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'Or do you distrust his grace? Still keep your eyes directed to the cross. If he could, at any time, be regardless of the cries of anxious sinners, surely it must be at that hour, when his own personal distress was wrought up to its highest pitch. Now were his limbs racked with pain; his head wounded with thorns; his hands and feet pierced with nails; his flesh torn with stripes; his ears filled with reproaches; his soul overwhelmed with anguish. But in the extremity of these sufferings, he felt a tender compassion for a poor malefactor, who hung by his side. He did not indeed exert his miraculous power to deliver the man from death; but he displayed the riches of his grace in saving his soul from hell. What wonderful! what unexampled mercy is here! If this malefactor, who applied to Jesus on the cross, was so readily accepted; surely they who penitently cry to him now, when he sits on his throne of grace, will in no wise meet a denial.
But you will say, "We have no doubt either of the power, or the grace of Christ; our fears arise wholly from a sense of our numerous transgressions, and accumulated guilt."
If this is the state of your mind, still attend to the example before you. Here is a man who had been a thief and a robber—a man who had run to such lengths in wickedness, that he was judged unfit to live any longer; a man who had neglected the concerns of religion to a late period of life; and probably had never seriously thought of a reformation, until he found himself in the hands of justice, and in danger of a violent and infamous death. Yet this man by the abundant grace of Christ, was brought to repentance, admitted to pardon, and received to the paradise of God. For this cause the thief obtained mercy, that in him as one of the chief of sinners, Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering for a pattern and encouragement to them, who afterward should believe in him to life everlasting.
"Well then," the careless sinner will say, "here is this remedy of a death-bed repentance; on this I may rely to cancel the guilt of a wicked life. This thief was a greater sinner than I am; and greater than probably I ever shall be; yet he, under many disadvantages, obtained mercy, at the last hour. I will dismiss all my
troublesome reflections and fearful forebodings, and walk in the way of my own heart and in the sight of my own eyes.”
But stay, my friend; consider well what a resolution you are forming. This is not to improve, but to pervert the example before you. The only use which you can reasonably make of it, is to encourage yourself in an immediate application to the mercy of God. Here is not the least ground for presumption on a late repentance.
Consider what a kind of repentance this criminal exercised. If you rely on a death-bed repentance, you must mean by it something which is within the compass of your own power. For if you are dependent on the grace of God, you can be sure of a future repentance, no farther than you are sure that God will vouchsafe to you his grace. You think, perhaps, that the thief's repentance consisted in this petition; "Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom." As much as this you may probably say, if you should have the warning which he had. But attend carefully to the story, and you will see, that his repentance was a greater matter. If you expect the pardon which he obtained, seek it by the same kind of repentance, by which he sought it. However wickedly he had spent his former life, he improved the close of it in such a manner, as few had done before, and few, perhaps, will do again.
This malefactor believed in Christ as the Saviour of the world, when one of his own disciples had betrayed him, another had denied him, and all had forsaken him. He honoured him as the Son of God and the prince of life, when he was hanging on the cross and suffering the pains of death, as one forsaken of heaven and earth. He proclaimed him the Lord of paradise, when Jews condemned him, and Gentiles crucified him as a blasphemer and impostor. He feared his God, owned the justice of his sentence, and quietly submitted to his punishment, even in the extremity of his sufferings. He condemned himself as a sinner, and justified Jesus, who was crucified with him, declaring that he himself suffered only the due reward of his deeds, but Jesus had done nothing amiss. He expressed no solicitude for the preservation of his life; his only concern was for the salvation of his soul. He asked the
Saviour, not that he would rescue him from that infamous cross, but that he would remember him in the kingdom of glory. He rebuked the impiety of his fellow criminal, exhorted him to the fear of God, and put him in mind of the justice of his condemnation. In a word, he did all, that, under his circumstances, could be done. The glory which he gave to Christ by his penitence, faith, piety and charity on the cross, was such as few have given him in the whole course of a long life.
Think not then, that a few expiring words will be accepted for repentance: You must turn to the Lord with your whole heart. If you trust in the example now before you, take it as it stands. It is, indeed, an example of a late repentance: but an eminent example. You will scarcely find another which can equal it. On such a repentance as this, be it ever so late, you will doubtless be accepted. But that you shall exercise such a repentance on a death bed, you cannot promise yourself. It is therefore the greatest presumption to defer till such a time, so serious and necessary a work.
Consider farther; It is by no means certain, that this thief was so late in beginning his preparation for death. It was upon the eross that he gave the striking evidence of his repentance. But can you tell, how much time he had before spent in prayer, humiliation and self-examination? A season of confinement must have preceded his trial and execution. Do you know what use he made of this season? He seems to have been acquainted with Christ, the innocence of his life, and the divinity of his character. These things he could not have learnt on the cross; he must have had some knowledge of them before he came there. It is therefore probable, that the time between his first imprisonment and his execution was spent in religious exercises. If so, his case but little resembles that of a sinner, who thinks nothing about religion, till he comes to his death bed. And surely, the example of one who employed weeks, or perhaps months, in the work of preparing himself for eternity, and who embraced the first opportunity that he had to testify his repentance of sin, and his faith in a Saviour, and to express his charity to men, and his submission to the justice of providence, can give no reasonable encouragement
to any sinner to delay his repentance, till he sees death approach ing.
But still perhaps you choose to think that his first serious thoughts were on the cross. We will admit the supposition. But then we must also admit another supposition, not much in your favour; that this was the first opportunity he had to become acquainted with Christ, and with the way of salvation through him Hence, then, it will follow, that he had not sinned against such light, abused such grace, rejected such calls, and broken such vows, as you have done, who have enjoyed the gospel from your youth. You are not, like him, a thief or a robber; but, in the sight of heaven, you may be more deeply guilty than he was, because you have abused those advantages and opportunities, which he never enjoyed. If a sinner, who obeyed the first call of the Saviour, obtained mercy at a late hour of life; will you hence conclude, that you can obtain mercy at as late an hour, although you have not only rejected the calls of the gospel in time past, but continue to reject them still? By your impenitence under all the means of grace, you make your case so vastly different from his, that this example, I am afraid, will soon be little to your purpose. It affords you encouragement to repent now; but this is all: It gives you none to delay.
Consider again; You cannot be sure, that you shall have as much warning of death, and as much time after warning, as it is probable this criminal had. Being apprehended, condemned and sentenced to die, he well knew he had not many weeks to live. He therefore had no temptation to delay his repentance in prospect of a long life, or a more convenient season. Who knows but you may be destroyed suddenly and without remedy? Who knows but you may be driven away in your wickedness and have no hope in your death? While life and health remain, you flatter yourself with a future opportunity of repentance. But if your 'death should be the instant effect of some violent and unforeseen accident or disease, where is your intended repentance? Or if your last sickness should be attended with a delirium, a stupor, or agonizing pain, which is no uncommon case, your condition would be little more hopeful.
But admitting, that you should be capable of consideration; can you say, what a turn your thoughts may take, and what effect they will produce in the state of your mind? When you behold your sins standing in order before you-when you reflect on your long and continued abuse of divine grace-when you contemplate your violated promises and broken vows; your conscience. may be affrighted at the prodigious magnitude of your guilt, and your soul amazed at the dismal prospect before you. And how do you know, but your past presumption may now terminate in the horrors of despair.
There is also an opposite state of mind equally inconsistent with repentance: I mean hardness of heart, which may be the effect of your continuance in sin. The scripture speaks of those "who despise the riches of God's goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering, and, after their hard and impenitent heart, treasure up to themselves wrath against the day of wrath”—of those, “who, being often reproved, harden their necks, till they are suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy"-of those "who, in the greatness of their folly, go astray, till they are holden in the cords of their sins, and die at last without instruction."
There is another remarkable difference between the thief's case and yours. There is no intimation, that he delayed his repentance on presumption of a future opportunity. He was probably bred up in ignorance of religion, seduced into a course of wickedness, and beguiled along, till God mercifully interposed to awaken and reclaim him. At least, it does not appear, but that this was the case.
From the lateness of his repentance, then, what encouragement ean you. draw to delay yours; or to presume that you shall obtain mercy at last as he did; when this very presumption is an aggravation of guilt, which entirely distinguishes your case from his?
It appears then, that, from the example before us, sinners under the gospel can derive no encouragement to delay their repentance; though, indeed, they may hence collect strong hopes of mercy, when they frame their ways to turn to the Lord.
To enforce the cautions and warnings that have been suggested, we will contemplate the impenitence and obstinacy of the other malefactor on the cross.