Salvation - Sin & Repentance

What Is the Imminent Hope of the Dying Believer?

By J. C. Ryle, edited by Dr. Paul M. Elliott
In just nine words in our English Bibles, the prayer of the dying thief gives us the vast height, breadth, and depth of the Gospel message.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part four of a four-part series. Read part three.

In just nine words in our English Bibles, the prayer of the dying thief gives us the vast height, breadth, and depth of the Gospel message.

  1. Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us."
  2. But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?
  3. "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong."
  4. Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
  5. And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)

We come now to the last segment of J. C. Ryle's exposition of the account of the penitent thief. From this passage Ryle has set before us the wonders of the sovereignty of God in salvation, the imperative of true repentance unto salvation, and the mighty power of Christ to "save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Luke's inspired account assures us, Ryle says, that "there is hope for the vilest sinner, if he will only repent and believe."

Ryle now continues with an exposition of Jesus' answer to the penitent thief in the hour of death: "Today you shall be with Me in paradise" --

That word "today" contains a body of divinity. It tells us that the very moment a believer dies, his soul is in happiness and in safe keeping. His full redemption is not yet come. His perfect bliss will not begin before the resurrection morning. But there is no mysterious delay, no season of suspense, no purgatory, between his death and a state of reward. In the day that he breathes his last he goes to Paradise. In the hour that he departs he is with Christ (Philippians 1:23).

Let us remember these things, when our believing friends fall asleep in Christ. We must not sorrow for them as those who have no hope. While we are sorrowing they are rejoicing. While we are putting on our mourning, and weeping at their funerals, they are safe and happy with their Lord. Above all, let us remember these things, if we are true Christians, in looking forward to our own deaths. To die is a solemn thing. But if we die in the Lord, we need not doubt that our death will be gain.

In a footnote, Ryle focuses on another aspect of the importance of Jesus' great declaration:

It is a distinct answer to the Romish doctrine of purgatory. It shows clearly that no purification of any kind after death is needed for the person that dies a penitent believer. If the thief needed no purgatory, the whole doctrine of purgatory falls to the ground.

It is an instructive intimation as to the state of believers after death. The moment they die they are "with Christ." Their condition of course is one we cannot pretend to explain. We cannot comprehend the state of a soul separate from the body. Enough for us to know that a dead believer is immediately with Christ.

It is a clear proof of the separate existence of the soul when the body is dead. We shall live and have a being, even when our earthly tabernacle is mouldering in the grave. The thief's body was that day to be broken and mangled by Roman soldiers. But the thief himself was to be with Christ.

Maldonatus, the Roman Catholic commentator [born Juan Maldonado, 1533-1583, a Spanish theologian of the Catholic counter-reformation], struggles in vain to show that the passage before us does not disprove purgatory. He maintains that the thief must have believed in purgatory, from the fact of his praying to be remembered when Christ came in His kingdom, and not before! Such arguing shows the straits to which a man is reduced by an unscriptural theory.

In a further footnote, Ryle calls attention to the great statement of the English Nonconformist minister Christopher Ness (1621-1705) regarding the prayer of the penitent thief:

The remarks of Ness on this wonderful prayer are worth reading:

This short prayer ["Lord remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom"] contained a very large and long creed, the articles whereof are these.

  1. He [the penitent thief] believed that the soul died not with the body of man;
  2. that there is a world to come for rewarding the pious and penitent, and for punishing the impious and impenitent;
  3. that Christ though now under crucifying and killing tortures, yet had right to a kingdom;
  4. that this kingdom was in a better world than the present evil world;
  5. that Christ would not keep this kingdom all to Himself;
  6. that He would bestow a part and portion hereof on those that be truly penitent;
  7. that the key of this kingdom did hang at Christ's [side], though He now hung dying on the cross;
  8. that he does roll his whole soul for eternal salvation upon a dying Saviour.

Thus, in just nine words in our English Bibles, the prayer of the dying thief gives us the vast height, breadth, and depth of the Gospel message. I can perhaps think of no more appropriate conclusion to this series than the words of William Cowper's great hymn, There is a Fountain Filled With Blood. The hope of the dying thief is the hope of every believer:

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

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E'er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I'll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
'Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father's ears no other name but Thine.

References:

Taken from J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), pages 473-477.

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