Two criminals hang next to Jesus. One mocks him, but the other recognizes his innocence. And the repentant criminal, an outcast from society and written off by everyone (whose name we don’t even know) receives eternal life. He reaches out in faith to the Savior suffering next to him and hears, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The salvation of the thief on the cross gives hope to every sinner. It’s an astounding picture of the sheer grace of God. This account tells us that even the worst of the worst—someone guilty of countless crimes—can receive forgiveness through Jesus and access to God. The cross of Christ gives anyone who repents—including the vilest offender—a pardon.
Two Scandals: Exclusivity and Forgiveness
In our day, it’s distasteful to believe the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus is the only way to God. There must be other ways! Surely a good person who doesn’t do too many bad things in this life isn’t going to face judgment after death, right? People in our day find it offensive to believe that good people who die without trusting in Christ will face eternal condemnation.
Perhaps we should counter that objection with a bigger one: That’s only half of it! Yes, Christians believe that a nice, moral person who dies without Jesus is lost forever. But you know what else we believe? The worst criminal in history who dies as a repentant person, trusting in Jesus, is saved.
Consider the example of Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer who murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys. His crimes are the most horrifying things you can imagine. They defy comprehension. Dahmer was captured in 1991 and imprisoned. He died in 1994 when a fellow inmate beat him to death. But before he died, when he was in prison, it is said he repented of his sinful past and put his faith in Christ.
Could it be possible that Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most evil men to ever live, was granted eternal life? And could it be possible that a sweet old lady who never trusts in Christ would face judgment?
If that scenario bothers you (because you think the awful criminal deserves eternal judgment, but the kind, decent woman deserves eternal life), you haven’t truly grasped just how radical the gospel of grace is. It means that, deep down, you still think good people go to heaven and bad people to go hell.
But the gospel shatters that whole way of thinking. Scripturally speaking, there are no good people. We all have sinned. We have turned away like sheep and gone astray. We all have raised a fist toward our Maker to say, “I want my life my way!”
The radical message of the gospel is that our problem—sin—is worse than anything we could ever imagine. But also that the solution—grace—is better than anything we could ever deserve. Through repentance and faith, any sinner no matter how great the offense receives access to God through the cross of Jesus Christ. Hell is full of people who think they deserve heaven. Heaven is full of people who know they deserve hell.
We’re all criminals, and we’re all on one side of the cross or the other from Jesus. Either we’re like the criminal who mocks the Savior and trusts in himself, or we’re like the criminal who whispers: “I deserve this fate. Remember me, Lord, in your kingdom.”
The cross gives anyone who believes access to God through repentance and faith. It isn’t the magnitude of the crimes, but the magnitude of God’s grace that matters for salvation.
Torn Curtain and Divine Access
The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus died, the curtain was torn. The veil in the temple that separated the holiest part of the temple from the rest of the building was ripped from top to bottom, in order to signify that anyone could now come into God’s throne room of grace. Hebrews 10:19-22:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus—he has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)—and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
There is an entrance made for the greatest sinners. If there had only been a small hole cut through it, the lesser offenders might have crept through; but what an act of abounding mercy is this, that the veil is rent in the midst, from top to bottom, so the chief of sinners may find ample passage!
Access is available to all. The worst offenders. The most evil of sinners. Mercy and grace and forgiveness—all available through the cross of Jesus. He has taken the judgment that the worst sinner deserves. And that’s the scandal of sheer grace that should drive us to our knees in gratitude and worship.