Revive Our Hearts Podcast

The Word of Assurance

Leslie Basham: Here's Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I have a dear friend whose father died recently after a long illness. Her dad was a long-time believer in Christ. My friend is convinced her dad knew the Lord and is in heaven with Christ. But my friend's mom has been struggling with doubts about what happens to her husband. She has said it to my friend over and over again: “Do you think he’s really in heaven?”

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Wednesday, March 25, 2015.

For several weeks Nancy has led us in a meaningful study called "The Incomparable Christ." We're focusing on aspects of Jesus' life and ministry during these days leading up to Resurrection Sunday. We're in a portion of the study focusing on the last words of Jesus.

Nancy: How many in this room would say that you have ever struggled with doubts or fears over what happens after death, whether your own death, or that of a loved one? Anybody here that would say that? Lots and lots in this room. Well, the seven words of Jesus from the cross that we're looking at in this series began with a prayer for pardon for Jesus' enemies. We looked at that yesterday.

Today, we come to that second statement from the cross, which is a  word of assurance. This is a beautiful, wonderful word that can settle doubts—doubts about what happens after our death or death of a loved one.

We want to pick up in the Scripture today where we left off yesterday in Luke’s account, Luke 23. Let me just go back a couple verses to verse 32 to give us the context for this word.

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"” (vv. 32–37).

So we have here abuse being hurled at Christ from the crowd, Roman soldiers, and from the religious rulers. And then, verse 39, also from the criminals. “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him [or the word there is blasphemed him], saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!'"

Now in Luke's account, it only refers to one of the criminals scoffing and scorning Christ in this way. But if you compare Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the same scene, you realize it was not just one criminal but both of the criminals who jeered at Jesus. “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matt. 27:44).

So it was not just one but both of these criminals. In their dying moments, they were blaspheming the only one who could save them. Then at some point, unexplainable apart from the intervening grace of God, one of those criminals had a change of heart. That's what we read about in Luke 23:40.

But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (vv. 40–42).

Here we have just an incredible picture of the sovereign work of God in salvation. How the grace of God penetrates this man's hardened heart. God opens his eyes, changes his heart, and  gives him the gift of repentance and faith. Let me just remind us that not one of us would have come to Christ in repentance and faith if the grace of God had not opened our hearts, opened our eyes, given us that gift of repentance and faith. It's a sovereign work of God. We did not choose Him. He chose us. We see this here in the conversion and the penitence of this dying thief.

Now, when did that point of change of heart come about? What brought it about? Well, the Scripture doesn’t tell us. In God's providence, these things are generally unseen and mysterious. We don't know the inner workings of the Spirit in our hearts or someone else's heart. But think about what could have factored in for this thief.

There was the sign on the cross above Jesus’ head that said “Jesus of Nazareth—The King of the Jews.” That was a true statement. Perhaps as he saw that sign—saw the truth, the word that Jesus was the King of the Jews—maybe that's when the first inkling of faith was instilled by the Spirit in his heart.

Maybe it was when he heard Jesus pray and ask God to forgive His enemies that he realized Jesus truly was incomparable. There was no one like Him. Maybe that's when his heart began to soften and turn. Maybe it's when he heard the crowd say, “He saved others, let him save himself.” Maybe it began to dawn on this hardened criminal that the man to his left could save him. He knew he couldn’t save himself. Maybe that's what brought him to a point of reliance on Christ alone for salvation.

We know that this man was not a theologian. He was not a Bible student. He didn’t know a lot of doctrine. But he did realize a few important things, and he had come to realize them in a very short span of time. He realized that God was to be feared. He said that to the other criminal. He realized that he was guilty, that he was suffering the judgment he deserved for his sins.

We don't know what this man had done. We don't know the full extent of this man's crimes. We don't know whether he had pled guilty or innocent. But how often is it that you hear convicted criminals say, "I'm guilty." Perhaps he had pled innocent. Perhaps he'd gone all the way to the cross saying, “I'm not guilty.” We don't know. But he came to acknowledge that he was indeed guilty, and that he was suffering justly for his sins.

He also realized that the man dying next to him was not guilty, that He was innocent of every sin, that He was dying a death He did not deserve. He realized that Jesus had a kingdom. “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus was the King of that kingdom. His only hope was to appeal to this King for a royal pardon and mercy.

Ladies, that is the gospel. This thief realized God caused a dawning in his heart the light of the gospel in the face of Jesus Christ and gave him faith to believe. These are the essentials that relate to the whole salvation story.

Realizing his own guilt and the innocence of Christ—that He was dying for sins He didn't commit. He realized Christ was a King with a kingdom, and Christ was his only hope. He confessed his sins and his unworthiness.

In verse 43 Jesus responded with the second statement from the cross, words that not only forever changed that criminal's future and life, but words that have forever changed the way that we view death, whether our own or that of others that we know and love. “And he said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise'" (v. 43).

Truly, confident, no doubt—this is a word intended to give assurance. That word paradise is actually a Greek word paradeisos, that is borrowed from the Persian language. It was used in the Persian language to speak of “walled gardens, parks, and pleasure gardens for Persian kings." The word was used in the Greek in Old Testament for the Garden of Eden—a place where there were fruit trees, rivers, and where God walked with Adam and Eve—paradise. That word came to refer to a world of peace and happiness where the righteous go after their death. As a result of their sin, Adam and Eve had been banished from Paradise. And now through His death on the cross, Christ was opening the door to Paradise.

This is an incredible word of mercy, grace, love, and assurance spoken to the heart of this dying criminal. Isn’t it an amazing thing? Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus gave to that thief the very same promise He had given to His closest disciples the night before. “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

He told His disciples, "You will be with me." That's understandable, they were His friends. But He gave the same promise to that dying thief. You see in His word up on the cross how quickly God responds to the broken and contrite heart. This man deserves judgment, but he gets mercy and grace.

His faith is rewarded. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). When God plants in the heart the faith to believe, the gift of repentance, and we cry out for mercy, God doesn't say, “Let me see if you mean it seriously. Let me see if you can do these six things, or go through these hoops, jump over these hurdles.” No, He is quick to come to save those who have a broken and contrite heart.

Again, I’ve been quoting through this series from one of my favorite old books, The Suffering Servant, by Krummacher, written in a series of devotional meditations on the cross, written in the 1800s. Let me read to you what Krummacher has to say about how this story ends up.

The three who were crucified bowed their heads, and the great separation is accomplished. Alas! he on Jesus’ left descends also to the left; and the powers of darkness will have received him who, even in death, could insult the Lord of Glory. The criminal to the right, on the contrary, soars heavenward, at the side of the Prince of Peace, and received into His triumphal chariot, passes amid the acclamations of angels through the gates of paradise. He was the first herald who by his appearing there brought the glorified spirits the intelligence that Christ had won the great battle of our deliverance.

He was the first one to tell those glorified spirits in heaven, “It's finished! Paradise has been opened. He has won our deliverance through His work on the cross.” So even in his death, that dying thief had a ministry to the other thief and to those to whom he went to herald this good news of our salvation in heaven.

So we have this word that Jesus spoke to the thief who was dying next to Him on the cross. And what a wonderful word of hope this word is, not just for dying thief, but for us. As we contemplate our own death, for that friend and loved one who is dying of cancer, for those who are healthy but will one day die—as my dad did—without a warning.

I want us to consider in the few moments that we have remaining two questions that come to mind as we think about this account of the dying thief and Christ's promise to him.

The first question is, “What happens to us when we die?” The second question is, “What about our loved ones?”

First, what happens to us? Well, in order to address that, we need to remind ourselves that the thief on the cross represents every one of us.

  • We have all sinned.
  • We all deserve to be eternally separated from God in hell.
  • We are all helpless to save ourselves.
  • We all need a Savior.

Everything that thief said of himself is true of us. We all deserve to die. We are suffering a just condemnation for our sins. If God were to send us to hell, apart from Christ, that would be just.

But He has done no wrong. That thief recognized, as must we, our helplessness and our need for a savior. We see in that story that physical death is not the end the end of the story. Our souls live on after we take our final breath and our body is placed into the ground.

The moment a believer dies, his soul is with the Lord, safe and blessed. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The moment the thief died, he was in the presence of God. Now, that place that our spirits go when we die today is not our final home. This is a whole other series. We know that one day God will make a new heaven and new earth. But we also know that, contrary to some other streams of theology have taught over the years, that there is no waiting period between death and being with the Lord. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5, to be “absent from the body [is to be] at home with the Lord” (v. 8 NASB). That day, that hour, at that moment.

As we reflect on the story, we're reminded that either we will be with Christ, or separated from Him eternally. One author, A.W. Pink, who has written a wonderful book on the seven words of Christ from the cross, points out that there were two criminals who were crucified with Christ that day. They were equally guilty. They were both close to Christ as they died. They both heard Him ask His Father to forgive His enemies. They both deserved to die and spend eternity separated from Christ. Neither deserved to be with Jesus in paradise. But the heart of one was melted in repentance, while the heart of the other remained hard and unbroken.

It's a reminder that people can hear the same message, be exposed to the same truth—even as people are listening to this series about the cross of Christ and what He did on our behalf—one responds and receives by faith the work of Christ on the cross on their behalf and the other does not. Two people growing up in the same home, sitting in the same church, listening to the same message, listening to my voice today. You see, once they breathed their final breath, these two criminals parted ways. They  went to two very different destinations and were separated for all eternity.

Which leads me to remind you of this. Our eternal destiny is not dependent on or determined by the life that we have lived, the sins you have committed or good works you have done. None of that determines where we spend eternity. The thief on the cross was a hard-core criminal. There was no way at this point—no way ever—that  he could make amends for his sin. If he had only a very short time to live or if he had another 100,000 years to live, he never could have made amends for his sin. It was too late for him to do any good works. There was no time to be baptized or call for last rites. He was getting ready to die. His eternal destiny, paradise with Christ, was not determined by how he had lived, the sins he had committed, or any good works that he could have done.

Our eternal destiny is not based on how much theology we know. That thief likely did not know anything more about Christ than what he witnessed and experienced in those few hours hanging there on the cross. At the end of the day, our eternal destiny is based on simple trust: “Jesus, remember me.” And on the mercy of Christ, “You will be with me in Paradise.”

That dying thief deserved to be eternally damned in hell for his sins. But instead, Jesus promised him Paradise. That promise was not based on anything that thief had done or could do, but was based solely on the ground of Jesus’ atoning death. Jesus took on that cross the punishment and hell that man deserved for his sins, and gave him righteousness—the righteousness of Christ—and Paradise in exchange. What an amazing exchange. That is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

As Andrew Bonar said many years ago,

It is to show the "exceeding riches of His grace" that the Lord gives a whole eternity of blessedness to the man who, like the dying thief, has only been leaning on Him for a few hours.”

Praise God for that.

So the question is not what you have done, but whether you have believed and received. So as you face your own death and wonder what happens after that—the question is not what have you done, the question is, "Have you believed and received what He has done for you?"

As you're listening to the sound of my voice today, maybe you tuned into this program quite by accident. Let me just say, in God's economy, there are no accidents. Providentially, you've been led here today. You may have been reviling Christ. You may have been living as a hardened, rebellious, recalcitrant sinner. Can I just remind you, it's not too late for you to have a change of heart. No matter how greatly you or someone you love has sinned, by His grace you and they can repent. God can change the heart of the most hardened sinner; He can change your heart.

As the songwriter said it years ago:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
And there may I though vile as he
Wash all my sins away.

("There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" by William Cowper)

Or as Fanny Crosby said:

The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment a pardon receives.

("To God Be the Glory")

So whether your death is imminent as far as you know it, or, as far as you know, may be many years away, the fact is, we don’t know.

  • Cry out to Him today.
  • Acknowledge your sin.
  • Repent.
  • Acknowledge Christ's perfection and His death for sinners.
  • Plead for mercy, grace, and salvation, and receive His pardon and die in peace. Don't wait for your deathbed.

Speaking of deathbeds, what about our loved ones? Just a word of encouragement here. First of all, when you know that the one that you love who is dying, or has recently died, when you know they have trusted in Christ, remember that Jesus confidently assured that dying man, “Today you’re going to be with me.” Some of Jesus’ last words were to offer that assurance and comfort to this man. You can assure others who have come to Christ for mercy. You can assure your own heart that today—that at the point of their death—they will be with Christ in Paradise.

But what if you don’t know the spiritual condition of that friend or that loved one? Let me just share an email that we recently received from one of our longtime and faithful listeners and encouragers. She said,

Last night my dad passed away after a long battle with cancer and kidney failure. I cannot say for sure whether he was saved; he never made a profession of faith in Christ, as I had hoped. However, he may have taken the truth he’d been given, and "taken inventory" on his life, quietly, while he still was able to think. I have the assurance that the Word was shared with him, and many prayers went up for him, and Christian love and forgiveness were shown him. So what more can I do now but trust the One who knows best, who knows all things, who is perfectly just and merciful? Jesus is faithful.

Let me encourage you not to lose heart over loved ones who, as far as you know, are lost and rejecting Christ. If you have been faithful to give them the gospel—and let me encourage you to continue extending the gospel to them, to the last possible moment—you don’t know in those final moments but what that they may truly respond to the Word that has been given.

That word should not only give hope to anyone who goes to their death rejecting Christ, it should be for everyone who still has a breath left. Repent and believe the gospel. Christ died for you so that you could be with Him in Paradise.

Leslie: Nancy Leigh DeMoss has been offering assurance to anyone who has placed their faith in Jesus. If he could forgive a thief on the cross, He will forgive you.

Elyse Fitzpatrick understands the doubts that a lot us struggle with; doubts about being right with God. Elyse is a counselor and author who writes about knowing that you are fully forgiven in a book called Comforts from the Cross. Elyse says that a lot of women aren't finding solace in their relationship with Christ because they don’t see how His life, death, and resurrection connect with things like soccer practices and piano lessons.

The short readings in the book Comforts from the Cross shows how ancient truths like justification, sanctification, and redemption can free and enliven you soul today. When you support Revive Our Hearts with a financial gift this week, we'll send you Comforts from the Cross to show our thanks. Just call with your gift. The number is 1–800–569–5959, or support the ministry by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com.

As Jesus suffered on the cross, He took time for a very practical matter. He made provision for a widow who was about to lose her firstborn son. Find out why this practical activity is so significant tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

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