In the story of the thief on the cross we find the essence of our identity as Seventh-day Adventists. “This man was not,” Ellen White wrote, “a hardened criminal; he had been led astray by evil associations. . . . He had seen and heard Jesus, and had been convicted by His teaching, but he had been turned away from Him by the priests and rulers. Seeking to stifle conviction, he had plunged deeper and deeper into sin, until he was arrested, tried as a criminal, and condemned to die on the cross.”1
So he wasn’t the world’s worst wretch. But he was still a criminal, a man who had stifled conviction by plunging not just into sin but into crime, too.
Yet as he hung on the cross, he saw who Jesus really was, and he cried out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
And how did Jesus respond? Did Jesus quote one of His earlier sermons about the need for righteousness(Matt. 5:20)?Did Jesus, looking ahead, quote Hebrews about the need for “holiness” (Heb. 12:14),or the Spirit of Prophecy about overcoming “every sin and besetment”?
Suppose, before the thief died, Pilate had pardoned him and he was brought down from the cross and survived? What kind of life would he have lived?
No. Instead Jesus turned to this criminal, this thief with a faulty character who earlier had been cursing Him, and said (basically), I am telling you, right now, I am giving you the assurance, right now, that—despite your sin, your crime, your faults—“you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Suppose, before the thief died, Pilate had pardoned him and he was brought down from the cross and survived? What kind of life would he have lived? Having had such an experience with Jesus, he surely wouldn’t have gone back to being a thief. He would have become a new person, living as someone who wanted to serve the Lord, who had done so much for him. No doubt he could have claimed Paul’s promise that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Yet whether he died a mature Christian or as he did—a thief, a criminal, a sinner with character flaws—the only thing that saved him was the righteousness of Christ credited to him, a righteousness that existed only in Jesus, a righteousness that covered him at that moment—and the only righteousness that would get him through judgment. What else was going to get him through? His works or His law keeping, especially while a thief? Even had he come down from the cross and lived a noble, holy, and lovely life, that wouldn’t have saved him any more than his previous existence would have.
Ellen White wrote: “If you would gather together everything that is good and holy and noble and lovely in man and then present the subject to the angels of God as acting a part in the salvation of the human soul or in merit, the proposition would be rejected as treason.”2
Seventh-day Adventists have been called to proclaim the “everlasting gospel” to the world (Rev. 14:6, KJV); it’s the foundation of our identity. And what story better portrays the power of that gospel than this one?