“Thinkest thou this, O man that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God” (Rom. 2:3)? If we, who are sinners, thus condemn ourselves, how much more shall God, who is just and holy in all His ways, condemn us?!
“Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4)? To despise God's goodness is to have a low opinion of it. The reason we think we will escape the judgment of God, even though we condemn others for what we do, is that we have a low opinion of God’s goodness towards us.
God does good to all men. He gives them life and breath and all things, filling our hearts with good things (Acts 14:15-17; Acts 17:24-25). But because of our sinful nature, we take God’s goodness for granted. We falsely presume on the goodness of God, imagining that He will be good to us no matter how we think or act. Solomon the preacher said, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). The sun keeps shining. We have plenty to eat. With these and other things, the world unwittingly bears witness against themselves when they admit, “life is good.” Yet men suppress the truth God has showed them (Rom. 1:19), that all things come out of God’s good providence (Acts 14:17; 17:24-25).
The goodness of God in providence is a witness against our evil nature. Rather than turning from our sin, we take His goodness for granted and go further in our rebellion with growing hardness of heart against His truth. God uses the Jews throughout the OT to show us what we are by nature (Rom. 3:9).
God’s goodness has to go beyond mere outward influence. It has to penetrate this adamant heart. The Lord, according to His covenant of grace, has to take away the stony heart and put in us a heart of flesh, that is, a heart on which the Gospel of His grace is written by the Spirit of God, according to His everlasting covenant of grace to His elect (Ezek. 36:26; 2 Cor. 3:2-3, 6; Heb. 8:10-12).
Many are called, but few are chosen (Matt. 22:14). The Gospel is broadly declared, to many. Many hear it with physical ears. They hear outwardly. But the Gospel comes in power to God’s elect alone. They hear with God-given spiritual ears. They hear the inward call of the Spirit of God, because they are Christ’s sheep, given to Him in eternal election (John 10:26-27).
No man can come to Christ unless God the Father draws him -- as one draws a net full of fish to land -- in persuasion that cannot be resisted (John 6:44). The Father draws His adopted sons by teaching them of Christ and Him crucified (John 6:45, 65). Christ is the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice of Himself made a justice-satisfying compensation to God, a propitiation by His blood. He removed the just cause of God’s wrath against His people by enduring that wrath in Himself (Rom. 5:9-10; Ps. 88:3, 5, 7; Jonah 2:1-3; Matt. 12:40).
Now, the Gospel of Christ crucified is preached to men far and wide (Col. 1:6). When it is God’s time to reveal His love to His people, He calls them by His grace (Ezek. 16:8; Gal. 1:15-16; John 10:16, 27). God’s call of His elect to Christ is a call of separation from the darkness of spiritual deception and ignorance and unbelief, from the philosophies and religion of the world (Acts 9:1-20; Gal. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:6). That call is referred to in scripture as “sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Thess. 2:13). The Spirit of God calls us by His grace through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ (2 Thess. 2:14).
God’s inward call makes those He calls obedient (Rom. 1:5; 10:16-17; 16:25-26; 1 Pet. 1:22). With His call, He grants them grace to see the truth of Christ crucified as the whole truth about the way things are between me and God (John 3:33; Heb. 1:3; Rom. 8:34). This call turns us from unbelief to faith in Christ. God gives us faith to see and faith that persuades us that Christ is all of our salvation, all of our hope, all of our life (Col. 2:3, 9-10; 3:4). He draws us to Christ (John 6:44-45). None so drawn to Christ are cast out (John 6:37). All who thus come to Christ by the call of the Spirit of God, are born of God (1 Pet. 1:23; James 1:18). Though before their birth from above they could neither see nor enter the kingdom of God, now they see and believe Christ (Lk. 2:30; John 6:40; 9:39-41; 2 Cor. 4:6). This sight and persuasion and dependence on Christ for salvation is the evidence that they are the sons of God (John 3:3-15; Gal. 3:13-14, 26-29; 4:4-6, 28).
Now, God teaches these things in the two thieves on the cross. The thief on the cross believed the Lord Jesus Christ. He believed He was the Son of God. Therefore, when the other thief blasphemed -- as he himself had done only moments before he believed (Matt. 27:44; Luke 23:39 - ‘railed’ = blaspheme) -- he rebuked that blasphemer, saying, “Dost not thou fear God?”
To blaspheme is to speak against God. The unbelieving thief blasphemed God when he “railed” on Christ, saying, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:39).
By his own words he condemned himself, because he understood that Christ saves sinners. Yet he had no interest in Christ or His salvation. He wanted to get out of his temporal punishment. This blasphemer poured out his contempt for God on Jesus. Though he deserved to die and though he now faced eternal condemnation; and though he died next to the Lamb of God, yet he cast off the words of the prayer of the one Mediator between God and men (Luke 23:34). He was neither humbled nor awed when he heard that Jesus was the Son of God (Matt. 27:43; Luke 23:34). He found no interest in hearing Christ’s enemies admit that Jesus saved others (Matt. 27:42; Luke 23:35). Nor that Jesus trusted in God His Father (Matt. 27:43). And while dying under the condemnation of his own sin, he showed contempt for the Lamb of God, even while Jesus shed His sin-atoning blood for God’s elect (Isa. 53:8; Heb. 9:22, 24-28; Rom. 5:6-10; John 10:11, 15, 26-27; Rom. 8:32).
His blasphemy continued to propagate the devil’s temptation. By this he gave evidence that he was the devil’s son, and proved that fact when he died in unbelief. The devil tempted Christ by saying, “If thou be the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.” And the blaspheming thief echoed the same sentiment, saying, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us!”
The devil told Jesus to prove who He was, and prove His words, by obeying the devil’s directive. The blaspheming thief told Jesus the same thing. “Prove you are Christ by saving us from our present affliction!”
But sinners never savingly come to Christ challenging Him to prove His words. Those whom God calls with life-giving grace come to Christ worshipping Him because they believe His words, that He is the Son of God, the one Mediator between God and men, the Lamb of God (Matt. 8:2; 9:18; John 9:35-38; 20:28). Believing sinners worship Christ as the Lord of all, the one Mediator between God and men, the Lamb of God, the King of glory, even as the believing thief did.
And believing sinners never assume that because Jesus is the Christ He must save them. That is what the blaspheming thief did. “If you are Christ,” he said, “save thyself and us!” But why? Why would you assume that if Jesus is the Christ He must save you? He is holy. You are sinful. What does Light have to do with darkness?
When Jesus filled Peter’s net with fish, and Peter understood who Jesus truly was, he said, “Depart from me, I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). All of Peter’s former comeliness, his best works, was turned to corruption (Dan. 10:8)! This thief knew nothing of that.
Those to whom God grants repentance to acknowledge the truth know that mercy from Christ is His prerogative (2 Tim. 2:25). But the blasphemous thief took the proud man’s road to Christ. He must save me, said he, because it would be unfair for Him to pass me by, unfair to condemn me to eternal perdition. He had a low view of God’s goodness! He thought in his heart, “I have lived in His goodness all my life. I expect to continue to receive good from Him,” even though he deserved damnation!
That is what despising God’s goodness amounts to. It is failure to recognize that God’s goodness towards us in our lives by His providence -- though it ought to lead us to repentance -- has the opposite effect because by our sinful nature we become more rebellious and grow in the hardness of our unbelief. We bring greater condemnation on ourselves, because our failure to repent proves that we despise His goodness.
And yet, here is the astounding, unexpected and incredible grace of God: the other thief, though in every way the same as the first, did believe! He was “before a blasphemer” even as the other (Eph. 2:3)! He too had “cast the same in Jesus’ teeth” (Matt. 27:44)! They both died for the same crime. Both heard Jesus pray. Both heard the unwitting admission of the crowd that Jesus was the Son of God, Christ, the Chosen of God, who saved others. As the unbelieving thief is a mirror of all that we are in our natural, sinful, hard heart of unbelief, the believing thief is the pattern of all whom the Lord saves by His unmerited grace! The apostle Paul said that he was a pattern in this way. Paul, the blasphemer, was called when it seemed good to God, by His free and sovereign grace (Gal. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:13-15; Acts 9:1-20).
Men say today that God loves everybody. They tell sinners, “God has done all that He can. It is up to you to accept Jesus.” But the truth of scripture is quite the reverse. The truth is, we have done all that we can to rebel against God. We have opposed our own salvation (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The truth is, it now rests on the sovereign mercy of God to save whom He will and as He will, by doing what only He can do, by calling us on the basis of what He did in Christ! He has reconciled His sinful people to Himself by the death of His own Son (Rom. 5:10). He has justified them freely by His grace on the ground of Christ’s redeeming blood (Rom. 3:24). He now sets forth Christ as the propitiation for the sins of His elect that we might look to Him, and in so looking, find Him to be the propitiation to God for our sins (Rom. 3:25).
Man has done all he can, and he is unwilling and helpless to change himself (Jer. 13:23; Rom. 8:7). In himself, his case is hopeless. But God be thanked, our great God and Savior has done what only God could do! The Son of God (John 9:35-38), the Lord of all (Acts 10:36; Zech. 6:5) and King and Lord of glory (Isa. 6:5; John 12:41; 1 Cor. 2:8), made Himself of no reputation, so that He could die and accomplish all that God required for our eternal salvation, to have a people for Himself, holy and without blame, before Him in love (Eph. 1:4; Eph. 5:25-27; Jude 1:24; Ps. 17:15)!
God’s saving grace to sinners is unchanging and unfailing. He must bring all of His sheep (John 10:16; Ex. 10:26). Christ came to do the will of God, to bring all those the Father gave to Him to eternal glory (John 6:37-40). Neither His word nor His work can fail (Isa. 42:4; Matt. 24:35). His people shall be willing in the day of His power (Ps. 110:3).
Don’t despise God's goodness. His goodness in providence ought to lead us to repentance, but providence alone is not enough to turn a sinner! The unbelieving thief would not turn. He would not believe Christ even though he faced eternal judgment. He blasphemed Christ even as he was punished for his crimes (Rev. 16:9, 11). Though he heard the same words as the other thief did, and though he died next to the Son of God, the only Savior of sinners, yet he died in hard-hearted unbelief. He died as he lived; he died in his sins!
Lest we take God’s goodness for granted, let us, as the believing thief, confess our sins, agree that we are justly condemned, and call upon Christ to save us by His power and grace (Ps. 79:8; Ps. 106:4-5). Let us ask Him to remember us with His people, according to His everlasting covenant of grace, that He would not remember our sins anymore, but that He would remember Christ’s sin-atoning blood for the remission of our sins, and receive us for Christ’s sake (Ps. 79:8-9; Heb. 9:22; 10:14, 17-18; Isa. 43:25-26)!