If you’ve ever driven along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you might have seen a sign that says, “Eastern Continental Divide.” It’s the line that marks the eastward and westward slopes of our continent. Raindrops that fall even an inch to the west of the divide will flow westward toward the Mississippi River; those that fall to the east go all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So, two raindrops that land one centimeter apart could end up in oceans thousands of miles apart.
The story of the two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus in Luke 23 shows the dividing line in eternity—two men in very similar life situations fall on opposite sides of this line and end up eternities apart.
Your life will be represented in one of them.
These two guys had quite a bit in common. They were equally bad. The text doesn’t say one was worse than the other. In fact, Matthew tells us that both started out cursing Jesus. And both criminals would have been happy for Jesus to save them from death.
But one thief began to understand some things, things that are necessary for true conversion then and today. These three things mark the dividing line of all eternity.
1. The repentant thief understood the difference in seeking help from God and seeking God for himself.
The repentant thief never asks to be taken down from the cross. All that he is concerned about is being right with Jesus. This thief realizes that what he needs is not a change in circumstance but a change in what his life is centered on. Instead of asking God for the life he wants, he wants to make God his life.
There’s a big difference between loving God for himself and finding him as a useful means to an end.
John Piper says that many people relate to God like a tire iron. Tire irons are a really useful instrument, very helpful in a pinch. But nobody really loves a tire iron. You don’t display it proudly. You hide it in the trunk. You wouldn’t want to be caught without it, but you don’t love it.
That’s how many of us see God. He’s useful for some end we need him for—peace in life, a stable family, going to heaven when we die—but not beautiful in and of himself.
Which of those better describes how you see God? Useful or beautiful? Do you look to God for the life you want, or do you want to make God your life?
2. The repentant thief understood his guilt before God.
Tim Keller says that this thief says something that’s impossible to admit without God’s help: “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.”
The word the other Gospels use for the two thieves is lestes, which means something like insurrectionist. They were freedom fighters. So there’s no way he would say that he’s justly being put to death by Rome, because he believed that he was fighting for justice. He’s saying, “We deserve to be abandoned by God, to be punished for our sins.”
Repentance recognizes that sin is first and foremost against God. It is first vertical before it is horizontal. There is a difference between feeling remorse for the mess sin has made of your life and feeling repentance toward God about it.
The sadness you feel about your sin—is it because of what your sin has done to God, to others, or to you?
God is the main one you’ve sinned against. As long as you think only about the horizontal dimensions of your sin (“I hurt my wife,” “I failed my kids”), you’ll never really change.
Do you look to God for the life you want, or do you want to make God your life?
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3. The repentant thief boldly dared upon Jesus’ grace.
When you think about it, what this thief asks is a crazy request: “I know you are the perfect Lord from heaven, but whenever you get to wherever it is you are going, will you stop and remember a guy you knew for about 30 minutes who had done nothing worthy in his life and was being executed for murder and treason?”
The only thing crazier than the request is that Jesus grants it.
Why would Jesus do that? What did he have to gain from granting this guy’s request? This guy is never going to do anything useful for Jesus or the church. He won’t lead anyone else to Christ; he won’t be giving a tithe; he isn’t headed on any short-term mission trips.
Yet Jesus grants his request. Why? Grace. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace.”
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.
You may have spoiled your life away. You may not have anything else. But you have the ability to pray and reach out to him—to seek God for himself, to repent, to claim his grace—and that is enough!
For more, be sure to listen to the entire message here.