On the day that they crucified Jesus, not one but two thieves hung beside Him–one on the left and one on the right. The princes of the people gathered there at His feet, gnashing their teeth. Like strong bulls, they surrounded Him. Was this the King of the Jews? It was written above His head in three languages: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Could there be any doubt? The chief priests said that Jesus had saved others but He could not save Himself. The truth is that He would not save Himself–He would not spare Himself in order that He might become the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Rom 8:32, 1 Jn 2:2).
Both thieves were eyewitnesses of the grace of Jesus as He lay down His own life, all the while asking the Father for the forgiveness of those that slew Him (Jn 10:18, Lk 23:34). They saw the sign that they nailed over His head. They heard the mocking. They saw His grace. They heard His preaching of final judgement (Lk 23:28-31). What then chiefly accounts for the remarkable difference in their respective dispositions toward Jesus? Both thieves begin alike: they are united in that neither is able to recognize the Christ, and they both cast the same insults at Jesus (Mt 27:44). Like all men, they were united in that they fell short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). But something remarkable happened: one thief recognizes Jesus as the Christ and calls out to Him. Why did the other remain silent? After hearing the words of Jesus that in that very day the robber would be in paradise with Him, why did He not cry out to Jesus and beg that the same be done for him?
Some would answer this by claiming that Jesus only died for one of the two thieves. Predestination is very obviously a biblical term, but we need to be careful about how we define these terms. The hyercalvinist will say that before the foundation of the world Chirst determined who it was that He would die for upon the cross. As a result, the one thief accepts Christ and the other does not–the one thief was “elect” and the other not. This supralapsarianism condemns the second thief on the cross to hell before he’s even heard the Gospel. When the Gospel is preached to him, the offer isn’t real–it’s a fraud, a pantomime of the truth. The result is always the same because the offer doesn’t even apply to him–he always goes to hell because Jesus didn’t die for him at all.
So was the offer of salvation open to both of the thieves on the cross or not? I’ll begin to answer this question by setting up a couple of foundational principles about God and the Bible. First, that the Bible is the only true, inerrant Word of God (Prov 30:4, 2 Tim 3:16); there is no other source of truth by which we can measure truth–the bible is the measuring stick of all universal truth. Second, God is not a man, so He does not lie (Num 23:19). With this in mind, remember that Jesus said before He was crucified that the Gospel would be preached to the whole world, and He gave specific instructions after his resurrection to His disciples to preach the Gospel to every single creature (Mt 24:14, Mk 16:15). In fact, after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Paul confirms that the Gospel has, in fact, gone out into all the world (Rom 10:18). If the Gospel, which is the offer of the remission of sins through faith in Jesus, has gone into all the world to every creature, then this offer must be a true offer. What does this mean? Well, if you offer me one million dollars but you don’t really have one million dollars to give, then your offer isn’t genuine–it’s a lie. It becomes an irrelevancy whether I ascent or descent because the result is always the same–in every case, I don’t get one million dollars. You get the idea.
In the same way, if the offer of the Gospel is only made to those who are “elect”, then no one could ever be said to have “rejected” the Gospel because no one ever does actually reject a true offer of salvation if only the “elect” are saved. The problem with this is that the bible clearly states that men are constantly rejecting the Gospel (Lk 10:16, Jn 12:48, Jn 1:11, 2 Thes 1:8, 1 Jn 2:23, 1 Pt 4:17, Acts 13:46, 1 Jn 2:22, 2 Pt 2:21, Mt 10:33, 1 Pt 2:4, Jn 3:36). And it is evident that our thief really did reject a real offer of the Gospel.
Like the many others throughout the scriptures noted above, this other thief really rejected a real offer of atonement for his sins. How could he reject the Gospel of his own free will if he was totally depraved (Gn 6:5)? Well, the fact is that the Holy Spirit persuades without permission. If He did not, then no man would ever hear from Him at all–every man would only rebuff Him the instant He asked permission because of their depravity. Therefore, there is a necessity that the grace of the Holy Spirit that enlightens a man and frees him from his depravity be irresistible. Once enlightened and aided to recognize the truth of the Gospel, the man is graciously enabled to accept or reject the Gospel of his own freed will. We must respond to the Gospel–it is not thrust upon us as if it were a cloak thrown over our eyes. Paul is helpful here: each man acknowledges the sinful nature in the same way that they acknowledge (or reject) Christ as Savior (Rom 5:18). The parallelism of this statement leaves us in no doubt that there is a moment of acknowledgement. The atonement does not come upon the whole world without their understanding or consent so that every man is simply saved forever by a Savior they never understood. Instead, there is a real moment in time when there is a real acceptation or rejection. The one thief verbally accepts Christ, saying “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,” but the other thief verbally rejects Him, hurling imprecations upon the Savior of the World (Lk 23:39-40). One accepts Christ and is saved while the other rejects Him and is lost.
When a man thus enlightened freely rejects the Gospel, he does so by the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit; that is to say that God graciously allows the man to reject His determinate will that every man should be saved (1 Tim 2:4). No one can resist the will of God, so even rejection of His will must be graciously enabled by Him (Rom 9:19). Thus, we find that the second thief rejected the Gospel of his own freed will. What’s more, he rejected a real offer of atonement through Jesus the Messiah. It was real. Jesus meant it. The offer was for him–even him. Christ died for both thieves or for no one at all.