Are Your Sins On You? Or Are They On Jesus?

The Gospel Illustrated: Which Criminal Are You?

Luke volume 2 Hughes

Luke 23:39-45

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 

The old divines used to say about this text, “One alone was saved upon the Cross that none might despair; and only one, that none might presume.” The thief’s redemption makes it clear that salvation does not come by works. It is all of grace (cf. Romans 11:6). To presume on our works is to be lost.

At the same time we must not despair. Are we caught in sin, perhaps sin so unspeakable that if others knew they would consider us a wretch or worse? Do we imagine we are beyond grace? If so, we are wrong. The only thing that will put us beyond hope is to be like the thief who rejected Christ. He died that day only to become one of the “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13).

The thief’s redemption assures us that it is never too late to turn to Christ. Samuel Johnson was fond of quoting a hopeful epitaph for those who despair. The image is that of a man being pitched to his death from horseback.

*”Between the stirrup and the ground,

I mercy ask’d, I mercy found”

The thief’s reward was Heaven to its fullest—Paradise face to face with Jesus. In Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), the workers who were hired for the last hour were paid the same as those who had labored all day. The landowner’s response to the workers’ complaint was, “ ‘Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (vv. 14–16).

My wife’s father died a terrible death with emphysema. But at the eleventh hour he wonderfully repented and turned to Christ in faith. My wife and I came home to Wheaton, Illinois, to attend another funeral over which famed author Joe Bayly officiated. Joe read that parable and said, “Those that come last receive as much as the first!” Our hearts were elevated as we reflected on the grace of God that had come to my wife’s dear father.

Luke’s account of the cross is not about a good thief but about a sinful, wretched thief and a good Savior. It is about the fact that Jesus loved to forgive our sins:

We have heard the joyful sound—

Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Spread the tidings all around—

Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Waft it on the rolling tide—

Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Tell to sinners far and wide—

Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

“Jesus Saves” by Priscilla J. Owens

One Saturday morning Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse was in his study working when the custodian came in and announced there was a man outside to see him, giving him the man’s card. Dr. Barnhouse read the card, which indicated that the visitor was the captain of the Mauritania, the largest passenger vessel afloat.

When Dr. Barnhouse went out to meet the man, the captain said, “You have a very beautiful church here.” Dr. Barnhouse replied, “We are grateful for all that was done by our faithful predecessors a hundred years ago.” The captain said, “It is very much like the Basilica at Ravenna in Italy.” Dr. Barnhouse responded, “Well, it is an architectural duplication. In fact, years ago they brought workmen from Italy, and the tessellated ceilings and the marble columns and the mosaics were all done by Italian workmen. But that’s not what you came to talk about. You didn’t come to talk about architecture, did you?”

The man said, “No. Twenty-three times a year I sail the Atlantic. When I come down the bank of Newfoundland, I hear your broadcast out of Boston. And as I came this week I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got twenty-four hours in New York. I’m going to go down and see Dr. Barnhouse.’ So I took a train, hoping perhaps I would be able to meet you, and here I am.” Dr. Barnhouse was very straightforward as he said, “Sir, have you been born again?” The captain replied, “That is what I came to see you about.”

By this time they had reached a chalkboard in the prayer room, and Dr. Barnhouse drew three crosses. Underneath the first one he wrote the word “in.” Underneath the third he wrote the word “in.” Underneath the middle cross he wrote the words, “not in.” He said, “Do you understand what I mean when I say those men who died with Jesus had sin within them?” The captain thought and said, “Yes, I do. But Christ did not have sin within him.” Then over the first cross and over the third cross Dr. Barnhouse wrote the word “on.” He said, “Do you understand what that means?” The captain wrinkled his brow.

Dr. Barnhouse said, “Let me illustrate. Have you ever run through a red light?” “Yes.” “Were you caught?” The man said, “No.” “Well, in running that red light you had sin in you. If you would have been caught, you would have had sin on you. So here the thieves bear the penalty of God.” Then he wrote another “on” over Jesus Christ and said, “The one thief’s sins rested on Christ by virtue of his faith in Christ. The other man’s sins remained upon him. Which one are you?”

The man was a very tall, distinguished man, and as he stood Dr. Barnhouse could see that he was fighting back tears. He said to Dr. Barnhouse, “By the grace of God, I am the first man.” Dr. Barnhouse said, “You mean your sins are on Jesus?” He said, “Yes. God says my sins are on Jesus!” He shot out his hand and said, “That’s what I came to find out!” Dr. Barnhouse invited him to lunch and shared with him further, and the man went back to New York a glowing Christian (Donald Grey Barnhouse, The Love Life. Glenddale, CA: Regal, 1974, pp. 270–273).

All of us, like the thieves, have sin in us. But some of us have the penalty of sin resting on us, and others have by grace had it shifted over to Christ. Is your sin on you or on Christ in whom there is no sin? That is the great question.

– Illustration by Donald Grey Barnhouse adapted from Chapter 49 in Kent Hughes. Luke: Volume 2 (The Preaching The Word Commentary Series). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

*Note: James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson. London: Penguin, 1979, p. 299. Johnson. ‘Sir, we are not to judge determinately of the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted by God. There is in Camden’s Remains, an epitaph upon a very wicked man, who was killed by a fall from his horse, in which he is supposed to say, “Between the stirrup and the ground, I mercy asked, I mercy found.”

Author: lifecoach4God

I am the Lead Pastor of Marin Bible Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 30 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.

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