Do you think Jesus was being biased when He promised the thief on the cross Paradise (cf. Luke 23:42-43), and yet warned the people that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 7:21)? The thief says: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). How is that different from “Lord, Lord”? Why are Jesus’ responses so different? To the thief he replies: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). In contrast, Jesus says “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt 7:23) to those who says “Lord, Lord”. Didn’t the thief practice lawlessness as well? Let us take a closer look at the two gospel passages to find out what could possibly lead to the vast differences in Jesus’ replies.
At the scene of the crucifixion, “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).
As soon as Christ was fastened to the cross, he prayed for those who crucified him. The great thing he died to purchase and procure for us, is the forgiveness of sin. This he prays for. Jesus was crucified between two thieves; in them were shown the different effects the cross of Christ would have upon the children of men in the preaching of the gospel. One malefactor was hardened to the last. No troubles of themselves will change a wicked heart. The other was softened at the last: he was snatched as a brand out of the burning, and made a monument of Divine mercy. This gives no encouragement to any to put off repentance to their death-beds, or to hope that they shall then find mercy. It is certain that true repentance is never too late; but it is as certain that late repentance is seldom true. None can be sure they shall have time to repent at death, but every man may be sure he cannot have the advantages this penitent thief had. We shall see the case to be singular, if we observe the uncommon effects of God’s grace upon this man. He reproved the other for railing on Christ. He owned that he deserved what was done to him. He believed Jesus to have suffered wrongfully. Observe his faith in this prayer. Christ was in the depth of disgrace, suffering as a deceiver, and not delivered by his Father. He made this profession before the wonders were displayed which put honour on Christ’s sufferings, and startled the centurion. He believed in a life to come, and desired to be happy in that life; not like the other thief, to be only saved from the cross. Observe his humility in this prayer. All his request is, Lord, remember me. Thus he was humbled in true repentance, and he brought forth all the fruits for repentance his circumstances would admit. Christ upon the cross, is gracious like Christ upon the throne. Though he was in the greatest struggle and agony, yet he had pity for a poor penitent. By this act of grace we are to understand that Jesus Christ died to open the kingdom of heaven to all penitent, obedient believers. It is a single instance in Scripture; it should teach us to despair of none, and that none should despair of themselves; but lest it should be abused, it is contrasted with the awful state of the other thief, who died hardened in unbelief, though a crucified Saviour was so near him. Be sure that in general men die as they live.
Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23)
We have here the conclusion of this long and excellent sermon, the scope of which is to show the indispensable necessity of obedience to the commands of Christ; this is designed to clench the nail, that it might fix in a sure place: he speaks this to his disciples, that sat at his feet whenever he preached, and followed him wherever he went. Had he sought his own praise among men, he would have said, that was enough; but the religion he came to establish is in power, not in word only (cf. 1 Cor. 4:20), and therefore something more is necessary.
He shows, by a plain remonstrance, that an outward profession of religion, however remarkable, will not bring us to heaven, unless there be a correspondent conduct (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). All judgment is committed to our Lord Jesus; the keys are put into his hand; he has power to prescribe new terms of life and death, and to judge men according to them: now this is a solemn declaration pursuant to that power. Observe here:
1. Christ’s law laid down (cf. Matt. 7:21). Not everyone that says, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, into the kingdom of grace and glory. It is an answer to that question (cf. Ps. 15:1). Who shall sojourn in your tabernacle?–the church militant; and who shall dwell in your holy hill?–the church triumphant. Christ here shows:
a. That it will not suffice to say, Lord, Lord; in word and tongue to own Christ for our Master, and to make addresses to him, and professions of him accordingly: in prayer to God, in discourse with men, we must call Christ, Lord, Lord; we say well, for so he is (cf. John 13:13); but can we imagine that this is enough to bring us to heaven, that such a piece of formality as this should be so recompensed, or that he who knows and requires the heart should be so put off with shows for substance? Compliments among men are pieces of civility that are returned with compliments, but they are never paid as real services; and can they then be of an account with Christ? There may be a seeming importunity in prayer, Lord, Lord: but if inward impressions be not answerable to outward expressions, we are but as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. This is not to take us off from saying, Lord, Lord; from praying, and being earnest in prayer, from professing Christ’s name, and being bold in professing it, but from resting in these, in the form of godliness, without the power.
b. That it is necessary to our happiness that we do the will of Christ, which is indeed the will of his Father in heaven. The will of God, as Christ’s Father, is his will in the gospel, for there he is made known, as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: and in him our Father. Now this is his will, that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another. This is his will, even our sanctification. If we comply not with the will of God, we mock Christ in calling him Lord, as those did who put on him a gorgeous robe, and said, Hail, King of the Jews. Saying and doing are two things, often parted in the behaviour of men: he that said, I go, sir, stirred never a step (cf. Matt. 21:30); but these two things God has joined in his command, and let no man that puts them asunder think to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
2. The hypocrite’s plea against the strictness of this law, offering other things in lieu of obedience (cf. Matt. 7:22). The plea is supposed to be in that day, that great day, when every man shall appear in his own colours; when the secrets of all hearts shall be manifest, and among the rest, the secret pretences with which sinners now support their vain hopes. Christ knows the strength of their cause, and it is but weakness; what they now harbour in their bosoms, they will then produce in arrest of judgment to stay the doom, but is will be in vain. They put in their plea with great importunity, Lord, Lord; and with great confidence, appealing to Christ concerning it; Lord, don’t you know, (1.) That we have prophesied in your name? Yes, it may be so; Balaam and Caiaphas were overruled to prophesy, and Saul was against his will among the prophets, yet that did not save them. These prophesied in his name, but he did not send them; they only made use of his name to serve a turn. A man may be a preacher, may have gifts for the ministry, and an external call to it, and perhaps some success in it, and yet be a wicked man; may help others to heaven, and yet come short himself. (2.) That in your name we have cast out devils? That may be too; Judas cast out devils, and yet was a son of perdition. Origen says, that in his time so prevalent was the name of Christ to cast out devils that sometimes it availed when named by wicked Christians. A man might cast devils out of others, and yet have a devil, nay, be a devil himself. (3.) That in thy name we have done many wonderful works. There may be a faith of miracles, where there is no justifying faith; none of that faith which works by love and obedience. Gifts of tongues and healing would recommend men to the world, but it is real holiness or sanctification that is accepted of God. Grace and love are a more excellent way than removing mountains, or speaking with the tongues of men and of angels (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-2). Grace will bring a man to heaven without working miracles, but working miracles will never bring a man to heaven without grace. Observe that which their heart was upon, in doing these works, and which they confided in, was the wonderfulness of them. Simon Magus wondered at the miracles (cf. Acts 8:13), and therefore would give any money for power to do the like. They had not many good works to plead: they could not pretend to have done many gracious works of piety and charity; one such would have passed better in their account than many wonderful works, which availed not at all, while they persisted in disobedience. They think they shall go to heaven, because they have been of good repute among professors of religion, have kept fasts, and given alms, and have been preferred in the church; as if this would atone for their reigning pride, worldliness, and sensuality; and want of love to God and man. Bethel is their confidence (cf. Jer. 48:13), they are haughty because of the holy mountain (cf. Zeph. 3:11); and boast that they are the temple of the Lord (cf. Jer. 7:4). Let us take heed of resting in external privileges and performances, lest we deceive ourselves, and perish eternally, as multitudes do, with a lie in our right hand.
3. The rejection of this plea as frivolous. The same that is the Law-Maker (cf. Matt. 7:21) is here the Judge according to that law (cf. Matt. 7:23), and he will overrule the plea, will overrule it publicly; he will profess to them with all possible solemnity, as sentence is passed by the Judge, I never knew you, and therefore depart from me, you that work iniquity.—Observe, (1.) Why, and upon what ground, he rejects them and their plea—because they were workers for iniquity. It is possible for men to have a great name for piety, and yet to be workers of iniquity; and those that are so will receive the greater damnation. Secret haunts of sin, kept under the cloak of a visible profession, will be the ruin of the hypocrites. Living in known sin nullifies men’s pretensions, be they ever so specious. (2.) How it is expressed; I never knew you; “I never owned you as my servants, no, not when you prophesied in my name, when you were in the height of your profession, and were most extolled.” This intimates, that if he had ever known them, as the Lord knows them that are his, had ever owned them and loved them as his, he would have known them, and owned them, and loved them, to the end; but he never did know them, for he always knew them to be hypocrites, and rotten at heart, as he did Judas; therefore, says he, depart from me. Has Christ need of such guests? When he came in the flesh, he called sinners to him (cf. Matt. 9:13), but when he shall come again in glory, he will drive sinners from him. They that would not come to him to be saved, must depart from him to be damned. To depart from Christ is the very hell of hell; it is the foundation of all the misery of the damned, to be cut off from all hope of benefit from Christ and his mediation. Those that go no further in Christ’s service than a bare profession, he does not accept, nor will he own them in the great day. See from what a height of hope men may fall into the depth of misery! How they may go to hell, by the gates of heaven! This should be an awakening word to all Christians. If a preacher, one that cast out devils, and wrought miracles, be disowned of Christ for working iniquity; what will become of us, if we be found such? And if we be such, we shall certainly be found such. At God’s bar, a profession of religion will not bear out any man in the practice and indulgence of sin; therefore let everyone that professes the name of Christ, depart from all iniquity.
In conclusion, Christ died to open the kingdom of heaven to all penitent, obedient believers. The example of the thief on the cross shows that it is never too late to repent and be saved. In contrast, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that a profession of religion will not bear out any man in the practice and indulgence of sin. Therefore, as children of God we should confess our sins and do the Father’s will by His Grace to His Glory.
Let us pray this beautiful verse with a penitent and obedient heart asking our Lord Jesus to remember us: