A Prayer and a Promise
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A Prayer and a Promise

Luke 23:32–43  (ID: 2360)

Throughout his writings, Luke focused on the theme of forgiveness—a theme that culminates when Jesus, suffering on the cross, asks the Father to forgive those who placed Him there. Jesus’ prayer was not a plea for God to ignore sin, Alistair Begg points out; rather, it reflected Christ’s desire for sinners to repent and receive God’s grace. One thief on the cross responded pridefully to God’s gift—but the other demonstrated a willingness to humbly accept the offered promise.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 13

The Day Jesus Died Luke 22:39–23:56 Series ID: 14215

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we pray that as we study the Bible, we may take our stand firmly upon its truth. We ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to illumine our minds and our understanding. We ask you to free us from every distraction and that we might hear from you, the living God. And in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

I invite you to return to the verses that were read for us earlier in Luke chapter 23, and our focus this morning is on the two words that Luke records for us here as spoken by Jesus from the cross. One is a prayer in verse 34, and the other is a promise, and that comes in verse 43.

Some of you who are visiting with us may be a little alarmed, perhaps disturbed, that here we are studying Easter in December; when a vast majority of the congregations throughout the city are today focusing on the Advent, on the birth of the Lord Jesus, here we are focusing on the final moments of Jesus’ life. With, if you like, all eyes on the cradle, our eyes are on the cross.

Now, we should explain that this is not simply arbitrary, nor is it because we want to be contrary in any way, but we are trying desperately hard to get to the end of chapter 23 of Luke’s Gospel. And it’s seeming to outpace us all the time.

The early Christians recognized that the significance of the cradle was found in the cross. If you like, you cannot really get to Christmas unless you approach it through Easter.

However, I have taken some comfort from the fact that we are very much at home with the Christians in the first three hundred years of the church. Because there was no celebration of Christmas until the time of Constantine—and even then, it wasn’t at all like what we think of today. Constantine, in the fourth century, is the context in which we have the first indication of the commemoration of Christmas as an event. So what were these early Christians thinking? How could they possibly miss this?

Well, in actual fact, it is fairly understandable. The early Christians recognized that the significance of the cradle was found in the cross. If you like, you cannot really get to Christmas unless you approach it through Easter—that the hour for which Jesus came into the world was the hour in which Jesus left it. And so, by some tenuous form of reasoning, I find myself able to suggest to you that it makes perfect sense to be dealing with Easter at Christmas. Whether you buy that or not, I don’t know, but it doesn’t alter the fact that our focus now is on these two verses: verse 34, and then on verse 43.

“Father, Forgive Them”

First of all, in verse 34: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” Of all the cries that came from the victims of execution, surely none was more amazing than this. The soldiers, who probably felt that they had experienced everything that a man could experience in the carrying out of their duties, soldiers who had grown accustomed to threats and vile abuse coming from those who were on the receiving end of their carrying out their instructions, soldiers who had listened to curses galore, must have found themselves looking at one another and saying, “Is he really saying, ‘Forgive them’?” “Yes,” said one to the other, “I believe he is.”

Now, of course, Jesus had instructed his disciples earlier in his ministry along these lines. You may recall in Luke 6 he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who abuse you.”[1] So in actual fact, what we discover is that Jesus is simply practicing what he has preached. And indeed, this prayer for forgiveness is in keeping with the emphasis which runs through all of Luke’s writing. I’m going to give your four references. I’m going to turn to each of them; you needn’t necessarily do so, but if it’s helpful to you, then you can follow along.

Luke 1:77. I want simply to let you see that this motif of forgiveness is at the very heart of Luke’s writing. In the song of Zechariah, Zechariah, speaking of John, says,

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
 for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
 through the forgiveness of their sins.[2]

Right at the very beginning, before we have Jesus entering into his preaching and teaching ministry, this theme is sounded: the proclaiming of salvation and the forgiveness of sins.

When Jesus then begins to minister, he encounters all kinds of people in different situations. And in Luke chapter 7, at the home of a Pharisee where he’s been invited for dinner, a dreadful thing takes place, at least for the Pharisee, for the host—namely, a sinful woman shows up. She is apparently a fairly notorious woman and gate-crashes the party. Not only is she in the room, but she then approaches Jesus and engages him in such a way that the host is absolutely appalled. And he says to himself, and perhaps to others around him, “You know, if this fellow really was a prophet as he says, then he would know who this woman is that is approaching him”[3]—the inference, of course, being that he can’t possibly be this individual, because he wouldn’t respond in this way to someone like this. But in actual fact, Jesus says to her, you know, “Your sins are forgiven.”[4] And then in verse 49: “The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” “This individual is apparently someone who can forgive sins. We thought only God forgave sins.”

Now, when you go into the Acts of the Apostles, which is Luke’s second book, and one that we’ll consider later… I don’t think we’ll do it directly; it’s probably more than any of us could handle, because after twenty-four chapters of Luke, there’s then twenty-eight chapters in Acts, and I think we’d all be about 110 by the time we finish. But when you go into the Acts of the Apostles, you discover that the motif is still there. Or, if you like, in symphonic terms, you have this recurring theme. I’m out of my depth to speak like this. Some of you know what I’m attempting to articulate; for example, in the Hebridean overture by Mendelssohn, Fingal’s Cave, you have the thing that goes approximately [hums tune]. Something like that. It’s about the only bit I know; that’s why I’m mentioning it to you. But it helps me, that little part, because when it comes again, I say, “Oh-ho, there it is again!” I smile to myself. I say, “I like that part.” [Hums.] You see? And what you discover is that this then comes and capitulates and recapitulates and does all the things that you’re supposed to do.

And in the same way, this theme, this motif of forgiveness, is running all the way through. So by the time you get to Acts 5:31, you have Peter proclaiming, “God exalted [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior”—why?—“that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” And then in chapter 10, the very same emphasis—and this is the end of all that I’m going to show you here. Peter again says, “He commanded us to preach to the people … to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.”[5] Then here we have it, verse 43: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

So in other words, you have this motif, as I say, which comes at the very start of Luke’s writings and runs as a recurring theme, as an emblem that remains all the way through. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise to us that Jesus from the cross should pray in this particular fashion. And I think this is probably one of the most famous prayers in the world. Even people who don’t know very much about prayers may actually know that at some place and time, Jesus of Nazareth said, “Father, forgive them.” But that’s usually the extent of it.

What is Jesus saying when he says, “Father, forgive them”? Is he saying, “Listen, it’s okay, Father. Don’t let’s worry about this. Let’s just let them off.” Is this some blanket expression of forgiveness on the part of Jesus that is unrelated to the response of the hearts of men and women?

Well, clearly the answer is no. And we’re able to affirm that by reading in the context in which these words are said. Jesus is about to give his life, expressly to pay the price for sin, to open the gateway into heaven. That picture is going to come graphically in a few verses’ time when the curtain in the temple is torn in two, declaring entry into the Most Holy Place. But given that he is about to do this, he is praying to his Father that those who are involved as the proponents of this atrocity, and those who carry it out, and frankly, those who stand by idly and watch it—he’s asking his Father that it may be that by grace they will be brought to see that he is actually the Savior, they will be brought to see that they are actually in need of a Savior, and then they will turn from their sin and discover that their transgressions may be blotted out completely and that their sin may be fully pardoned. Thus fulfilling what you have in Isaiah in 53:12, where it says of the one who is to come, “And he made forgiveness,” or “intercession,” “for the transgressors.”[6] And here Jesus is interceding for the transgressors.

Now, I’ve suggested to you in recent weeks that the way to get around all of this or to handle this is by going to the great summary statements that we find in the Epistles. And let me give you two more. In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, as Paul explains to the Corinthian readers about the nature of alienation between a holy God and sinful man and what Jesus has done in effecting reconciliation, this is how he puts it: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”[7]

Now, those two words—as I pointed out to you before and will point out to you on many, many subsequent occasions—those two final words are crucial. What Paul does not say is this: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins,” full stop. No. “Not counting men’s sins against them.” Why? Because he was counting their sins against him. So that he can go on to say, in what is fast becoming my favorite verse in the Bible, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Now, when this actually dawns on a mind, lays hold upon a life, stirs a heart, then that individual will shift from a sort of generic awareness of the potential for forgiveness of sin to the personal testimony, the understanding of the fact, that here in the death of Jesus of Nazareth is forgiveness for my sin. So in the song for children it is affirmed,

Wounded for me, wounded for me,
There on the cross he was wounded for me;
Gone my transgressions, and now I am free,
All because Jesus was wounded for me.[8]

In other words, it has become a very personal awareness.

And that’s what we’re talking about here at Parkside all the time when we’re asking ourselves the question, “Do I believe? Do I trust in Christ? Or am I simply swimming around in a great sea of religious orthodoxy with the vague hope and aspiration that somehow or another, as a result of the death of Jesus and of his great prayer of forgiveness, that somehow or another I am automatically forgiven. And the difference between me and someone who affirms it more fully is simply that they have determined to affirm it more fully, but it is equally true of me.” My friend, it is not equally true of you. There’s all the difference between an awareness of an individual that you would like to spend the rest of your life with and spending the rest of your life with that individual. And all kinds of awareness of who they are and their potential and their capacities and their beauty and their friendship and everything else, you can write it down in a book, you can put it in your journal, you can carry it close to your heart; but there is a vast difference between all of that information and all of that aspiration and spending your life in their company.

So it’s very important we understand. “Father, forgive them.” And notice he enters a special plea: “for they don’t know what they’re doing.” I find that hard to believe, don’t you? They don’t know what they’re doing? Of course they knew what they were doing! They trumped up the charges. They manipulated Pilate. Pilate signed the papers of execution. The soldiers determined to do their business. What does Jesus mean, “They do not know what they’re doing”?

Well, presumably what he’s saying is this: they’re aware of their actions, but they’re not aware of the extent and significance of their actions. The soldiers are aware of the fact that here is another victim of execution, but they do not realize that they’re crucifying the Lord of Glory. And Jesus, as he prays in this way, is praying that these individuals who go about their business in this way may be brought to understand how wrong their perspective is.

I think this lies at the heart of the dramatic response to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. You know, when you read the sermon of Peter, it’s a good sermon; I mean, who’s to say it’s not? But is it really that good? What was it? Well, he told them, he said, “You killed him. You handed him over. You disowned him. You killed the author of life.”[9] Is he simply telling them what they already knew?

No. He’s telling them what they didn’t know. They didn’t realize the extent or the significance of what had been done. And when, by the work of the Holy Spirit, it dawned on them, then they said, having been cut to the heart, “Well then, what should we do?” And he said, “Well, you should repent and turn from your sin, and you should be baptized as an indication of your desire to follow Jesus and to serve him.”[10]

And so those who stepped out in faith and in obedience would be able again to affirm a song from my childhood:

There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open, and we may go in:
And at Calvary’s cross, that’s where we begin,
When we come as a sinner to Jesus.[11]

You see, when John writes about it later, he says, “If…” If, conditional clause: “If we confess our [sin], he is faithful and just to forgive us our [sin], and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[12] That is a large door swinging on a very small hinge, as the late Sidlow Baxter used to put it.

This prayer is quite remarkable, isn’t it? “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Jesus, Remember Me”

Now, presumably that had dawned somehow or another on one of these two criminals—the one to whom, in verse 43, the promise is given. The promise that’s given in response to his request in verse 42, we’ll come to that. But let’s just focus on this gentleman for a moment, if we may.

This chap had seen and heard enough of Jesus in the past few hours, apparently, to conclude that he was innocent of any crime—hence his rebuke to the other criminal in verse 40. “Don’t you fear God?” he said to him, shouting, as it were, through Jesus, or over Jesus, or behind the head of Jesus. “Don’t you fear God, since you’re under the same sentence? We’re punished justly. We’re getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Now how did this come about? Was it that in the presence of the holiness of Jesus, in all of his purity and his grace, that this man all of a sudden realized how dirty he was? What was it that induced this tenderness in the heart of somebody who was clearly a fairly hard-bitten criminal? “Well,” you say, “it must’ve been hearing Jesus’ prayer. Jesus has just prayed, ‘Father, forgive them.’ It must have struck him.” Good. That’s good. But is he the only one who heard the prayer? No, both of them heard the prayer. So they both hear the same words of Christ, and they respond differently.

Husband and wife attending praise at Parkside, routinely, both hearing the same sermons, both hearing the same words, one walking out saying, “I don’t buy that at all,” the other walking out saying, “I believe.”

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men and women of sin,
And revealing Jesus through the Word,
And creating faith in him.[13]

I don’t know how it happens. The wind blows where it wills. You can hear the sound of it; you can’t tell where it’s coming from, you don’t know really where it’s going. So, said Jesus, is everyone who is born of the Spirit of God.[14] There is a mystery in this. This is not a mechanism. This is not an evangelical process. This man’s conversion doesn’t fit the standard package, does it—the things you’re told to do and the way you’re supposed to get there and the things you’re supposed to understand and all the mechanism? This fellow does it all wrong!

The first criminal regarded the cross as a contradiction. He was with the crowd: “If this Messiah was genuine, he wouldn’t be on a cross!” The second criminal saw the cross as a confirmation: “Because he’s on the cross, he must be the Savior.”

Remember, we said last time that the attitude of the first fellow was essentially akin to many people’s response today: “If you get me out of my dilemma, I’ll believe in you. If you get me off this cross, I’ll become your follower. I have a problem, I have a dilemma, I have a felt need. Deal with my felt need, and I will follow you. Save yourself and save us.” That’s pretty routine. That’s normal. “What’s God ever done for me? He does something for me, I’ll do something for him. Why should I believe in him? After all, isn’t today Pearl Harbor Day? Do you know that my great-uncle had died out there? Did you see the atrocity of that? How am I supposed to believe in a God that allows these kinds of things?” That’s what we listen to all the time. It’s a perfectly understandable question. It’s a very sorry conclusion.

This second man, you see, he now realizes that his predicament is different from what the two of them formerly thought it was. The two of them are hanging on a cross. Now, say, “Do you have a problem?” “Yeah, we do.” But listen to this: “We are punished justly, for we’re getting what our deeds deserve,” he says to his friend. “But this man has done nothing wrong.”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how somebody in the final stages of their life should be processing information so well. I wonder, did he mean by this, “You know, this is what’s supposed to happen to you if you’re a rebel of the state. This is supposed to happen to you if you’re a terrorist.” Is that what he’s saying? You know, “This man hasn’t done anything; the charges against him were trumped up. The charges against us were legitimate. Therefore, it is legitimate that we die; it’s illegitimate that he die.” I think it’s probably deeper than that. I think, if push came to shove, this individual, who was an opponent of the state, would still do it all over again. His sense of zealous rebellion against the Roman authorities was so strong, I think—and I can’t verify this, but I’m going to find him and look for him, finally, one day in heaven, and I’m going to ask him, “When you said to your friend on the cross, ‘We are getting what we deserve,’ were you referring to the punishment of wrong, or were you referring to the punishment that your sins deserved?” I think that’s where he gets to: “This man has done nothing, and we deserve to die.”

Yeah, but you see, that’s where people get off the bus in the conversation. People say to me all the time, “Well, do we have to go there, Alistair? I mean, that’s what I dislike about religion,” they tell me. “I don’t like that sort of religious idea of admitting your guilt and being deserving of a punishment. I don’t like that. I don’t like to think of God like that. That’s why I don’t like religion. That’s why I’m spiritual but not religious.”

But my dear friends, that is actually not the response of religion. The response of religion is represented in a story that Jesus had told earlier back in chapter 18. Luke sets it up by saying, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told [them a story].”[15] You see, religion makes people confident in themselves. Religion makes people stand up on chairs and look down on everybody else. Religion is epitomized by the response of these religious Pharisees—a Pharisee who welcomes Jesus to his home and can’t understand why Jesus would deal with a sinful woman. Why? Because religion thinks that God responds positively to people when they do good stuff. And this lady had done a lot of bad stuff. And if this man was really a Messiah on the side of organized religion, why would he give any time to this lady? Shouldn’t he know?[16] Well, shouldn’t the Pharisee understand?

So the religious approach is essentially, “I’d like to tell you today what I’ve done. I’m a member of the Rotary Club, and I have been giving quite consistently to the United Way over the years. I’ve given my children a very good education; none of them have any debt at all. And frankly, I’ve done a wonderful job. God is, I’m sure, very pleased with me. I actually regard the things that I’ve done of sufficient import to feel that he owes me a few favors.” That’s religion.

Religion makes people confident in themselves. Religion makes people stand up on chairs and look down on everybody else.

That’s also epitomized in the other story Jesus told. Remember, about the two brothers, one who went away into a far country and made a royal hash of things, came back up the road a sorry mess, met by his father, whole new outfit, shower, party, fatted calf—fantastic!—dancing, jumping around, great hilarity. Elder brother out, hearing the music, calls the servant, says, “What’s the hullabaloo?” “Oh,” says the servant, “I’m glad to be the one to report it to you. Great news: your brother is back! He was lost, he’s found. He’s dead, he’s alive.” But you remember what it says? “And the elder brother refused to go in.” “Here I have been slaving all these years. This fellow goes away, spends all the inheritance, blows it out completely in a far country. He comes back, and we have a party? And I’ve been here all the time, and I never got a party?”[17] “No, I have no time for a God or a Father like that. No, I want a God who rewards the slaves, who rewards the religious. I don’t want a God who forgives the sinner!”

You see, a man or a woman cannot and will not come to Christ until they reckon with this, personally.

The first criminal essentially makes a demand upon Jesus for what he thinks he deserves. The second criminal makes a request to Jesus for what he knows he doesn’t deserve. Now, let me say that to you again, because on this hinges the difference between believing faith and religious hopefulness. The first individual makes a demand upon Jesus for what he believes he deserves. The second individual makes a request of Jesus for what he knows he doesn’t deserve.

Augustus Toplady puts it masterfully, doesn’t he?

Nothing in my hand I bring,
And simply to your cross I cling;
And naked, come to you for dress;
And helpless, come to you for rest;
And I, the foul one, to your fountain fly;
I want you to wash me, Jesus, or I’ll die.[18]

Now, as I said to you, this man’s transformation comes in a very special way, doesn’t it? Look at his request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Calls him by name, Jesus—“And you will give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”[19] “Jesus, remember me.”

Now, what’s the man saying? Well, presumably he’s processing the information: “If this man is the Messiah, then he’s King. If he’s King, he’s going to have a kingdom. And finally, when he gets his kingdom going, then perhaps he will remember me at that point.”

Jesus’ reply is wonderful. Let me just deal with “paradise” very quickly. Paradise—don’t go away home and try and figure out where everything is. Paradise is a garden. When Persian kings bestowed honor, they made an individual a “companion of the garden,” so that, for example, the great Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which would be off-limits to the general populace, would become accessible to those who were made companions of the garden. Not only could they visit the garden, but they could also visit the garden in the company of the king, so the king would be the companion of this individual within the garden.

Now, we don’t have time to work this out, but you go back to Genesis 3, and Adam and Eve were safely in the garden. They were in the company of God, their creator. Sin enters in the world, and they are banished from the garden, and the cherubim with flaming swords guard the way to the tree of life.[20] There is now no longer access to God back down that same road. The whole of the Bible then points forward to a day when someone will come and, as it were, reopen entry to the garden. We’re about to read of that in this torn curtain. And Jesus says to this individual, “I know that what you’re thinking about is some unspecified time in the future, but I’m going to tell you about an immediate reality.” You see, the emphasis here I don’t think is on the place. The emphasis is on the timing. Jesus isn’t simply affirming the fact that this man and all the others who call on him in faith will go to heaven when they die. That’s okay, but it’s not great. I mean, that’s kinda good, but it’s not great.

You remember in the death of Lazarus, when Jesus is making his way; Lazarus is now dead, he’s in the tomb. And his sister comes to Jesus, “You know, if you’d shown up on time, we wouldn’t have to deal with this.” And Jesus says to her, “You shouldn’t worry about this, because Lazarus will rise from the dead.” Do you remember what she said? “Well, I know that Lazarus will rise in the last day. But that’s no help to me right now! I want my brother back! I mean, I know that there’s going to be a kingdom, and I know you get to be there in the end. But it’s today! What about today?”[21]

And see, Jesus—Jesus is good on today. We can’t deal with this either, but you go back to Luke chapter 4, he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah: “He sent me to bring good news to the poor, the healing of sight to the blind,” and so on. And then he gave the scroll back to the attendant and he sat down. Remember we said this was pivotal to our understanding of Luke? And the eyes of the synagogue fastened on him. What would he say? What was the first word out of his mouth? “Today…” That’s right. Three of you got it right. Go to the top of the class. He says to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[22] Not in some remote future. “I am the King. The kingdom’s here!”

You remember when Zacchaeus, up the tree, meets Jesus, comes down, go home, conversation, Jesus comes out on the porch, and what’s the first word out of his mouth? “Today!” Five of you got it this time. What a group! Tremendous! “Today this scripture is fulfilled.” “Today salvation has come to this house.”[23]

“Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today! Not in some remote future! You see, this implies the immediate consciousness of the dead following their passage from this life. It’s not my purpose to teach on this this morning, but notice where it sends us. If the dead are unconscious, then the assurance that Jesus gives to this criminal that he’ll be with Christ after he dies is actually empty of any consolation at all. What good is that if somehow or another, in a remote future in some far-off place, after I’ve been sleeping in the ground for five thousand years, I finally wake up and didn’t realize I’d been asleep for five thousand years, and then here I am in the presence of Jesus? I kinda like that, but I don’t like it—the idea of anesthetic that lasts for hundreds and hundreds of years, and then they bring you out in the recovery room. Jesus doesn’t teach that, does he? “Remember me, Lord, when you get the kingdom thing going.” “Today!”

Forgiveness is possible because Jesus came and took our place.

Listen. Why do you think it is that there is such an emphasis on today in the Bible? Why do you think it is that the Scriptures say, “Today is the day of salvation”?[24] Because God deals in the immediate! He deals in the now! And this day, this very day, is a day of salvation for those who will believe.

You see, John 17, Jesus prays, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me.”[25] Ephesians 2, Paul says to them, “And here’s the wonderful thing: God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him.”[26] And so Jesus says to this man, “I can do far better than hook you up in a remote future. Today,” he says, “you’ll be in my company in the place of security and in the place of bliss.”

Now, in a few sentences let me wrap it up. The prayer and the promise go together. Forgiveness is possible because Jesus came and took our place. He was on the cross in the place of sinners in order that we might be in his place. He took what we deserve in order that we might get what he deserves. He hanged naked in order that we might wear royal robes we don’t deserve. And “this righteousness from God comes through faith in [Christ Jesus] to all who believe.”[27]

Believe! May I ask you as I close: Do you believe? Do you believe? This righteousness from God in Christ comes to all who believe—the faith not of a religious hopeful, but the faith of a trusting sinner.

PS: “Well, I had these feelings long ago in a much younger period in my life. I’m an older chap now,” or “I’m an older woman now. I think I’ve really left it too late.”

Well, you’re not as late as this character, are you? The other Gospel writers tell us that this fellow was actually in cahoots with the first fellow in the past hour. The two of them were working it together. It was coming at Jesus in stereo: “If you’re the Messiah, get us off the cross. Who do you think you are? Why don’t you save yourself and save us!” Three minutes before, this fellow is speaking like that. Now he says, “Jesus, remember me.”

The poet puts words in the mouth of the central character in his poem, a character who dies falling headlong from a horse—and the poet gives him these words: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.”[28]

My dear friends, there is nothing like this in all of religion. It is foolishness to the religious hopeful, it is rubbish to the cynic, but to the one who believes it is the power of God. C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity in the same way that I believe in the rising of the sun, not simply because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else properly.”[29] It’s that kind of transformation. What a prayer. What a promise. What an opportunity.

Father, come to our hearts this morning—especially those of us who are amongst the group of the religious hopefuls and feeling that we haven’t really done the homework or put in the time, and yet maybe there’s just a possibility that we’ll get through, because everyone else is in the same boat and the teacher’s going to grade us on the curve. Oh, I don’t know how good we would have to be to be good enough for you. And if we could be ever good enough, then why would Jesus die? Bring us, Lord, into the realm of the trusting sinner, into the “Remember me” group, into believing faith. Help us, as we gaze afresh upon your cross, to be ready to give our lives away. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] Luke 6:27–28 (paraphrased).

[2] Luke 1:76–77 (NIV 1984).

[3] Luke 7:39 (paraphrased).

[4] Luke 7:48 (NIV 1984).

Acts 10:42 (NIV 1984).

[6] Isaiah 53:12 (paraphrased).

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:19 (NIV 1984).

[8] William G. J. Ovens, “Wounded for Me.”

[9] Acts 2:23 (paraphrased).

[10] See Acts 2:37–38.

[11] E. H. Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.” Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] 1 John 1:9 (KJV).

[13] Daniel Webster Whittle, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” (1883). Lyrics lightly altered.

[14] See John 3:8.

[15] Luke 18:9 (NIV 1984).

[16] See Luke 7:36–50.

[17] See Luke 15:11–32.

[18] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Lyrics lightly altered.

[19] Matthew 1:21 (paraphrased).

[20] See Genesis 3:1–24.

[21] See John 11:17–32.

[22] See Luke 4:16–21.

[23] Luke 19:9 (NIV 1984).

[24] 2 Corinthians 6:2 (paraphrased).

[25] John 17:24 (NIV 1984).

[26] Ephesians 2:6 (paraphrased).

[27] Romans 3:22 (NIV 1984).

[28] William Camden, Remains Concerning Britain, quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 5th ed., ed. Elizabeth Knowles (1999; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 303.

[29] C. S. Lewis, “Is Poetry Theology?,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 140. Paraphrased.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.