When Death is Life
In Columbus, Ohio, in the throes of the Great Depression in 1935, an 8-year-old boy attended a Catholic school and worked in his father’s shoe repair shop. He didn’t speak English well, since his parents were immigrants who’d just escaped war-ridden Yugoslavia. In school, his teachers practiced corporal punishment when he couldn’t answer in English. Religion became, to him, nothing more than a harmful system of rules, humiliation, pain, and punishment.
This was my grandfather. He spent his life opposing Christianity and rejecting Christ. Today he’s lying in a hospital, unable to speak or even open his eyes, and he could pass away any moment now.
But yesterday, my mom shared the story of the thief on the cross with him, and he surrendered his life to Christ. Our joy in response to his conversion is beyond words. His salvation is a deep comfort and the gracious, merciful answer to decades of prayer.
All of this has led me to take a second look at that passage in Luke recording the crucifixion of Jesus:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 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.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
By the grace of God, my grandpa followed the path of the second thief – the one who recognized his own guilt and knew salvation could never come from the Roman guards, but only with Jesus. Did he fully understand substitutionary atonement (the doctrine that Jesus died in our place)? Maybe. But I kind of doubt it. He was never baptized, and he never did a single “good work” in the name of Jesus. Yet given the information he did have, he called on Jesus to be saved from the condemnation he knew he deserved for his sin, and that was enough!
Acts 16:31 tells us, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Many other verses confirm faith in Jesus is the only requirement for salvation (check out Eph. 2:8-9, Jn. 3:16, Jn. 5:24, and Jn. 14:6). What good news this is!
Of course, a full understanding of substitutionary atonement would benefit and astonish the thief on the cross (I’m sure he’s learned about it since then in his time in paradise with our Lord)! The knowledge that Jesus had to pay for all of his dirty deeds would likely make him feel ashamed, but it would also lead him to praise God for his unfathomable love, mercy, and salvation. Where there is great sin, there is great forgiveness; and where there is great forgiveness, there is great love (Lk. 7:41-50).
My grandpa’s story and the story of the thief on the cross are testimonies of grace and hope: grace, because our Lord is so good he not only saves people who will spend a lifetime joyfully serving him and spreading the gospel, but he also saves those who have so little time left they’ll hardly be able to evidence their faith at all, at least in this world. And they are stories of hope because no one is beyond the reach of Christ’s redemption. The souls that seem to have rejected him too long may yet be softened, even today. Christ exceeds our greatest expectations when it comes to his abundant grace.
Grandpa knows he doesn’t deserve eternal life, but now he looks forward to being in paradise with his Savior soon. And because of Jesus’s profound grace and sacrifice on the cross, I’ll see him there one day, too. Meanwhile, I want to seize every chance to pray for every person God brings into my path and reveal the gospel to them. And you can, too. We can persevere together in hope for everyone God has brought into our lives, for it is never too late for grace.