Who was the thief that he suffered so much and yet endured to the end? He was just a simple thief. He was just like you and me. After Jesus died on the cross beside his, he was left alone. After Jesus died, he suffered even more cruelly under the hand of the Roman guards as they broke his legs with great iron clubs to hasten his death. How much can a man bear? Does it seem that God was asking too much of this simple thief?
With so much to endure in his future, it’s even more amazing that Jesus said–not hypothetically, but as a matter of fact–that the thief would be in heaven that very day. It’s a bold statement. It characterizes the thief’s salvation as being sufficient not only to save his soul at the end, but also to carry him through every trial and temptation to that moment when he should meet with Christ Himself. Here’s the real question: did Christ simply predict the thief’s endurance or did He Himself enable it?
Was Christ’s statement that the thief would be in heaven today simply an expression of his omniscience and foreknowledge? Did He simply express that He possessed knowledge of the thief’s endurance to the end–that He had seen it and that the thief did not lose his faith in Christ before his death? It is certainly true that Christ, being in very nature God, knew the beginning from the end and expressed the perfection of his foreknowledge here in a very striking way. That is certainly true. Does this foreknowledge limit the freedom of those of whom it is spoken “not one of them has been lost” (Jn 17:12)? Not at all. In fact, it’s the perfect foreknowledge of God that allows for the statement “I will not lose one” to be true of those that are foreknown to endure to the end while simultaneously allowing for the final apostasy of the believer. In John chapter 6, there were many who followed Jesus, who, in one single day, turned back again. Jesus taught that His flesh was meat and His blood was drink and whosoever would eat and drink of Him would have eternal life. This teaching was too much for many of those who believed in Him, and they departed. It was in this very context that Christ said that no man can come to Jesus unless it has been bestowed from the Father (Jn 6:65). He seems to discount the fact that these that departed were every really His in the first place. Men departed from belief in Him, and yet it was said of them that they were not given to Him of the Father; in other words, their transitory belief was foreknown by Christ so that their identity was–from His eternal perspective–not one of His own. This whole scene seems to be very clearly spelled out in the parable of the sower: In fact, this is very clearly spelled out step by step in the parable of the sower: there are those that will believe for a time and who, when testing comes, depart from their first faith (Lk 8:13). Far from precluding apostasy, the perfect foreknowledge of God allows for the possibility of final apostasy. However, the character of the apostasy is very important: we need now to know what type of apostasy is possible.
Apostasy must be free. What does free apostasy mean? Simply stated, free apostasy is a rejection of faith in Christ that takes place at a time when the will is graciously freed by God. Let me explain. Some see apostasy like this: you had once been believing and fell again into the sin which so easily besets us, and then, having been overwhelmed by it and enslaved to it, you renounce your faith. The will was overcome. The will is now enslaved. In this condition, the man renounces his faith. This is not the true notion of biblical apostasy. The opposite must be true. When someone comes to faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit has persuaded them and irresistibly so, to the extent that the will is freed from its bondage to sin to freely accept or reject Christ. Christ died for the whole world, surely, but the whole world will not be saved until they acknowledge Christ as Lord (Rom 10:9). In the same way, the Holy Spirit will not allow a believer to be tested about what he is able to bear (1 Cor 10:13). Thus, the believer’s freedom is maintained by the Shepherd of our souls. No test is allowed to simply overcome the believer and leave him no option except apostasy. This simply doesn’t happen. Why? Because, just as when He was here in His earthly ministry protecting and keeping his disciples safe (Jn 17:12), He is now also effectually shepherding us by the Holy Spirit in a manner that maintains the freedom that He purchased for us by His blood. Whoever is set free by the Son is free to the uttermost (Jn 8:36). No man can ever truly say, “the Lord tested me above what I could bear, and that is why I do not believe in His Son, Jesus.” No man who believes in Christ can be overcome by testing because he is kept by the power of God through faith (1 Pt 1:5). Think of Abraham, the father of all those that believe (Rom 4:16): was asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar a test that was greater than he could bear? This test was designed for Abraham with God’s knowledge. For Abraham, with the help of God, it was not greater than he could bear. His freedom was maintained–he was not overwhelmed, enslaved. This does not mean that he was incapable of saying no to God. His ability to freely answer yes or no was preserved by the Almighty.
How much could the thief on the cross bear? Only Jesus knew the answer to that question, and He did not allow that the thief should be tested above what he could bear. The test was measured out for him. It was his test. And he was tested in the presence of Christ–Jesus was with him. It is inconceivable to think that this testing at the end of his life was not more than he could bear. This particular test would seem to be testing greater than any man could bear. His faith was tested in the most incredible way, making it unthinkable that the test did not surpass his native ability to bear it. How then could the thief’s faith survive such a test? How could a simple man like you and me who’d spent the better part of his life as a slave to sin, now, suddenly, become a champion of faith, enduring to the last despite manifold testings (1 Pt 1:6)? The answer lies in where Christ was: when Christ was dead and the thief was ostensibly left alone, he was not really alone (Jn 16:32). Christ protected the thief. He kept him safe (Jn 17:12). And today, he is in heaven.