Salvation by grace - sovereign, irresistible, free grace - is illustrated in the New Testament by example as well as precept. Perhaps the two most striking cases of all are those of Saul of Tarsus and the Dying Robber. And the case of the latter is even more noteworthy than the former. In the case of Saul, who afterwards became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, there was an exemplary moral character to begin with. Writing years afterwards of his condition before his conversion, the apostle declared that as touching the righteousness of the law he was "blameless" (Phil. 3:6). He was a "Pharisee of the Pharisees": punctilious in his habits, correct in his deportment. Morally, his character was flawless. After his conversion his life was one of gospel-righteousness. Constrained by the love of Christ he spent himself in preaching the gospel to sinners and in labouring to buildup the saints. Doubtless our readers will agree with us when we say that probably Paul came nearest to attaining the ideals of the Christian life, and that he followed after his Master more closely than any other saint has since.
But with the saved thief it was far otherwise. He had no moral life before his conversion and no life of active service after it. Before his conversion he respected neither the law of God nor the law of man. After his conversion he died without having opportunity to engage in the service of Christ. I would emphasize this, because these are the two things which are regarded by so many as contributing factors to our salvation. It is supposed that we must first fit ourselves by developing a noble character before God will receive us as his sons; and that after he has received us, tentatively, we are merely placed on probation, and that unless we now bring forth a certain quality and quantity of good works we shall "fall from grace and be lost". But the dying thief had no good works either before or after conversion. Hence we are shut up to the conclusion that if saved at all he was certainly saved by sovereign grace.
The salvation of the dying thief also disposes of another prop which the legality of the carnal mind interposes to rob God of the glory due unto his grace. Instead of attributing the salvation of lost sinners to the matchless grace of God, many professing Christians seek to account for them by human influences, instrumentalities and circumstances. Either the preacher or providential and propitious circumstances or the prayers of believers, are looked to as the main cause. Let us not be misunderstood here. It is true that often God is pleased to use means in the conversion of sinners; that frequently he condescends to bless our prayers and efforts to point sinners to Christ; that many times he causes his providences to awaken and arouse the ungodly to a realization of their state. But God is not shut up to these things. He is not limited to human instrumentalities. His grace is all powerful, and when he pleases, that grace is able to save in spite of the lack of human instrumentalities, and in the face of unfavorable circumstances. So it was in the case of the saved thief.
His conversion occurred at a time when to outward appearance Christ had lost all power to save either himself or others. This thief had marched along with the Saviour through the streets of Jerusalem and had seen him sink beneath the weight of the cross! It is highly probable that as one who followed the occupation of a thief and robber this was the first day he had ever set eyes on the Lord Jesus, and now that he did see him it was under every circumstance of weakness and disgrace. His enemies were triumphing over him. His friends had mostly forsaken him. Public opinion was unanimously against him. His very crucifixion was regarded as utterly inconsistent with his Messiah-ship. His lowly condition was a stumblingblock to the Jews from the very first, and the circumstances of his death must have intensified it, especially to one who had never seen him except in this condition. Even those who had believed on him were made to doubt by his crucifixion. There was not one in the crowd who stood there with out-stretched finger and cried, "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!" And yet, notwithstanding these obstacles and difficulties in the way of his faith, the thief apprehended the Saviour-hood and Lordship of Christ. How can we possibly account for such faith and such spiritual understanding in one circumstanced as he was? How can we explain the fact that this dying thief took a suffering, bleeding, crucified man for his God! It cannot be accounted for apart from divine intervention and supernatural operation. His faith in Christ was a miracle of grace!
A.W. Pink's 'The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross'