The criminal crucified with Jesus
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And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto you, Today shall you be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Many of us know this story. Jesus was crucified next two two criminals, being executed for their crimes. One of them curses Jesus along with the crowd. The other one however realizes who Jesus is. He realizes: "We deserve this. But Jesus didn't do anything wrong. He is innocent." And then he says the words that changed his eternal destination: "Remember me when you come into your kingdom". This guy realizes: Jesus is God. I'm a sinner. He is the way to heaven. So all he can do is making one last request: "Take me with you, please!" And Jesus declares: "OK, let's go to paradise together. Your request has been granted."
Wow. So simple. So what are the key elements of the criminal's faith?
- He recognizes that he is a sinner, that he deserves his punishment
- He recognizes that Jesus is perfect
- He knows Jesus will be in paradise after this
- He declares that Jesus is the one who can take him to heaven, that he cannot save himself
That's the kind of faith that saves.
Now unfortunately many people try to add something to the story that isn't really there. Many people say that "because this criminal turned to Jesus on the last day of his life, we can do the same". And that is certainly true. If a person turns to Jesus on their death bed, repent of their sins and acknowledge Jesus as their savior, they will be saved. I fully agree with this Biblical truth.
But here's the problem: Many people use this as a reason to turn away from Jesus. "Well, if I can simply pray a sinner's prayer at the end of my life, then I'll just ignore God for now, do all the things I really want to do, commit all kinds of sins. And then later, when I'm older, or when I'm about to die, then I'll just pray a prayer, ask Jesus into my life, and I will still go to heaven. So I can have both. I can commit all the sin I want to commit now, have the kind of fun that Jesus doesn't like, and still go to heaven. Perfect."
Unfortunately, this is the conclusion that many people come to when they read this story about this criminal crucified with Jesus.
However, this interpretation is not in line with scripture.
Yes, it's true that once we receive Jesus, all our sins are forgiven. Yes, the old is gone, a new life has begun. Yes, no matter what kind of terrible sins we might have done, God forgives all.
Most people only think about the day of "receiving Jesus" that changes our lives. However, there is another day that changes the way God looks at us: The day of revelation.
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much worse punishment, suppose you, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted the blood of the covenant, with which he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and has done insult unto the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)
There's a day when we realize that Jesus is indeed God's son. We realize that He is holy, that we are sinful and in need of a savior. The Holy Spirit gives every single person on the planet at least one chance in his/her life to hear about Jesus. It might not always be the full account of Jesus (not everybody has access to the Bible). But to some measure every single person will get a chance to realize that God is holy, we are not, and we are in need of a savior. Maybe through nature, maybe through missionaries, maybe supernaturally by our conscience (Romans 2 talks about that). But every single person gets a chance to hear the basic message of the gospel. Nobody will have to go to hell because he or she never heard. Everybody gets a chance to hear and to respond.
I call that day the Day of Revelation. A unique season in a person's life when he or she gets a chance to understand the gospel and to respond to it.
And from that day onwards, God's standards change. Before this day we had no concept of sin. We weren't aware that we did anything wrong. We did horrible things. I did terrible things before I was a Christian. We used to live a life completely opposed to God and His teachings. Now if we turn to God in this state, everything is forgiven. God will always forgive the person who repents and turns away from such sin on the Day of Revelation.
However, after this day, things change a bit. Because after this day, God is telling us: "Now you should know better." Before this day we sinned unknowingly. After this day, we now sin not only knowingly, but also willfully. We know we turn against God. And we know that our livestyle is opposed to God's teaching. And THAT is very different from the kind of life that we used to live before we knew about God.
The criminal crucified with Jesus recognized who Jesus is on that day. And so he responded to the revelation God has given him right at that moment. That's why he was saved.
However, a person who has the revelation of who God is at the age of ... 20 and still has decades to live,... that's a different story. And that's what the writer of the book of Hebrews is getting at. There are two key words to that passage:
We are not talking about sinning out of weakness. All of us do that. The verse talks about deliberate sin. When we know that what we are doing is wrong, it's against God's law, then we are sinning deliberately. We willfully choose to ignore Jesus' moral teaching, even though we know better.
Keep on sinning
This is an indication of a continous lifestyle. We are not talking about "deliberately committing one sin over the course of a lifetime". We all do that. But "keep on sinning" is an indication of a lifestyle. An attitude that we have not just for a day, but for many months or years, probably in many areas of our lives.
Friends, once we have the knowledge of God's love, forgiveness, sin and His moral teachings, Jesus' standards towards us change. Before that we didn't know any better, and God forgives us of any sin. But once we know, things change. And we cannot simply go on with our lives and "just do it later". The verse says that one day it will be too late. Yes, God is gracious. Yes, God loves us. Yes, He is patient. And yes, He wants to do everything He can to give us eternal life, to have us with Him in eternity.
But this is not a licence to simply keep doing the things we've done so far. Once we know about Jesus, God's standard changes. And sooner or later, it will be too late for us to respond. One day God will say: "Enough. 'You had your chance. Now it's too late for you."
The nation of Israel is a great reminder of this truth. God is gracious, Throughout the Old Testament He has been calling out to His people to turn back to Him. But if they didn't do it for too long, He eventually allowed the nation to be overtaken by enemies. They had to suffer the consequences for their rejection of God over many years.
And God is saying that the same is true for us: As long as we don't know, before the Day of Revelation, He will forgive once we turn back to Him. But if we choose to ignore Him, AFTER receiving the Revelation of who He is, then that's a different story. Theh Holy Spirit will continue speaking to our hearts. He will continue to draw us to Himself. He will continue to shower His love on us. But one day, God will say: "You had your chance."
I don't know when that day will come. I'm not the judge. I don't know how He measures when time is up.
But one thing I'm absolute certain of: I never want to come anywhere near that point when God is considering closing the door on me.
So let's get right with God today. And make sure that we'll never even have to ask the question whether God might be thinking about closing the door on us.
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