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The Example of the Thief upon the Cross, considered.
And He said unto Jesus, Lord,. Remember me when Thou comest into thy Kingdom.
And Jesus said unto Him, Verily, I say unto thee, To day halt thou be with me in Paradise.
THESE Words contain in them an Account of the happy Ending of the Life of one of those Malefactors, who were crucified with our blessed Lord. For; tho’ we read, in Two other of the Evangelists, that the 348 Thieves which were crucified with Him, reviled Him; yet, that we are not necessarily to understand this of both the Malefactors, is evident from the like Form of Speech used by the same Writers, concerning any Matter, the minute Circumstances of which they do not undertake exactly to relate. Thus, in the same Gospels, that is sometimes said to be spoken by the Disciples, to Jesus, which was spoken by one of them only: because it was not thought necessary to be more particular. And the Plural Number is often thus used for the Singular, either, when the Story related is so known, as that no Mistake can proceed from thence; or, when the Matter spoken of, is of that nature as not to admit a literal Interpretation without a gross Absurdity; or, when the Historian, as I have said, doth not undertake to relate every particular Circumstance of a Story, especially of one generally and universally known at the Time of his writing. On these Accounts, this Way and Figure of speaking hath been allowed and practised.
BUT St. Luke, designing, in this part of his History, to be more particular, hath 349transmitted it down to us that what the other Evangelists record concerning the Malefactors, is to be understood only of one of them; and that the other was of a much better Disposition; that He reproved his Fellow-Sufferer for his rude and unjust reviling; and laid hold on that Opportunity to confess a great Degree of Faith in a crucified Saviour.
THE favourable Reception which this penitent Believer met with, in his last Moments; and the comfortable Answer which He received from our Lord, seems to have had an Effect, quite contrary to what our Lord intended, and wished, upon many Christians of later Ages. And therefore, this past of the Evangelical History deserveth our particular Consideration: that We may judge truly what is to be concluded from it: and avoid any Mistake that may prove fatal to our Eternal Interest. And, after having, in my last Discourse, laid down the true Notion of Repentance; I cannot do any thing better than to endeavour to obviate, or refute, the common Error, received and embraced by too many, viz. that the Acceptance of this Malefactor is 350an Encouragement to any Christians to place their Hopes of Salvation, upon a Death-bed Sorrow, which they mis-call by the Name of Repentance. In order to this End,
I. I SHALL endeavour briefly to give a true and just Account of the Case of this Malefactor, who was thus mercifully received by our Saviour, in his last Moments.
II. I DESIGN to shew that this was not an extraordinary Act of Favour, out of the General Rule; nor any thing depending on the secret Will and Intention of Almighty God: but perfectly agreeable to the professed and declared Tenour of the Gospel-Covenant; and what any Person, in the same Circumstances, may claim, upon the express Terms of the Gospel.
III. IN order the more effectually to prevent all Mistake, I shall point out to you, and describe, the Persons who are in the same Circumstances; and may be as certain of Favour as this believing Malefactor. And,
IV. I SHALL endeavour plainly to shew, the extreme Unreasonableness, and great 351Danger, of the common Mistakes about this Instance of God’s Mercy and the Vanity of those Pretences which are built by some Men, upon this Example.
I. I SHALL endeavour briefly to give you a true and just Account of the Case of this Malefactor, who was so graciously received by our blessed Saviour, in his last Moments.
AND here, there is no reason to doubt but that He was a Person who had never enjoyed, before this, a fair opportunity of hearing a just Account of our blessed Lord, and his Actions, and Pretensions: it being much more likely that a Person of his sort of Life should firm hear and consider, the Character, and Works, and Behaviour of our Lord, during his Imprisonment, than at any time before, whilst He was following his wicked Trade of Robbery. It is manifest from his own Words, as well as to his Fellow-Sufferer, as to our Lord himself, that He had gotten some Knowledge, both of our Lord’s Personal Character; and of his professing himself a King. Now, the Way of Life which he followed, before his Imprisonment, engaged him to keep as 352much out of the Cities and Places of ordinary Conversation; as much out of the Eyes and Observation of the World, as He could possibly do; and consequently must necessarily be supposed to have hindered him of all fair Opportunities of knowing the Truth concerning our blessed Lord. But, just before his Crucifixion, He could not well avoid hearing the Rumours spread about concerning Him, and learning the true Character, and Pretensions of our Lord. And He seems to have weighed all that He heard, before his Crucifixion, so well, as to bring with Him to his Cross, a Resolution to profess himself his Disciple; and a sincere Disposition to shew himself such, in all respects possible, in that small Remainder of his Time.
FROM such a Resolution as this, such a Person as He might well have been removed by the Behaviour of his Fellow-Sufferer; and by that Current of Affronts, which at that time ran so violently against our Lord, now seemingly destitute of all Help from God, and condemned and outraged, as an Impostor, by Men. Or, at least, He might have been led to have contented 353himself, with entreating our Lord, tho’ somewhat more seriously than others, to come down from the Cross, and to save himself, and his Fellow-Sufferers. But He appears to have understood a great deal, in a very little Time, concerning the true Nature of Christ’s Kingdom: and so, acknowledging the Heinousness of his own Sins, and the Justice of God in his Punishment of them; all that He desires of our Lord, is, that He would remember Him, when He should come into his Kingdom.
THIS Malefactor, therefore, you see, cannot be supposed, in the former Course of his Life, when his evil Designs kept him out of the City and out of Society, to have had any Opportunity of enquiring, or hearing, concerning our .blessed Lord. But after his Imprisonment, it is very possible, and very probable, that He came to a Knowledge of our Saviour, and of his Offers to Mankind. It is certain, from the express Words of the Evangelist, that, on Cross, He gave Testimony to the unspotted Character of our Lord; and Proof of believing the Truth of his Pretensions. 354And laying these Things together, his Words to our Saviour may reasonably be supposed to imply in them as much, as if he had said thus: “ I believe that thou art truly the Messiah, and Saviour of the World; as thou professest thy self to be: And, notwithstanding this thy ignominious Death upon the Cross, that thou hast a glorious and happy Kingdom to enter upon; though not of this World. I take this Opportunity of professing my self thy Disciple: which is the first I have enjoyed. This I do, amidst the Reproaches of thy Enemies, and the Insults of my Fellow-Sufferer. And, therefore, I beg that I may have the Benefit of this my Profession; and may be accepted by Thee, as thou hast promised to accept all such as do sincerely believe in Thee, and to acquit them from the Guilt of all their former Sins for the sake of this Belief.” This, I say, may most reasonably be supposed to be implied in the Words of this Malefactor to our Lord: it being certain from the History that He had enquired both after the Character, and after the Proposals, of 355our Lord; and found the former to be unspotted; and the latter to be Offers of Mercy, and Happiness, in his Kingdom, to his Disciples.
IT appears, therefore, that He was one, who was called to the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, in the last Hours, and had no Opportunity of professing his Belief in Him, but in the last Minutes, of his Life; when the Night of Death was just coming upon Him, in which no Man can Work: one, who believed, as soon as He possibly could hear a true Account of our Lord; and courageously professed his Belief, as soon as He had Opportunity to do it; and this at a time when all about him were reviling Him. In short, He did whatever it was in his Power to do, during that Space of Time, which He had left, after He was called to the Knowledge of the Gospel: and therefore, was accepted to Favour by our blessed Lord; and a Promise was made Him, hat he should immediately upon his Death, be in an happy Place with Him. And here, you will easily observe that this gracious Acceptance of him was not merely or chiefly, on the account of his Sorrow 356for his past Sins; but for the sake of his believing in Jesus Christ, as soon as he could; and of his taking this first Opportunity of professing himself his Disciple; that is, for the sake of his doing all he could to manifest the Sincerity of his Faith, from the Time of his believing, to the End of his Life. And this leads me to the second thing which I undertook to shew; viz.
II. THAT this was not an extraordinary Act of Favour, out of the general Rule; nor any thing depending upon the secret Will, or unrevealed Pleasure, of Almighty God: but perfectly agreeable to the professed, and declared, Tenour of the Gospel; and any Person, in the same Circumstances, may claim, upon the Promises of God, sufficiently promulgated in the Gospel. This I would willingly spake as plain as possible, because this Instance of the Thief on the Cross hath been generally interpreted as an Instance of Almighty God’s professed Acceptance of the Sorrow of a Sinner at his Death, instead of the Practice of Holiness, and Virtue, during his Life: and, under this Notion, 357hath been so recommended to the guilty Consciences of the most habitual Sinners, as to give them as strong an Assurance of God’s Favour, on their Death-beds, as the best of Christians can in reason possess; and so applied to themselves, by wilful Sinners, in the Time of their Health, as to encourage them to place all their Hopes in the bitter Sorrow of their last Moments, instead of rectifying the Disorders, and Wickedness; of their Lives. But that this all proceeds from a mistaken Notion of this Matter, will appear to you, by proving, as I design under this second Head, these Two Particulars; viz.
1. THAT it is highly absurd to imagine that Almighty God should, by any such publick Instance as this, profess to the World that He doth, on any account, or in Mercy to any Person, depart from those Measures which He hath, as publickly, fixed, and promulgated. And,
2. THAT this Instance, as I have before represented it, is perfectly agreeable to the Terms of the Gospel, offered equally to all who hear of it; and plainly 358laid down by Christ, and his Apostles.
1. I SAY, it is highly absurd to imagine that Almighty God should, by any such publick Instance, as this of the Thief on the Cross, profess to the World that H doth, on any Account, or in Mercy to any Person, depart from those Measures, which He hath, as publickly, fixed and promulgated.
WHETHER any Being be obliged, in the nature of the thing, to execute his Threatnings in their utmost Rigour, as he is to perform his Promises to the utmost; is another Question. Nay, whether it may not be actually so, in fact, at last, that Almighty God will remit of that Punishment he hath threatned; and not execute the utmost of that Wrath which He has declared by his Son against harden’d impenitent Sinners, is a Point wholly distinct from that before us. I must own that the affirmative side of this Question seems to derogate from the Sincerity of the Divine Revelation; and not well to consist with the Nature of the highest Simplicity: it being a much worthier Supposition 359 concerning Almighty God; that he should declare the exact Truth of the Matter; and leave it to work upon the Minds of Men as far as it could; than that he should declare what will never come to pass, and so endeavour to work upon them by a false Persuasion, which hath nothing in Nature to answer it. But I say that it is not so absurd to maintain that so it may possibly, or probably, be found at last; as to say that Almighty God hath declared, by any public Instance, that he doth, in the Case of some of the most notorious Sinners, depart from the measures which he hath openly declared he will stand to.
To come to the Case before us; Almighty God declareth, as plainly as Words can declare any thing, that without Holiness no Man shall se the Lord: that his Wrath shall be upon all the Workers, of Iniquity; especially upon such as profess his Gospel, and yet live in an open Violation of the Laws of it, and an open Neglect of these Declarations in it. And yet, this Instance, of the Thief on the Cross, hath been sometimes so interpreted, 360as to make Almighty God declare by it to the World, that he will accept of the Death-bed Sorrow of a Sinner; though he hath had sufficient Warning through his Life, though he hath been a professed Christian, and hath had the fairest Opportunities of knowing the true Terms of Christian Justification. Now this, I say, it is absurd to imagine concerning Almighty God: because this is publickly to destroy the Effect, and Design, of his other Declarations; and to give as public an Encouragement as possible, to Men, to continue in their Sins.
FOR, when once a Man hath entertained this Notion, that the Case of this Malefactor is thus to be interpreted; how easy is the Passage of his Thoughts from this, to the Imagination, that his own Sorrow on his Death-bed shall, after the same manner, be accepted, instead of a religious and virtuous Life? For, why should he not think so? Or, what should hinder? Almighty God must not be supposed an arbitrary Being; a Power acting by Humour, and not guided by just and equitable 361Maxims: but equal in his Regards to all, in Circumstances exactly equal. And if so, his Proceedings, upon those Maxims, must be the same with all in the same Condition. He hath no respect to the Persons of Men: nor can there be any Reason in the World assigned, why he should deal, in the Distribution of his Eternal Rewards or Punishments, more favourable with one, than with another, who is not under the Circumstances of greater Guilt, at his Departure out of this State. And, therefore, if he hath shewn such Favour to one of the vilest of Sinners, on account of a pungent Sorrow, at the Hour of Death, contrary to the seeming Tendency of all his Declarations; so will he likewise to me, may the vilest of Men still say. And what can be the Consequence of this, but an Impenitent Life, and profligate Manners, in the Time of Health?
AND thus far, indeed, I agree with such Persons, that whatever the Case of this Malefactor was; all who are exactly in the same, or a like, Case, may reasonably expect, and will certainly experience, 362 the same Favour which he did. But the Supposition, that Christians, who have Repentance and Amendment, day after day, inculcated upon them; who stand out against all Calls to Reformation; and rely at last upon the Sorrow of a sick Bed, are in the same Case with this Malefactor; or that he, considered as in the same Case with them, is declared in the New Testament, to have found Favour with God, and to have been entitled to the Happiness of Heaven: This Supposition, I say, will be ever incredible to us, till We can come to suppose Almighty God declaring against his own plainest Declarations; and ruining his own Design of the World’s Reformation; or else acting after an arbitrary and humoursome manner; accepting of one Man to Eternal Life, and condemning another to Eternal Death, who is, as to himself, in the same Circumstances; and hath been led, by this Example, to expect the same Acceptance. But who can suppose this of the God of Mercy, Truth, and Equity? Or, of that God, who hath revealed Wrath against all the Workers of Iniquity? But,363
2. As those Absurdities should affrighten us from fixing such a Procedure upon Almighty God; and make us rather willing to suppose our selves wholly mistaken in our Interpretation of this Dealing of his with the Thief on the Cross, than to suppose any such Inconsistencies in his Ways: so, I must observe that there is another very good Account to be given of this Matter, perfectly agreeable to the Tenour of the Gospel, as the Terms of it were plainly preached by our Lord and his Apostles; and vastly distant from any such Interpretation, as that which I have now been mentioning.
IN order to make this evident, I must observe to you that it is the declared Tenour of the Gospel, that God would justify all who sincerely comply with the Offers of it, and heartily profess Faith in Jesus Christ; that all, I say, who do thus, upon good Motives, shall be released from the Guilt of their former Sins, and accepted by God, and dealt with as just Persons, for this very believing sincerely in his Son Jesus Christ: and this, whether they live a short, or a long, Time after their first Belief and Profession; 364 provided they shew the Reality of their Faith in that Time, and do not relapse into a Course of Infidelity, or Wickedness. Thus, we find, our Lord, in the Gospels, receiving to his Favour, all who embrace his Offers; and accepting them, upon their first Acceptance of his Religion, and his Terms. And we find, more evidently, the Apostles instructed by the Holy Ghost to preach the Doctrine of Acceptance, and Remission of all their former Sins, to all who should lay hold on the Opportunity offered them, and embrace the Faith of Jesus Christ, and enter themselves into his Service. Upon this Faith, and Profession of it, Proselytes were baptized; and they were baptized for the Remission of their Sins; and Justification before God was openly promised, and declared, to them, upon this their first sincere, and undissembled Faith.
NOW, supposing any of these Persons to be taken away immediately: their former Sins being once pardoned, the Force of this Pardon must remain; and they must be finally acquitted and justified before God. But supposing any of these Proselytes to live, and afterwards to relapse into their former 365Course of Sin: They not only, by the Tenour of the Gospel, lose all the Benefit of this first Justification; but can have no Ground for Hope of a final Justification, at the great Day, without the actual Amendment and Reformation of their Lives. On the other hand, if they go on, in living as becomes Christians; they are entitled to a final Acquittance, and to great Degrees of Happiness in the World to come.
THERE are, therefore, Two sorts of Persons, considered as acquitted in the Gospel. 1. Such as hear the Gospel; and sincerely receive, and heartily accept it; and openly profess it: who yet have no Time allowed them, by the Providence of God, to bring forth the Fruits of a continued Course of Righteousness; though they certainly have such a Faith as would bring forth these Fruits. And, 2. Such Persons as sincerely receive it; and close in with the Terms of it; and, having Time allowed them, live, and act, in he general Course of their Lives, by the Rules of Righteousness, laid down in it. As there are, likewise, Two sorts of Persons condemned, in the same Gospel. 1. Such, as having Opportunity 366to hear it proposed to them, either revile and persecute it; or refuse to attend to it, and receive it. And, 2. Such as, having heard it, receive and profess it; and enter themselves into the Bonds of it: but afterwards relapse into a Habit of Sin, in which they continue till Death overtake them.
THERE being, therefore, Two sorts of Persons, to whom Acquittance, or Justification, is openly promised in the Gospel; we may be sure, no one shall be denied that Favour, who belongs to either of the Two. And that the Malefactor on the Cross, certainly belonged to the former sort; and consequently, was accepted by Christ, not by any arbitrary, or extraordinary Act of Favour, but upon the ordinary Terms of his Dispensation, is, I think, very evident. For it appears that He was a Person, who, when He had a fair Opportunity, did seriously consider the Character, and Pretensions of our Lord; who, upon that Consideration, believed in Him, and received him, as the Messiah; and who took the first Opportunity He had, to declare and profess this: though He had no Hopes of any Benefit 367from hence, unless in a future State; and was rather discouraged from it, than incited to it, by the Tempers, and Behaviour, of all about Him. We was called to the Knowledge of the Gospel: He obeyed that Call; and He did whatever was in his Power, during the short Time God afforded him, to demonstrate the Sincerity of his Faith. What should hinder, therefore, but that he should be received by our Lord, who came to offer Acquittance, and Justification, to all who should believe him to be the Messiah; and should act agreeably to the Faith, and Practice enjoyned by him, during the remainder of their Lives, whether long, or short?
I CANNOT, therefore, but think it plain from hence, that there is nothing extraordinary, or new, in this Instance of the Justification of the Thief on the Cross: that he was not declared to be accepted by God on the account of his Sorrow, or because he was dying, and at that time expressed a Sense of his Sins; but because he laid hold on the first fair Opportunity, which offered it self, of believing in Christ; of professing himself his Disciple, and of owning 368Him for his Master; and, consequently, that he was accepted to Favour, upon the ordinary Terms of the Gospel, declared in other Places of the New Testament, upon which any other sincere Believer, would likewise have been accepted and justified; and upon which, all Christians inherit the same Justification, and reap the Fruit of it, if they do not, by falling again into a Course of Sin, and continuing in it, forfeit their Title to so great a Blessing.
WHAT hath been said may likewise serve to give us some Account why the other Evangelists might not think it necessary to be minute, and particular, in the Relation of the Behaviour, and happy End, of the better of the Two Malefactors: viz. because nothing material could be learnt or drawn, from it, but what might be learnt from other plain Parts of the Gospel; that whoever should believe in Jesus Christ, and make use of the Opportunities He enjoys to profess and shew himself to be sincerely his Disciple, should, upon that Belief, and Profession, be acquitted from the Guilt of all his past Sins; and be put into a State of Favour, and Acceptance, 369with God; whether He should live a long, or a short Time, after his embracing the Christian Faith. And now, what hath been already laid down will easily guide us to determine what I proposed in the third place: viz.
III. WHO those Persons are, that may safely argue, to their own Comfort, from this Example of the Thief on the Cross; and may be as secure of God’s Favour, as He was. And it is plain, they must be such, as are in his Circumstances. I do not mean, such as are leaving this World: for that was but an accidental Matter; and had no Weight towards his Acceptance; which I have shewn, must have been the same, upon the Gospel Terms, whether He had then been dying, or not. But I mean, such Persons, as do not resist the Evidence of the Gospel of Christ; but receive it upon due Consideration; and take the Opportunity, offered them by the Providence of God, to profess their Faith in Jesus Christ, and to acknowledge themselves his Disciples. They must be Persons, who being come to Years of Discretion, have a fair Opportunity offered them of 370hearing the Evidence, and knowing the Nature of the Christian Religion. They must be Persons who, upon hearing and weighing this Evidence, do sincerely accept it as the Will of God; who openly and heartily, profess this; and who, during the rest of their Time, behave themselves agreeably to their Profession:
AND we cannot but observe from hence, of how small Concern, the Instance now before us is to Persons bred up in the Knowledge of the Christian Religion; called upon, day after day, to regard the Nature and Obligations of it; to Persons who have always professed themselves Christians, and yet live on, in an Habit of Sin condemned by their own Profession, in hopes that the Sorrow of their latest Moments shall atone for the Vices of their past Lives.
IF, therefore, any one would entertain himself with any just Hopes, drawn from God’s Mercy to this crucified Malefactor; He must first, in all reason, consider, whether He himself be in the like Circumstances: for otherwise, what Comfort can any Man, in his Senses, draw from thence? 371And no one, I think, can, by any means, be said to be in the like Circumstances, who is come to Years of Judgment, and Discretion, in a Country of professed Christians; and hath, either in his Mind, or in his Manners, dishonoured, or neglected, the Christian Religion. But this will more naturally come under the next Head of my present Design: which I have not now Time to prosecute.
I SHALL only, therefore, add at present, that for us, who are called betimes to the Knowledge of Christianity; who have Opportunities of knowing our Duty and profess our selves, from the beginning of our Lives, the Disciples of Jesus Christ; for us, I say, to have recourse to any such Instance as this, in order to defer our Repentance and Amendment, is the Extremity of Folly, and Weakness. Whatever it is, that makes us easy in the habitual Practice of any of the Vices condemned in the Gospel, is certainly a Cheat and Imposition upon our selves: a false and groundless Amusement. And, therefore, from whencesoever it is, that we may have drawn any such Notions; we may assure ourselves, 372(and it is our Eternal Interest to be assured of it,) that we are greatly mistaken in them. Almighty God doth, as certainly and as plainly, require of us the Practice of all Righteousness, as He promiseth us all Happiness. No Man ever was uneasy at the Review of such a Practice: but many a Man hath been rendered miserable on his Death-bed here; and will be eternally undone hereafter; by trusting, in the Time of his Health, to any other false and faithless Methods. And God grant that We may consider these Things, before they be hid from our Eyes! Amen.373
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