“And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death” (Luke 23:32).

There were three crosses on Calvary. Of the central cross, Christian believers join with the Apostle Paul in exclaiming, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of the cross on which there was nailed the thief, who became penitent, Christians everywhere sing in Cowper’s lines:

The dying thief rejoiced to see

That fountain in his day;

And there may I, though vile as he,

Wash all my sins away.

Of the other cross and the man who was crucified thereon silence largely prevails.

Three men shared death upon a hill,

But only one man died;

The other two

A thief and God Himself

Made rendezvous.

Three crosses still

Are borne up Calvary’s hill,

Where sin still lifts them high;

Upon the one, sag broken men

Who, cursing, die;

Another holds the praying thief,

Or those, who, penitent as he,

Still find the Christ

Beside them on the tree.


The cross of the impenitent malefactor is not without its distinctive though solemn and awful symbolism.

Sin Is Punished

The fact that one of the malefactors, a hardened criminal and bandit, went to his execution affords the assurance that sin is often punished drastically in this life. We hear much about the prosperity of the wicked, a problem that vexed the Hebrew Psalmist and has never ceased to puzzle the thoughtful. We observe the evil men grow gray in their iniquity and seem to flourish like the green bay tree, with no apparent penalty shadowing their nefarious careers. President M. Woolsey Stryker of Hamilton College once said: “Sodom does not always burn; not every Korah fats the jaws of the earth” (p. 33, The Well by the Gate, M. W. Stryker, Presbyterian Pulpit Series). Here is a cross and an executed man demonstrating for all ages that crime does not pay, and that evil more often brings destruction upon the evildoer than it fails so to do. Here is a gallows proclaiming to mankind that the Bible is correct in its stem pronouncements: “The way of the transgressor is hard”; “The wicked shall not live out half their days”; “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”; “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”; “He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption”; “Be sure your sins will find you out”; “Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”

“We receive the due reward of our deeds,” was the comment of the thief who repented, to his companion on the opposite side of Christ. A man’s sins become the Frankenstein monster that accomplishes his undoing. Retribution for wickedness is more often realized in this world than not.

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Rejected Opportunities

The impenitent thief went out into the darkness of eternity with many inducements to repentance towards God, to which he made no slightest response, waiting to arrest his downward course.

In his penetrating study of the unrepentant malefactor, Frederick W. Robertson of Brighton, says: “Round the cross of the dying thief were accumulated such means as never before met together to bring a man to God.”

What were some of those circumstances which seemed peculiarly designed to lead a soul to God in contrition and faith?

There was the power of pain “often exerted in the soul to soften it.”

Out of my stony griefs

Bethel I’ll raise;

So by my woes to be

Nearer, my God, to Thee.

When he had tasted virtually all of his appointed cup of suffering and with a dread malignancy penetrating the inner recesses of his cranium, one of the accomplished scholars and leaders of the Presbyterian church, who died a score of years ago, told his friends that he would never exchange his last months of agony for any healthier days, so enriching had the last days proved in deepened insights in the things of the Spirit and the nature and will of God.

Alas, to the impenitent thief, suffering was not a savor of life unto life but of death unto death.

He was equally unmoved when he listened to the truth as it was preached by a very recent convert, his comrade in the anguish of crucifixion. Although the “intensity and earnestness of fresh love” characterized the pleas, this man was not stirred.

He had the unequalled privilege of hearing the truth preached from the lips of a dying man. The penitent thief exemplified the phrase of Baxter, the Puritan divine, who said that he always preached as never sure to preach again, a dying man to dying men.

He had the Lord Jesus himself beside him in the hour of his death. He listened to what Alfred North Whitehead calls in his Adventures of Ideas, “the tender words as life ebbed.” He hears what John Mason Neale, as he asked the great doctors of the early Church in one of his hymns how to gain the lore by which they established the truth, has them reply:

Dying gift of dying Master,

Which once uttered all was o’er;

Pillars seven of sevenfold wisdom.

Zion’s safeguard evermore.

This man, after a lifetime of crime, might have witnessed the majestic serenity and compassion that were Christ’s in his dying.

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With all of these encouragements to contrition and faith, this man was dead and dumb and blind to God, his own immortal soul’s welfare, and his terrible need of redemption from sin. No man ever leaves the world, dying in his sins, to use Christ’s own phrase, except as he has had repeated opportunities to forsake his wicked way, abandon his unrighteous thought, and turn to the God who will have mercy and abundantly pardon.

Irreverence And Derision

The impenitent thief had no sense of the sacred. “Dost thou not fear God?” was the question put to him by the thief who repented. Reverence was unknown to him.

In his Science and Philosophy, Dr. William E. Hocking challenges the moral right of the psychoanalyst to probe the depths of what should be an inviolate province reserved for a man and his God alone. Hocking’s position is well taken but one does not have to penetrate very deeply into the inner life of the impenitent robber to realize that this man had no regard for the eternal and invisible realities. He was enmeshed in temporalities. Witness his mad shriek to Jesus: “Save thyself and us!” He was concerned solely with an extension of life in this world. For a lifetime he had entertained no respect for the personalities and the bodies of his fellow men. He was determined only to exploit them. His irreverence reached the stage of vile derision and raillery. Cursing, blaspheming, sneering, raving, full of acrid mockery, he departs from the world.

Every generation has its ribald purveyors of bitter scorn at the Christian religion, ranging from those in the train of Celsus and Porphyry, who with sarcasm yet literary finesse attack the faith, to others, who in cheap and vulgar form, borrowed from long passe champions of unbelief, pour their contempt on all that is high and holy.

A wave of irreverence has swept over the modern world. You witness it in the theater, in current fiction, and on the street. You find it in widespread lawlessness and juvenile delinquency. It is to be noted in a marked degree in the desecration of the Lord’s Day and in the unabashed profanation in public of the hallowed names of the Trinity.

There are persons who have occupied positions of influence in the Christian church, yet who have treated the Bible as though it were a mere document of human literature, rather than the Word of God and a revelation of a supernatural character, which the unaided reason of man could not ascertain.

We find the same lack of reverence in persons who view with contempt those of other races and nations and differing religious views. The modern world and even the church itself stands in need of a revival of reverence.

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Folly Of Postponement

This man hanging on his cross, with no word of sorrow for his sin and no importuning of mercy from his Saviour, is a warning concerning the perils of late repentance. The penitent thief has long been regarded as the supreme example of deathbed repentance. Here is the proof that not every man in what Dr. Francis Landey Patton once called the toxic twilight of life’s day, turns to his God for absolution and acceptance.

Here was one who had never troubled himself about the spiritual phase of his existence. What did he care for the soul, whether his own or that of his neighbor, whom he viewed as a prospect for one of his acts of brigandage? He may have seen Jesus and heard him preach. Always he believed, it may have been, that he was an impressive imposter or a poetic dreamer. Surely, he thought within himself, Jesus had nothing to offer him in his situation. The opinions of the years became fixed. Robertson, writing while in his thirties, contended in one of his sermons that opinions are rarely altered after one attains the age of forty. That is, of course, a moot question. It is certain that a dulling rigidity marks the intellects of men as the years increase. Hostility to new ideas intensifies. Then at length weakness ensues, leaving no strength for vigorous and serious thought on life’s deepest issues.

We Die As We Live

Some persons are never granted what might be termed a dying hour. Without premonition, and in the twinkling of an eye, they lapse into a comatose state or pass suddenly through the gate of death itself. It was of this melancholy fate of meeting the unseen, unfit and unrepentant, that the Anglican litany speaks in the petition, “From sudden death, good Lord, deliver us.”

Most persons die as they have lived. It is the manner in which you have lived and thought in active years that will probably govern the fashion in which you will confront death. We must ask ourselves if we are living as we would wish to be when the summons comes for us to confront God and eternity.

The twilight shadows enfold Calvary and a Saviour who has finished his propitiatory sacrifice, and a man who, following a life of violence, found the homeward way, the Redeemer’s love and peace at the last. The shadows also encompass a man whose envenomed and godless tongue was active until the end and who faced death without hope and without God. He had been so impervious to the motions of conscience and the voice of God directed to his soul that for him conscience became insensitive. “Dost not thou fear God?” There is no sensible response from this man.

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The Old Testament portrays the disintegrating personality of King Saul who again and again spurned the counsel of the prophet Samuel, who was God’s special messenger to his soul. At length, Samuel withdrew from Saul. “Samuel called no more to see Saul until the day of his death.” That is parabolic of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the soul. When one constantly resists the motions of the divine Spirit, a point of no return is reached.

There is that sometimes baffling passage which tells that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh so persistently declined to give heed to God’s voice as mediated by his oracle, Moses, and through the signs and wonders by which God sought to speak to him, that at last the Spirit of God withdrew. There was, henceforth, no susceptibility on the Egyptian ruler’s part to the suggestions of the divine.

“Today, if ye would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” “Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.”

On which side of the cross of Jesus do you take your stand? Are you on the side of the man who repented, or are you on the side of the man who did not repent?

No one of us need find himself in the plight of this unhappy man. God waits for our confession of sin and faith. Will you go down to the end of your days as this man? Or will you look to the cross of Jesus and say with H. G. Stafford, as the penitent thief might well have said:

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—

My sin—not in part, but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!


Galbraith Hall Todd is the late Dr. Clarence E. Macartney’s successor in the pulpit of Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. Since 1948 he has been Lecturer in Homiletics at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia. This sermon is reprinted by permission from The Gamblers at Golgotha, a volume of Dr. Hall’s expositions just published by Baker.

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