind. He goes from mocking Christ to defending him, from participating in sin to rebuking it, from disbelief to trust, from dismissal to petition, from unbelief to faith. No one who is indifferent to the person of Christ can claim to have been converted to him or saved by him, whatever rigmarole he might have gone through during an altar call at some earlier point in his life, no matter what formula he recited at the instigation of some over zealous soul winner. The first sign of true conversion is a change of attitude toward Christ himself.

The second sign of true conversion is the sincere and heartfelt Confession of Sin. The Thief show this very clearly. “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” (vs. 41a). Salvation is about the forgiveness of sin. It is only for sinners—indeed, for people who have come to know what it is to be a sinner, who have at least some inkling of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. In Alcoholics Anonymous, every member introduces himself by saying, “Hello, I am so and so, and I am an alcoholic.” They aren’t practicing alcoholics any more; they are hopefully recovering alcoholics, though they may still stumble. But the first step to recovery is to fully face their problem and own up to it. The true church of Jesus Christ we could call “Sinaholics Anonymous.” Hello, my name is Don Williams, and I am a sinner. Can you say that? If we stumble at that point, we have not even made the first step in the journey. The second sign of true conversion is the sincere and heartfelt confession of sin.

The third sign of true conversion is a Public Confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Our Thief doesn’t have much chance to do this, but he takes the chance he has. “ But this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom” (vs. 41b-42). The confession is by implication: by asking Jesus to remember him he publicly confesses that he has come to accept Jesus as the true Messiah and put his faith in him. “For if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The third sign of true conversion is a public confession of Jesus Christ as savior and lord.

The fourth way that true conversion shows itself it through the Exercise of Faith. The only opportunity our Thief has for that is his very act of turning to Christ itself. But surely it is an exercise of faith in Christ, and one that stands in stark contrast to many other people standing around in this scene. The great exegete Alfred Plummer captures the contrast nicely: “Some saw Jesus raise the dead and did not believe; the Thief sees Jesus being put to death, and yet believes.” And so should we. The fourth sign of true conversion is the exercise of faith in Christ.

Finally, true conversion always manifests itself in a Change of Behavior. It is in that change of behavior that we see the Thief’s original change of attitude. Once he stole and tried to circumvent the law and justify himself; now he confesses that the law is just and he is a sinner. Once he reviled Jesus himself; now he not only stops doing it but cannot stand to have it done and rebukes the other thief. There is very little opportunity for this man to show his faith in his life, but in the few minutes he has, he avails himself of the opportunity. True conversion always manifests itself in a change of behavior.

The Thief is of course the classic example of the “deathbed conversion.” Yet he surpasses many of us in the clarity and forcefulness of his testimony for Christ, both in word and in deeds. Deathbed conversions may be real. This one shows that even they can manifest the signs of true faith. But be warned: if you plan to have a deathbed conversion, you put yourself in the category of those who “know” and thus potentially exclude yourself from Jesus’ prayer. That is a very dangerous thing to do!

What then are the Implications of this Conversion? We could mention that it refutes the doctrine of Purgatory, since this man had no opportunity to do penance for all his misdeeds. We could mention that it refutes the doctrine of “soul sleep,” for that very day—not thousands of years hence—the Thief was promised the enjoyment of Christ’s presence in Paradise. But much more significantly, we should emphasize the way in which it reinforces the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. This man had no opportunity to work his way to heaven. How could just a few words spoken in duress make up for his entire misspent life? He of all men was saved by God’s unmerited favor, by grace, by grace supremely, and by grace alone. And we should emphasize that he simultaneously emphasizes that fact that there is no salvation without repentance and a changed life—as the result, not the cause, of that salvation. If even the Thief on the Cross could manifest the signs of true conversion, surely we should expect to find them in ourselves if our faith is real! And we should not miss the fact that he completes the lessons of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. The characteristic note of Scripture always combines encouragement with warning. For both thieves heard the encouragement of Jesus praying for the Father to forgive them—but only one responded in faith and repentance. J. C. Ryle summarized that lesson well: “One was saved that no sinner might despair; one was lost that none might presume.” Let us then do neither!


What then do we learn from all of this? Everybody needs to be forgiven. Anybody can be forgiven. Not everybody will be forgiven. If you are not sure that you have been, then come forward during the Invitation Hymn and let us help you leave knowing that you are forgiven and will be saved. Why? Because Jesus himself asked for it. And therefore, he that cometh unto him, he will no wise cast out.

No question but it was a dirty job. The scourging by itself was bad enough; To drive the spikes, though, really takes a tough And calloused character. The women sob, The victim screams, and even as the mob Cries out for more, men wince. The really rough Part comes when all four soldiers huff and puff To raise upright the heavy wooden stob, For then the man’s own weight begins to work: The tendons crack, the flesh begins to tear— And when he thinks it’s more than he can bear, They drop him in the socket with a jerk. And after we did that, he said (it’s true!), “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 4/4/2008