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preserves from utter despair those who are so appointed unto death. God forbid that we should take it from them! God forbid that we should narrow His Gospel, or close any path that He has opened by which a lost. sheep may struggle back into His fold!
But neither, on the other hand, may we preach this blessed doctrine of forgiveness at the eleventh hour, without caution, without guarding against its being abused.
It is not every man—but rather very few who, in their repentance, come near, even in the faintest degree, to the pattern of the penitent thief.
What is called a death-bed repentance is too often, I fear, no repentance at all. It is often something of this kind :-a man, who all his life has been in opposition to God-has broken His holy laws-trampled on His Sabbaths-taken His holy name in vain-made a mock at sin—such a man comes at length to the end of his long provocation. He is brought down by sickness, and lies on his bed at the point to die. His friends, more anxious for him than he is for himself, send for the clergyman to read by him and to pray with him. Not without difficulty he is led to confess that he is a sinner, and to express. a hope that God will be merciful to him. There is no sign that he feels any real sorrow-no earnest cry to God-no rending of the contrite heart—no loathing of himself-no laying hold by faith on the mighty One-no clinging to the cross for his hope! He is simply passive in the hands of others—and in that state he dies.
But because he has gone through the customary form; because prayers have been read by his bed-side — because he has made no objection to the ministrations of religion -- his friends are comforted about him—he is supposed to die in the Lord—it is hoped that he has made up by his compulsory and brief repentance for a life of open wickedness and rebellion against God!
That is what passes with many for a sufficient repentance. And for this they quote the example of the penitent thief! · But I cannot myself see any just grounds for this consolation.—The two cases are unlike in all points, save in the single point that both persons are dying. But the one dies receiving the due reward of his deeds—atoning for his wicked life by a death of agony and shame. The other dies with no visible chastisement upon him-quietlyin his bed—with friends about him doing all they can to soothe and comfort him. The one dies meekly submitting to his terrible punishment—we indeed justly—at the same time, in the midst of his torture exhibiting a mighty power of faith ; seeing in the Christ crucified at his side, his Saviour
-confessing Jesus to be the Lord. The other dies, hardly taking himself to task at all—assenting rather to what others say of him, than himself lamenting his sinful life-himself for himself seeking God's face through. the mediation of His dear Son!
There can, you will agree, be no just comparison between these men. Whatever the penitent thief's history may teach, however in some cases, it may bring comfort, and a revival of hope, it can bring neither hope nor com
fort in a case like this--a case alas, too common-where long sin has seared the heart, and dried up the water springs of effectual repentance.
But with this caution, the history before us is rich in consolation; and we have already seen where it may be applied. In the case of the condemned but penitent criminal—of the man whose sands are running swiftly down, whose sins have found him out, and are being visited upon him—in his case there will be no wresting of this Scripture to a wrong issue—there will often be the wisest and soundlest use of it. Duly and tenderly applied, it will prove to such a man a true word of God
-a real Gospel, preaching deliverance to the captivem opening a door into Paradise for one, whose erring path had led him to the very brink of hell!
Yes, and for others besides him we want the comfort of this history.
Who does not know among his acquaintance characters, in which, with much of evil is mingled something of good-men who, wild and reckless, are yet not wholly hardened—who exhibit, for all the soiling effects of sin, some traces of a better nature-in whom we see, as in the penitent thief, amid all their licence, some sense of shame, some respect for goodness in others, some uneasy feeling that all is not right with themselves ?
Now it is, I think, with respect to these, that this part of the Gospel may afford us some gleam of comfort. They have in them the right material out of which penitents are made.
Some day, let us hope and pray, a spark from the Divine Spirit will kindle it into flame. Some day
“late" perhaps—“very late”—but not “ too late," the Face that was so marred shall look upon them, and they shall feel Its power, and draw away from their bad companions, and cease to persecute Jesus, and lay down their sins at His feet, and cry mightily to Him to save them—“By Thine agony and bloody sweat, by Thy Cross and Passion, by Thy precious death!.. Good Lord deliver us! Spare us when we deserve punishment ! Lord remember us when Thou comest into Thy kingdom !”.
For all, then, who though they may have erred and still be erring, have still in them the capacity of improvement, and are not wholly dead in trespasses and sins, this incident in the Gospel has been recorded. God has shewn us here, as elsewhere in His Book, that He does not desire the death of a sinner, but would rather, yea, at the last possible moment, that he should turn from his sin and be saved.
And further God shews us here the means by which such a sinner may be enabled to turn-even by looking unto Jesus, and to Jesus on the Cross !
And now one more word in concluding. The penitent thief was heard in that he feared. He passed that night with his Lord, into Paradise, and the great use of his example, is, as we have seen, to give us hope for the much erring, but not hardened of our brethren. "
But there was another who was crucified by the side of Jesus—another malefactor.–And this man died in a very different frame of mind-he died blaspheming his Lord, uttering mocks and scoffs with his latest breath.
And this too is written for our learning. The impenitent thief, as well as the penitent, may read us a weighty
lesson-his end is the end of those who have no good reclaiming points about them; who die, as they have lived enemies to God by wicked works, and if enemies to God and unreconciled, appointed to everlasting destruction.
We think with horror of "such an ending. We think, with our advantages and helps, it cannot possibly be our own.
But, brethren, be not high-minded, but fear—“Who,” writes a bishop of our Church, “ Who would not tremble for himself, when he sees a man perish in his sins, who dịed by his Saviour's side, within reach of that Blood which was poured out for his redemption, but wanting faith to stretch out his hand and be saved !”
Verily the cross of Christ has two aspects, according as we approach it in belief or in unbelief. To the unbelieving it is all darkness, a stone of stumbling and rock of offence—a savour of death unto death. To the believer it is a savour of life unto life—a “light” in all our journey through this world's wilderness, guiding our feet into the way of peace !
God grant, that we may be of those to whom its bright side is turned ! God grant that we may see in His Son's cross, now and ever, what, alas ! many a wise man, many a disputer of this world has missed seeing in it-divine power, and divine wisdom—the means devised by Him whereby we must be saved; delivered out of the hands of them that hate us—from sin, from the world, from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death!