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THE PENITENT THIEF.
LUKE, CHAP. XXIII. VER. 42, 43.
“Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom !
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee,-to-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
MORE than seven hundred years before the birth of our Saviour, this memorable (and, to the people to whom the prophecy was addressed, inexplicable) circumstance was foretold by Isaiah, respecting their victorious and triumphant Messiah,“ that he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” Thus it stands in our received version; but it has been more happily translated by a very learned prelate, who formerly presided over this diocese,—“his grave was appointed with the wicked, but with the rich man was his tomb.” This, doubtless, is more correct than the common reading, and certainly more closely corresponds with the actual event. As he was “ numbered with the transgressors” by an unjust sentence, he was consigned to the same ignominious end. Crucified between two thieves, with them He would, probably, have shared one common and ignoble grave, had not the counsellor of Arimathea obtained permission from Pilate, to inter the body in his own sepulchre. Thus was the rejected King of the Jews with the rich in his tomb, though appointed to the grave of the wicked.
I shall not now dwell upon the proof arising out of this remarkable fulfilment of prophecy, as it is my present object to explain a passage, which, though it has been often discussed, and very clearly elucidated, is still referred to, and urged by many, as establishing the efficacy of a late and
luctive repentance; and operates as a kind of opiate to the conscience, lulling too many into treacherous repose, to the extreme peril, if not to the absolute perdition, of their immortal souls.
Falsely accused by the malicious priests and rulers, vilified by the fickle and ignorant populace, and basely condemned by an unprincipled
judge, the divine Founder of Christianity is led forth from the hall of judgment to Mount Calvary, and suspended on the cross between two common malefactors. The event is recorded by all the Evangelists; but St. Luke alone particularizes the different behaviour of the two robbers. The one, with the gross unprincipled effrontery of an obdurate offender, upbraids in taunting language the degraded Messiah, and scoffs at his pretensions to that distinguished title—.“ If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." The other, conscious of iniquity, awakened to repentance, and struck with conviction, rebukes his unfeeling as. sociate, acknowledges the justice of their fate, and implores from his dignified fellow-sufferer mercy and acceptance —“ Dost not thou fear God, seeing that thou art in the same condemnation ?
and we, indeed, justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this man hath done nothing amiss : and he said unto Jesus,-Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom.” To this earnest supplication, the Lord, whose power he had recognised, returns this gracious reply—“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
Before I enter on the discussion of this most
striking incident, (which has been very grossly misunderstood, and very dangerously misapplied,) as some doubts have been entertained respecting the import of the word Paradise, we will endeavour to fix its meaning. The term, I believe, is not found at all in the Old Testament, and only three times in the New. St. Paul, referring to certain visions and revelations, speaks of one caught up into Paradise, and hearing unspeakable words. In the book of Revelation, it is promised to them that overcome, that they shall eat of the fruit of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of GoD-a plain allusion to the garden of Eden : and in the passage before us, our Saviour promises the penitent—" To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Heaven could not here be meant; for thither Christ did not ascend till forty days after his resurrection. St. Paul tells us, that “ He descended first into the lower parts of the earth;" and St. Peter, that, “ being put to death in the flesh, he was quickened in the Spirit, by which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison." From these texts, the fathers of the Church adopted, and inserted in the creed, the article of the descent into hell, that is, Hades, or the mansions of departed souls. To this abode,
then, this intermediate state, I conceive, the spirit of the malefactor, when released from the body, was to accompany the Spirit of the Lord.
From this most singular and unexampled circumstance, a hope has been held out, and fond expectations have been cherished, of acceptance with God, after a life of disobedience and wickedness, by an earnest and devout appeal to the Saviour at the very last moment of existence ;—with how little warrant, every man, of plain sense and unbiassed judgment, may readily perceive. Here is an instance, says the sanguine sinner, who is unwilling to renounce present unlawful gain or pleasure,here is an instance of a notorious culprit, subsisting by fraud and rapine, in violation of the laws of God and man, and terminating his baneful career by the hands of public justice ; yet at last, actually pardoned, and even assured of happiness, in consequence of his sudden faith and tardy contrition : why, then, may not I indulge the same comfortable hope of finding mercy on the bed of death ?-1, who am not half so criminal, and whose future penitence and remorse may be equally sincere ?
Let us then examine whether there be any real foundation for such hopes, either in this ex