The Quickening and Conversion of a Thief
By Lucien LeSage
Years ago I asked a man how he thought he would make it to heaven. He replied thus, “I hope my good works will outweigh my bad.” So, what if a man had lived a life of thievery? Would he need to pay back all that he had stolen, which would be a just thing to do? Would that get him into heaven? Or what if he did enough positive works the rest of his days, could that offset the evil that he had committed? What if he found himself in a situation because of circumstances that it was impossible for him to ever do one kind act toward any man? Is he without hope?
Well the Bible tells us about such a man who was a thief. A “malefactor” as he was called in Luke 23:32. When I was very young, the religious leaders who were at that time giving me religious training taught me that there was a “good thief” and a “bad thief” that were crucified along with Jesus. However, Jesus said that “there is none good but one, that is God” (Matthew 19:17). Paul says, “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:12). Even all the righteousness that we can produce in the flesh is called “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). So how could we call one good and one bad? Was one better than the other? I think not. Let us see how both of these thieves reacted to the presence of Jesus Christ who was placed between them at the first. “Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth” (Matthew 27:38-44). Notice the “thieves also” “cast the same in his teeth.” They both joined in the mocking. There were only two and they both joined in with the chief priests and the scribes and elders of Israel in mocking Jesus. Mark’s gospel verifies the same when he says “And they that were crucified with him reviled him” (Mark 15:32).
So we see from these passages that both thieves were the same in the beginning. Is it possible for a man in such a situation as this and who was joining in with the religious leaders in mocking the very Son of God, to be saved? A man who had no hope of ever getting down from that cross and undoing what he had done. Is it even possible for him to obtain heaven? When the disciples of Jesus asked him, “Who then can be saved?” He answered and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:26 and 27). Yes, it is possible for God to save even one or both of these two malefactors if He so pleased. He did save one as we shall see. One was different in the end, but why? Was he just more righteous than the other? Was he a better or good thief?
If one was different in the end, then who made the difference? Was it the thief? Well Paul gives us the answer when he asks a rhetorical question of the Corinthians. “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1st Corinthians 4:7). Both thieves had heard something about this Jesus but in a mocking way. The mockers were repeating what Jesus had said and claimed during his earthly ministry, such as, “if thou be the Son of God” and “he saved others” and “if he be the King of Israel” and “for he said, I AM the Son of God” and something about the raising of a temple in three days, etc. There was even a superscription of his accusation written over him, “THE KING OF THE JEWS”, which these thieves surely had seen. The mockers even said, “Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). And then we read in that same verse of both thieves, “And they that were crucified with him reviled him.” The Bible is very clear that there were only two and they both reviled Christ. But what the thieves had heard about Jesus being the Christ and a savior and the Son of God in a mocking way was absolute truth. They both rejected the truth of the Gospel. I am reminded that Paul said that the gospel was hid to them that are lost. Without a doubt the message of the gospel concerns that Jesus is the Christ and that he died for his people’s sins in a substituting way and was buried and rose again the third day according to the scriptures as Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 15:1-4. Now concerning that message Paul also tells us this, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” And again he said, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1st Corinthians 1:18 and 23-24). So we see from Paul’s testimony that the gospel by itself cannot cause men to believe it. Something else must take place and it has nothing to do with men’s free will. Notice that Paul said it was the power of God “unto them which are called.” These “are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Paul said that the Gospel was the power of God unto salvation, but he did not stop there. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16). It is power to those that believe, but to believe it a man must have a spiritual mind. The carnal mind will not receive it. The heart that all men are born with will not receive it. Something must happen to the heart in order to receive it.
In the gospels we read of a parable that our Lord spoke concerning the sowing of seed which illustrates the point I am making. In this parable the Lord tells us exactly what it means so there is no doubt about its meaning.
“A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:5-8)
Now we must ask. What is meant by the seed that the sower is sowing? And what is meant by the “good ground” which is the only one that produces any fruit? Well the Lord tells us. He says that the “seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). But it is the word of God that is preached indiscriminately which is different than the voice of Christ. When Christ said, “let there be light” there was light. When Christ said, “Lazarus come forth” we read that “he that was dead came forth.” When Christ calls the dead they will hear his voice and live. When Christ commands that the heart be opened it is opened.
Now what is the “good ground”? I have said in the past that the good ground was plowed ground and that it was plowed up by the Holy Spirit. While that may have a ring of truth to it let’s see what the Lord said the good ground was, for he tells us. “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” Luke 8:15). "They, which in an honest and GOOD HEART...?" Please notice that the seed, which was the preached word of God, did not make the ground good but fell on ground that was already good or was made good by something other than the seed that fell on it. So, the Lord did not use the seed to make the ground good but made the ground good apart from the seed and then because the ground was made good by His grace the seed brought forth fruit. The same seed fell on three other types of ground and no fruit was ever produced. Only when it fell on good ground was any fruit produced. Only the voice of Son of God can make the ground good. Here is the great blunder of Gospel preaching regeneration. But please, I am not saying that the Holy Spirit works apart from the preached word. I am simply trying to show cause and effect. If what Jesus says is true and I do not dare doubt it, then according to those that hold to the preaching of the gospel as causing regeneration, the Gospel only regenerates good people. As we have already pointed out the sowing of the seed did not make the ground good. So how is the ground good when Jesus said that “there is none good but one, that is, God”? (Matthew 19:17). And didn’t Paul say that “there is none that doeth good”? Well, that is absolutely correct. Now notice in Luke's account of this parable Jesus spoke of the heart being honest and good and yet Jeremiah says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Do we have a contradiction here? No, a thousand times no! A. W. Pink said, "The heart is the same to the soul as the eye is to the body." Therefore just as a blinded eye cannot see natural light, the blinded heart cannot see spiritual light. So we read of Paul saying, "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:" (Ephesians 4:18). Now if this is true then what has to happen in the heart? Well Jeremiah did say, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” but he also said concerning the Lord, “And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:7). Again the Lord said through the prophet, “And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). Then we read of Ezekiel declaring the words of the Lord. “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh:” (Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26).
Now notice in the book of Acts we are told about a certain woman named Lydia that heard the preaching of Paul. This is what is said concerning her. “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, THAT SHE ATTENDED unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14). It does not say that the Lord used the preaching of Paul to open her heart but opened her heart that she heard his preaching in the heart with the understanding. You see quickening or regeneration is the opening of the heart while conversion is the response of an opened heart to the word of God. Someone will certainly ask, what about 1st Peter 1:23 where Peter said, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” Well Peter uses a different Greek word than John does. I would like to quote Elder Curtis Pugh on this point. “Jesus used the word ‘gennao’ both times that we have the word ‘born’ in these two verses (John chapter 3). He speaks of the work of the Spirit in infusing life into a spiritually dead sinner. But Peter in his statement used a different word. He uses “anagennao” - a related word, but with an important difference in meaning and in a different tense. Surely every Baptist knows what the prefix “ana” means. It has to do with redoing something such as baptism. Our anabapist forefathers always denied that they re-baptized saying that they only baptized aright for the first time those who had been baptized by other sects. The tense is clear in the English for it says “being.” It does not say “having been,” (in the past), but present tense, “being” - an ongoing birthing. Jesus spoke of regeneration as a birth. Peter spoke of the Christian's ongoing conversion or sanctification. Jesus said regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit. Peter said conversion is a work of the Word of God. It is important to remember that it is the spirit of man that is dead prior to regeneration. The spirit of man is that which if alive is capable of knowing God. His soul is very much alive for by a man's soul he is self conscious and conscious of his natural surroundings. A man's soul does not need life, his spirit does. A man's spirit does not need conversion, it needs regeneration. It is a man's soulish life – his life as a natural man – that needs conversion. And so, rightly understood, there is no conflict between the Lord Jesus and Peter.” (end of quote). Then there is the verse in James that will be called into question. “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18). But this word speaks of being brought forth or delivered which is exactly how the word was translated in James 1:15 where we read “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” So there was a conception of lust which brought forth or begat death. So again James is speaking of the word of God delivering the quickened sinner. Converting his soul and fashioning the new creature in Christ by the word of God. In Jesus parable without the seed that was sown there would have never been any fruit.
Before we get to the thief I would like to point out one more account concerning the parable of the sower. In Matthew’s account it is the understanding that is different. The difference was that the good ground hearer is he that "understandeth" (Matthew 13:23). But again we read, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3;11). So how is understanding brought about? Well we read in Luke “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45). It does not say that he used the scriptures to open their understanding. The potential to understand must be given first. A spiritual mind is necessary first and that is given in regeneration or quickening. The scriptures give understanding but they do not open it. Spiritual understanding involves the heart as well for Jesus said, “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” Notice understanding with an opened heart and then conversion. Listen to Paul, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1st Corinthians 2:12). Being quickened by the spirit of God is what enabled us to know. Concerning the seed that was sown let us point out again that while it was not the seed that made the ground good yet it was the seed that caused the good ground to bring forth fruit. Without the seed there is no fruit. Without the Gospel there is no object for our faith. We are not hyper-calvinist. We believe that the Holy Spirit always works in connection with the preaching of the gospel. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). But before they can hear that spiritual message they need to have their spiritual ears opened. A blinded eye cannot see light but a seeing eye cannot see without light. Both must be present for sight. A hearing ear and sound must both be present for hearing.
In the parable of the sower the Lord also said: "He that HATH EARS to hear, let him hear." (Luke 8:8). So I ask, “what is needed first, the hearing or the hearing ear?” A man needs a hearing ear before he can hear. This is true in the natural world and is true in the spiritual world as well or else Jesus would have never used it as an example. One must be present before the other can take place. The potential to hear must be present in order to hear. Where does the hearing ear come from? Where does the seeing eye come from? “The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the LORD hath made even both of them” (Proverbs 20:12). Both physical and spiritual.
Let me add a couple statements by Milburn Cockrell and W. E. Best before returning to the thief. Brother Cockrell said that, "the Holy Spirit regenerates or quickens the spirit of man. The spirit of man - when made alive by regeneration is that which can know and experience God. The Word of God converts the soul of man. The soul of man is that by which man has self consciousness and is also aware of natural surroundings." W. E. Best said that "Regeneration is not in itself an experience; conversion is a series of Christian experiences.... A person knows nothing of the beginning of his existence. Conversion, however, is always an awareness of what is taking place; therefore, it is experimental. Repentance and faith are experiences known to the person born of God." I would add that the word of God is what gives knowledge and brings forth and delivers the sinner out of darkness into light but it is the Holy Spirit that quickens the dead sinner. Only the Holy Spirit can bring spiritual life. As we have endeavored to demonstrate, a blind man needs to have his blindness cured before he can see but without light he still sees nothing.
Now let’s get back to the thief on the cross. I have labored to show that what happened to this thief was not the result of his making a decision for Jesus any more than Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Paul was apprehended by the Lord Jesus. It was not that this thief decided to turn over a new leaf in life. No, as we have shown he was the same as the other in the beginning and then something happened. I contend that when it did it was immediate and what followed was his conversion. It was something from without that worked within him. It was wrought by the Holy Spirit of God resulting in his conversion which was an experience.
Let us now look at the progression that took place in this thief that Luke gives account of. No man will be saved apart from repentance and faith in the Gospel. Repentance is always first. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). And again, “And saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Men must repent and as Jesus said, “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” But there is something that worketh repentance. Paul tells us, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2nd Corinthians 7:10). I would like to show you all of this in the thief on the cross.
What now follows is a manifestation of the instantaneous event that came within him but from without. It was wrought in him by the Holy Spirit. Remember the good ground is he that understandeth and has a good and honest heart and receives the word as Jesus tells us. I read in Proverbs 9:10 that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” In Proverbs 1:7 it “is the beginning of knowledge.” Remember also that the mocking that he had heard and joined in with was truth.
Now, what does Luke tell us about what happened first? Instead of joining the other thief as he had done in mocking Christ he now tells him, "Dost not thou fear God seeing thou art in the same condemnation?" (Luke 23:40). He is experiencing the “beginning of knowledge and understanding.” The Holy Spirit has opened his understanding and now he has “godly sorrow” which will bring about repentance. He may have feared Roman justice but he now fears the God of heaven who will judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).
Next we see his repentance toward God for he now says, "And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds:" (Luke 23:41). Justly before God who is to be feared, not simply the law of the land. The thief was now convinced of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. THE HOLY SPIRIT HAS MADE THE GROUND GOOD TO RECIEVE THE WORDS THAT AT FIRST HE MOCKED. All those mocking words, “he saved others”, and “if thou be the Son of God”, and “if he be the King of Israel”, and “for he said, I am the Son of God” was suddenly truth to his heart. The Lord through the work of the Holy Spirit has taken away the stony heart and given him a heart of flesh.
He now sees the righteousness of Christ and now believes all that had been said about him in a mocking way. He says "but this man hath done nothing amiss" (Luke 23: 41). He now believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel and the Lord of the kingdom else he would have never said what comes next. He knows that Jesus is without sin. He believes that He is the sinless Son of God.
He now has no place to turn but the LORD Jesus Christ. He is shut up to the mercy of God. He is hanging on a tree with no way out. He can never come down and try to undo the wrong he has done. What an awful predicament he found himself to be in! He had heard the mockers say “he saved others” and indeed he needed to be saved. He knew “for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” He now seeks mercy from Christ. This is a plea for mercy and not a demand or a right that he thought he had. He now says, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42). It's a plea because the Lord is not under obligation to remember him and he knows that if the Lord does not then he is toast and doomed to eternal damnation. Notice, he knows Jesus as Lord and King before he knows him as his personal savior.
Then what comes next must have been beyond his comprehension. He now receives such a statement from the Lord that it must have been unfathomable to his lost soul. He receives the assurance of salvation from the Lord's promise. Jesus cannot lie. "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Oh the peace that must have flooded his soul. Grace had taught his heart to fear God and now grace had relieved that fear of eternal damnation as the song writer wrote in “Amazing Grace.” Now he knows Him experimentally as savior. He now has rest and what a rest it was! A rest in the promise of Christ. He is saved from his sins. He is safe for evermore. Death cannot separate him from the love that is in Christ Jesus. He has Jesus' promise. His Lord was taking care of his sin problem at that very time in history by the sacrifice of himself. Somewhere in there between his mocking of Christ and his question to the other thief when he asked “dost not thou fear God” he was quickened by the Holy Spirit and then his soul was converted by the truth he had heard.
Multitudes sing “Amazing Grace” in gatherings across this land. How many have experienced what this thief has experienced? We cannot simply trust in an experience but salvation is an experience. How many are trusting in a prayer they have prayed and have never experienced conversion as a result of being quickened? “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) (Ephesians 2;1-5). You see it’s not you or me anything. It’s “but God”. We were dead in our sins, even as others “but God” hath quickened us otherwise we would continue to reject the work of Christ for salvation with the rest of the lost and dying world.
A quick note on responsibility. Men are responsible to keep all the moral law of God not only in the letter but also in the spirit. They are responsible to love the Lord God with all their heart and neighbor as themselves. They are responsible to live as though they have spiritual life because men were alive in Adam, but when Adam fell we all fell in him but God’s requirements did not change. However, they are not responsible to give themselves life for only God can give life. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). There is no command that can be obeyed that will grant life. The Bible does say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31), but when it comes to regeneration that is from above we read that “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1st John 5:1), that is already, “IS” born, not shall be born. Repentance and faith are the evidences of regeneration. W. E. Best said, “Since regeneration is presented as the act of the sovereign God, it is never presented as a duty of the sinner. The demands of the gospel upon sinners are limited to the terms of repentance and faith.” “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Brother Wilbur Johnson when asked what man's responsibility was, said, "To believe every word that God has said. To love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, but it won't get you there."
How do we know that we have been regenerated or are mere professors? Well, are we trusting in the Lord Jesus with all of our being? Is His substitutionary work on the cross the object of our hope? Have we believed in the heart as well as the mind? (Romans 10:9-10). Have we been converted like the thief and seen our own sinfulness and lostness with no place to go but the righteousness of Christ? Does God’s Spirit witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God? (Romans 8:16). Do we love the brethren? (1John 3:14). You say, “Brother Lucien, Yes!” Then God gave all that to you and it started with the quickening of your dead spirit and the converting of your soul by His grace through the preaching of the Gospel.
Give Him the Glory!
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