“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
The formal cessation of fighting in the First World War came with the armistice signed by the Allies and Germany at 5:45 am, November 11, 1918. By agreement, the hostilities were to end on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” During the six-hour span of time from the signing of the agreement to the actual entry into force of the ceasefire, some 11,000 combatants and civilians were wounded or killed. The Treaty of Versailles, signed the following year, would consummate the final peace agreement officially ending the war which had claimed upwards of forty million military and civilian lives.
One of those deaths is particularly notable, and peculiarly sad. Henry Gunther, a 22 year-old man from Baltimore, had been drafted in the last year of the war. In September 1918, as a supply Sergeant for his company, part of the 79th Infantry Division, he was sent to the Western Front in France. The saga of Gunther tells of a letter he had written to a friend back home, warning him to do all he could to avoid being drafted because of the miserable conditions at the front. An Army postal censor intercepted the letter, resulting in Gunther’s demotion from sergeant to private.
The demotion, according to his comrades, prompted much brooding and melancholy in Gunther. As a German-American, he also feared being thought an enemy sympathizer. According to a 2008 article in The Baltimore Sun, the young man became “obsessed with a determination to make good before his officers and fellow soldiers.” The article notes the details of his death.
Gunther and the rest of his company learned at 10:30 a.m. that the war would end at 11. They were near a village called Ville-devant-Chaumont, north of Verdun, pinned down by a German machine gun. As 11 a.m. approached, Gunther suddenly rose with his rifle and ran through thick fog. His men shouted for him to stop. So did the Germans. But Gunther kept running and firing.
One machine gun blast later, he was dead. His death was recorded at 10:59 a.m. The Germans who had just killed Gunther placed him on a stretcher and carried him to his American company, and his comrades buried him there.
The following day, the Commanding General of the Army, John J. Pershing, noted Henry Gunther as the last American killed in the war. In 1923, Gunther’s body was exhumed and returned to his native soil. The Army posthumously restored him to the rank of Sergeant, awarded him a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action as well as the Distinguished Service Cross.
Gunther’s motive for fighting when the fighting was all but done aren’t completely clear. As he strode towards the enemy, his overpowering drive for the integrity of his name may have been instrumental. Perhaps his was the final act of a man so driven to despair that he would risk his own needless death to assuage a plagued conscience. Perhaps he realized the last moments for him to redeem himself and die a hero were quickly fading and he merely seized the opportunity. Whatever his motive, 23-year-old Henry Gunther was the last man to die before the hostilities of the war, which he knew was coming to an end, had officially ceased. He had one minute left to die, and, for whatever reason, that’s precisely what he chose to do.
The Son Who Died That Others Might Live
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43
When Christians turn to Scripture, there is no account of death that is as compelling in its testimony to the redeeming power and divine mercy of the Son of God as that of the thief on the cross. While the three gospels of Matthew (Matt. 27:38), Mark (Mark 15:27), and Luke (Luke 23:32) each record that our Lord was crucified alongside two criminals, Luke’s inspired gospel alone gives us the glorious details of His last dying dialogue.
J.C. Ryle, in his work Expository Thoughts On Luke, says that Luke’s narrative words “deserve to be printed in letters of gold. They have probably been the salvation of myriads of souls. Multitudes will thank God to all eternity that the Bible contains this story of the penitent thief.”
Indeed, this account reveals to us one of the most profound ironies in all of Scripture. Here we see Jesus, the very Son of God, for six hours suspended above Golgotha, scorned by blinded, unbelieving Jewish “head waggers” who were “hurling abuse at Him” (Matt. 27:39). The only Savior the world has, the promised seed of David (Rom. 1:3) who would bring salvation from the Jews (John 4:22) and for the Jews – though not for them only (Rom. 1:16) – was being mocked by the Jewish religious elite who, of all people, should have recognized their long-awaited, prophetically promised Messiah. Yet the “chief priests … along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, ‘He saved others; He cannot save Himself” (Matt. 27:41-42)
But amidst the blasphemous abuses and profane jeers, the sole Savior of the world, who had consecrated Himself for the sake of those who would believe (John 17:19), was, while He was dying, actively saving a condemned criminal crucified alongside Him. As John MacArthur noted, “Jesus was being mocked because He could not save Himself, yet He saved others, including the thief, by not saving Himself.”
The depth of divine truth provided in Luke’s account is staggering. A careful study of this historic episode yields to the Spirit-aided believing mind a rich revelation about the infinitely just character of God, the magnitude of the selfless love of our Savior, and the distinguishing characteristics of genuine divinely gifted faith.
In his Expository Thoughts, Ryle summarizes five distinct truths disclosed by Luke’s account.
The Truth of Sovereignty in Salvation
“We see, firstly,” writes Ryle, “the sovereignty of God in saving sinners.” In our day and age when the sovereignty of God is so readily given lip-service in contemporary churches, it does not require much biblically-informed discernment to recognize its nearly wholesale abandonment in faith, practice, and preaching. Perhaps in no doctrine has divine sovereignty been as jettisoned in proclamation and practice as in the contemporary church’s pragmatic soteriology. Luke’s account of the penitent sinner, however, restores sovereignty not merely as a textbook biblical doctrine, but as the efficacious mechanism of God’s grace to sinners.
Crucified alongside our Lord were two equally condemned sinners, criminals whose civil crimes demanded nothing less than execution. “Both were equally near to Christ,” writes Ryle. “Both saw and heard all that happened, during the six hours that he hung on the cross. Both were dying men, and suffering acute pain. Both were alike wicked sinners, and needed forgiveness. Yet one died in his sins, as he had lived, hardened, impenitent and unbelieving. The other repented, believed, cried to Jesus for mercy, and was saved.”
As onlookers into Scripture at this event, the question naturally comes. Why were not both criminals saved? After all, they each were witnesses to the remarkable events surrounding the death of this One who was “surely the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54) How could they not each “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15)?
“How it is that under precisely the same circumstances one man is converted and another remains dead in sins, – why the very same sermon is heard by one man with perfect indifference and sends another home to pray and seek Christ, – why the same gospel is hid to one and revealed to another, all these are questions we cannot possibly answer.” J.C. Ryle
The prideful, natural mind cannot hope to posit a response to Ryle’s obvious query. But we clearly find our Lord praising the Father for such mystery. “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight” (Matt. 11:25-26). Ryle makes clear precisely what Scripture does, “God’s sovereignty was never meant to destroy man’s responsibility. One thief was saved that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.”
The Evidences of Repentance
“We see, secondly, in this history, the unvarying character of repentance unto salvation,” notes Ryle. We often come away from this text with merely the “broad fact” that the penitent criminal was “saved in the hour of death,” and, as Ryle writes, we “look no further.” But believers who carefully study this episode will find “the distinct and well-defined evidences of repentance which fell” from the thief’s lips.
From the penitent thief’s dialogue with the Lord, Ryle distinguishes six steps of repentance. First was his recognition of the wickedness in the reviling comments hurled at Jesus by the second condemned man who mocked the Lord as did the head wagging passersby. “Are you not the Christ?” asked the impenitent malefactor. “Save Yourself and us!” he hurled at Jesus (Luke 23:39). The penitent thief’s response indicates his awareness of the just sentence they each were bearing, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” Mere moments from death, the penitent sinner showed the fear of God and acknowledged the righteousness of the judgment on his own sin, which, as Ryle notes, was the second step in his repentance.
“The third step, was an open confession of Christ’s innocence.” Scripture shows that, along with the penitent thief, others closest to the travesty of Christ’s trials and crucifixion would also confess His innocence. Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:4), Pontius Pilate (Lk. 23:4), Herod Antipas (Lk. 23:15), Pilate’s wife (Mt. 27:19), the Roman centurion (Lk. 23:47), and the Roman guards (Mt. 27:54) all attested to the innocency of Jesus. With the penitent thief, however, it was a necessary result of divinely granted repentance.
“The fourth step was faith in Jesus Christ’s power and will to save him,” writes Ryle. “He turned to a crucified sufferer, and called him ‘Lord,’ and declared his belief that he had a kingdom.” In his commentary at this point, Reformer John Calvin writes, “I know not that, since the creation of the world, there ever was a more remarkable and striking example of faith; and so much the greater admiration is due to the grace of the Holy Spirit, of which it affords so magnificent a display.”
“The fifth step was prayer,” states Ryle. “He cried to Jesus when he was hanging on a cross, and asked him even then to think upon his soul. – the sixth and last step was humility. He mentions no great thing. Enough for him if he is remembered by Christ.” As MacArthur noted, the thief “would not have asked for entrance to the kingdom unless he believed Jesus was willing and able to provide it. His was the plea of a broken, penitent, unworthy sinner for grace, mercy, and forgiveness.”
The Desire of Christ to Save
The third evident truth this account from Luke yields is “the amazing power and willingness of Christ to save sinners.” Ryle states that “If we search the Bible through, from Genesis to Revelation, we shall never find a more striking proof of Christ’s power and mercy than the salvation of the penitent thief.”
When we recall the anguish of Christ on the evening before the crucifixion, when in the garden of Gethsemane He prayed, as “His sweat became like drops of blood, (Lk. 22:44), “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will but as You will” (Matt. 26:39), we might find cause to excuse Jesus for a failure of selflessness in light of His impending death. Certainly as He hung there, nailed to a cross as a condemned, though innocent, criminal, dying an excruciatingly painful death, we might let pass the failure if Jesus had ignored the sinner dying on the tree next to Him. But even in the midst of dying, Jesus was about the Father’s business, saving sinners who would have no hope unless He humbled Himself even to that very cross (Phil. 2:8), to the predetermined plan of redemption established by God from before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23, Eph. 1:4). That Jesus, dying, could and would save the dying sinner reveals the divine magnitude of His mercy, His utter submission to the will of the Father, His eternal power, and His selfless love.
Salvation Is All Of Grace
If we should ever seek Scriptural evidence that salvation is all of grace and none of works, as Ryle says, “We have it in the case before us. The dying thief was nailed hand and foot to the cross. He could literally do nothing for his own soul.” But this helpless, dying sinner was saved by the dying Savior at his side. The passage affirms that works, sacraments, and ordinances are not “absolutely needful to salvation.” There is no repetition of a prayer suggested by Jesus. The thief never walked an aisle, never raised his hand, was never baptized, and never partook of the Lord’s Supper. “But he repented and believed, and therefore he was saved.”
Today Is The Day of Salvation
The final truth exposited by Ryle is the the point of “how near a dying believer is to rest and glory.” Jesus’ answer to the thief not only assured him of the gift of faith and eternal life bestowed to him, but is also to us a promise of assurance. “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). “That word ‘today’ contains a body of divinity,” writes Ryle. “It tells us that the very moment a believer dies, his soul is in happiness and in safe keeping … there is no mysterious delay, no season of suspense, no purgatory, between his death and a state of reward … In the hour he departs he is with Christ (Phil. 1:23).”
One hundred one years ago, a young man at war rushed willfully to a death he could easily have avoided. Some two thousand years ago, one nameless man hung alongside the Lord and Creator of the universe who had humbled Himself to the point of death on a tree that He might be the Savior of hopeless, helpless sinners. That one dying sinner refused the evidence of salvation before his very eyes, his heart hardened, and his will intent on mockery in the moments just before his death. But one other sinner was saved by one Savior who came for just that reason.
As we come to worship, let us praise the Lord who humbled Himself for the prideful, who became the Substitute for the sinful, and who washes the wicked in the sin-cleansing blood of His own sacrifice, and does it all of His sovereign grace. Let us worship the One who willingly laid down His life to obey the will of the Father that sinners like us may be saved (John 10:18). As recipients of His immeasurable grace, let us be ever thankful for the Lord's salvation and ever ready to proclaim “today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) to those who were once as we were, without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). Let us not allow men to rush foolishly and pridefully into death without hearing the glorious good news. Let us make clear that all men, everywhere, are commanded to repent and believe (Acts 17:30) in the Savior who is full of grace (Jn. 1:14) and eager to save (1 Tim. 2:4). And, like the penitent thief, let us know that to close our eyes finally in mortality is to open them with our Lord and Savior in eternity, just as He promised. Let us daily worship the Savior who, though He was dying, still saved, and, because He now lives, He saves to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25).