Salvation - Sin & Repentance

What Can We Learn From the Penitent Thief?

By J. C. Ryle, edited by Dr. Paul M. Elliott
J. C. Ryle's exposition of this account is a model of faithful exegesis of the text, and pastoral application to the needs of both saved and lost.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part one of a four-part series

J. C. Ryle's exposition of this account is a model of faithful exegesis of the text, and pastoral application to the needs of both saved and lost.

  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)

19th-century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle wrote of this passage, "The verses we have now read deserve to be printed in letters of gold. They have probably been the salvation of myriads of souls. Multitudes will thank God to all eternity that the Bible contains this story of the penitent thief."

Ryle was raised in a nominally Christian, Anglican home but his family were not particularly faithful church-goers. It was not until he happened into a church one day, and heard the Scriptures being read out loud, that he passed from death into life. He said that one verse - and the emphasis made by the pastor who was reading it, as he paused between each clause - gripped his attention: "By grace are ye saved" - "through faith" - "and that not of yourselves" - "it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

Commenting later on what took place at his conversion, Ryle said, "Nothing to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct" as it did on that day: "my own sinfulness, Christ's preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again" - and - "the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration" - a false doctrine that he had been taught in the Catholic-leaning segment of Anglicanism.

Charles Spurgeon, Ryle's Baptist contemporary, called him "an Evangelical champion . . . One of the bravest and best of men." Ryle took no credit for his fortitude in the face of strong opposition within the splintering Anglican church of his day, but gave all the glory to the power of Christ and His Word: "What is won dearly is prized highly, and clung to firmly."

There is much we can learn from Luke's account of the dying thief. Ryle's exposition of it is a model of faithful exegesis of the text, and pastoral application to the needs of both the saved and the lost. Our material is taken from Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, first published in 1858. Today we begin a brief series covering each of his main points.

What Is God's Sovereignty in Salvation?

Ryle begins his exposition thus:

We see, firstly, in the history before us, the sovereignty of God in saving sinners. We are told that two malefactors were crucified together with our Lord, one on His right hand and the other on His left. Both were equally near to Christ. Both saw and heard all that happened, during the six hours that He hung on the cross. Both were dying men, and suffering acute pain. Both were alike wicked sinners, and needed forgiveness. Yet one died in his sins, as he had lived, hardened, impenitent, and unbelieving. The other repented, believed, cried to Jesus for mercy, and was saved.

A fact like this should teach us humility. We cannot account for it. We can only say, "Even so, Father, for so it seems good in your sight" (Matthew 11:26). How it is that under precisely the same circumstances one man is converted and another remains dead in sins -- why the very same sermon is heard by one man with complete indifference and sends another home to pray and seek Christ -- why the same Gospel is hidden to one and revealed to another, all these are questions which we cannot possibly answer. We only know that it is so, and that it is useless to deny it.

Our own duty is clear and plain. We are to make a diligent use of all the means which God has appointed for the good of souls. There is no necessity that any one should be lost. There is no such a thing as decreed damnation in the Bible. The offers of the Gospel are wide, free and general...God's sovereignty was never meant to destroy man's responsibility. One thief was saved that no sinner might despair - but only one, that no sinner might presume.[1]

Next: What Is True Repentance Unto Salvation?


J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), pages 469-471.


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