What kind of life have you lived? Are you one of those people who believe that you’ll go to heaven when you die because you’re a good person? If so, how good is good enough to deserve heaven?
I’ve asked this question to many people over the years and generally they say that they’ve never murdered anyone, they haven’ stolen from anyone or intentionally hurt anyone. Some respond that they’ve never committed any of the cardinal sins.
To most of these, I ask them to show me in Scripture where it defines which sins prevent you going to heaven and which sins are so minor that they won’t keep you out of heaven?
Often at this point many of them will turn to the Ten Commandments and say that they’ve never broken any of them so therefore they believe they’ll go to heaven based upon that merit. So I ask them if they ever kept a pen or pencil that belonged to someone else or did they ever get upset at or disobey their parents? Oops, you broke a commandment. I ask them if they ever told the smallest of little white lies to anyone. Oops, they broke a commandment. Have they ever put anything or anyone before God for any reason? Oops, there goes another commandment.
It doesn’t take long for people to realize that they are sinners to a worse degree than they had realized. Then I again ask them if they believe they will go to heaven when they die and if so, why? It’s amazing how many people start to have doubts and second guess the confidence they once held.
Then I ask them if they were to die today and found themselves standing before God and He were to ask them why should He let them into His heaven, what would they say? Responses are not nearly as confident as they were at the beginning.
Now it’s time to introduce them to two thieves. Both men had been caught stealing and it wasn’t their first offense. They were convicted and both were given a death sentence. One of those thieves was welcomed into heaven and the other was condemned to eternal hell.
At this point I usually have their attention and curiosity and they are eager to learn why one condemned thief was welcomed into heaven and which one wasn’t so I set the scene.
The two thieves were marched through the streets to a hill where their execution would take place. They were laid down upon a rugged wooden cross. Their arms were stretched out and large iron spikes were hammered through their palms and/or wrists. Then their legs were positioned so as to allow the large iron spikes to be nailed through both feet and/or ankles. The crosses were then lifted upright and the base set down in a hole.
The weight of their bodies now pulled on the spikes and they found it harder and harder to breathe. Death by crucifixion is a slow and very painful death, taking hours to slowly suffocate to death.
On a cross between the two thieves was a man named Jesus and Luke tells us what happened as the three men were dying:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:39-43)
Both thieves were equally guilty of their crimes yet one of them discovered the horrible reality of eternal hell and the other realized the overwhelming glory of eternal heaven. So what was the difference? It definitely wasn’t living a good life.
The one thief realized who Jesus was and believed Him to be the Messiah, the long promised Savior. It was that belief in Jesus that cleansed him of his sins. Being forgiven by his faith, the doorway to heaven was opened for a man who led a wretched life style. He didn’t have to pay any penance or do anything else but just believe. That’s the only difference between where the two men ended up spending eternity.
As we enter into the season of lent and look forward to celebrating Easter, or as I prefer to call it – Resurrection Sunday – think about which thief you are or want to be and remember the words that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)