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THE PENITENT THIEF.
(Unpublished Letter of the late Rev. Henry Venn, Vicar of Huddersfield, Author of " The Complete Duty of Man," to Sir Sidney Stafford Smythe, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, a Privy Councillor, and. in 1771, a Commissioner of the Great Seal, under which he presented Mr. Venn to the Rectory of Yelling.)
Huddersfield; March 5, 1763.
Dear Sib,—Compassion has no doubt often excited painful sensations in your breast, when your high office has obliged you to condemn your miserable fellow-creatures to death. Permit me now, upon your return from executing this disagreeable part of judgment, to fix your thoughts upon a notorious criminal, from whom I apprehend the firmest grounds for consolation and rejoicing may be collected,—I mean the thief saved on the Cross. As divines generally comment on his case, it serves little to either purpose. The common interpretation is, that this fact was designed only to keep late penitents absolutely from despair. And then great paina are taken to convince us this was an instance by itself, never to be again expected. By this means, this example of a brand plucked out of the burning for the most magnificent and striking display of Christ's glory, is overlooked; and the fact itself, though one of the most extraordinary of all recorded in the book of God, is sunk almost into oblivion. I shall endeavour, therefore (assured, if I succeed, of giving you and Lady S. no small pleasure), to prove that there is not a more illustrious example in the whole Bible, and a clearer demonstration of every doctrine which is of the essence of the Gospel in any one single instance, than in the thief saved on the cross.
Greatly in favour of this conclusion, I apprehend, are the circumstances which accompanied the death of our God and Saviour. Everything which immediately followed this sovereign act of mercy to the expiring thief, proclaimed aloud the
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Divinity of Christ. The graves opened, and the earth shook, and the rocks were rent, and the sun was turned into darkness. Methinks, therefore, the fact which is recorded with these phenomena, should have something in it as full of wonder, and of the glory of Christ, as these other signs which attended His crucifixion: whether it will appear to be so, considered in the following light, is humbly submitted to your judgment.
The most wise and able instructors have principally excelled others as they attained the art of summing up evidence for the truth, so that the whole might flash in upon the mind all at once, and be collected as it were in a point. With this view, I think, He who taught as well as spoke in a manner no man could ever equal, made choice of the dying thief, far less for his own soul's sake than for the instruction and consolation of His Church. He made choice of this notorious felon, that in Him, beyond the power of all reasonable dispute or doubt, every doctrine taught by Jesus in His own person, and transmitted to His apostles and all succeeding ministers for them to. declare, might be fully exemplified, and with the greatest lustre. This will be manifest, I apprehend, from the following particulars.
First, the grand doctrine to which all the prophets give witness, which the Redeemer was incarnate to establish, and taught with His own mouth, was that sinners are saved by grace through faith, and that not of themselves, it is the gift of God. Now how shall this capital article, which wounds human pride in the apple of its eye, be established? Arguments, though ever so plain, may by much art and cavil be perplexed; and declarations, though ever so positive, evaded. But facts are more stubborn, and least of all liable to perversion. Behold, therefore, a sinner saved in such circumstances, that he has not so much as the shadow of one good work belonging to him. For look back upon his past life; if it had not been abominable, there is no reason to think his death would have been so full of infamy. Had his crime not been some aggravated act of robbery and violence, there is no sufficient reason why he should have been gibbeted in terrorem. And to prevent our supposing he might be brought to repentance in his prison, and be previously well-disposed by having heard either the preaching of Christ or His fame, St. Matthew informs us that both the thieves railed on Christ, i.e. at first.
Now, all these circumstances considered, this thief was one of the most proper subjects in the whole world to become an everlasting pillar and ground of the great truth, that the justification of sinners is absolutely free, bestowed on account of nothing they can do and offer, but entirely for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered. Here is enough (if anything but the judgment-day can suffice) to silence for ever the cavils of self-righteousness; for this enormous offender, the very first moment he put his trust in Jesus, instantly received remission of his sins, though they reached unto the heavens; and righteousness was imputed to him without works.
If it is said, (as what will not pride advance, sooner than put its mouth in the dust,) the thief did many good works whilst upon the cross, we may reply, according to the same way of reasoning, that he who stretched forth his withered hand contributed not a little to his own cure; and that the afflicted and oppressed who looked unto Jesus, saying, "Lord, thou Son of David, have mercy on us," may put in a claim of helping themselves. If the absurdity is glaring in the one case, so it is in the other. And the conclusion is plain, as our Homilies infer, which, speaking of this very fact, urge it as a proof that one man was saved who never did any good work. (First Part of Homily on Good Works.)
Secondly. It is a capital doctrine of the Gospel, not only that sinners are justified freely, but that no continuance in sin, no repetition of crimes though of the worst kind, shall prove any obstacle to their pardon and acceptance, when once they with broken hearts come to Christ Jesus the Lord. How difficult it is to believe this, no one can fully conceive till he has had to do with sinners who have been unhappy enough to have aggravated their natural guilt and daily sins of ignorance, negligence, and infirmity, by premeditated rebellion against God, or other grievous offences. All who have to deal with such convinced sinners, will hear them frequently declaring they possess the iniquities of their youth; that past, sins, more appalling than the most frightful apparitions, haunt them; and particular instances of wickedness, like Abel's blood, seem in their fears to have a tongue, and to cry unto God for vengeance. And shall such distressed souls find no balm in Gilead to heal their wounded spirits? Who that has the lowest feelings of humanity would not wish for some precedent to urge as a foundation for their hope? Who would not rejoice to be able to point them to an instance in which all they condemn and loath themselves for having committed, is to be plainly seen, and yet the transgressor absolved and now in glory. Such an instance is only to be found in the thief saved on the Cross. It is true the Saviour had often with His own mouth declared, that whosoever came to Him He would in no wise cast out. He had often also chosen and received to Himself the chief of sinners. But in all these instances, there was time and space for the full discovery of their new birth. Their sins were not aggravated by a continuance in them till death was at the door. They were none of them, therefore, such striking witnesses of the efficacy of the Divine righteousness, and the atoning blood, as this malefactor. All longsuffering towards those who depend upon the Saviour for their salvation, and the unconquerable virtue of the Saviour's undertaking on their behalf, are most conspicuous in the case of this sinner, who first became a supplicant when his life's blood, shed by the hand of civil justice, was pouring out upon the cross. Here was the highest triumph of grace; here the loudest rebuke that could possibly be given to all cruel suspicions, that a real application to Jesus, and a heart-felt dependance upon Him, may ever come too late.
Thirdly. It is a capital doctrine of the Gospel, that Christ came to subdue iniquity, as well as to atone for it; that none can be so miserably enslaved, so fast tied and bound by the chains of their sins, but that, upon immediate application to Him, the captive should be set at liberty, and be made a new creature. This is hard to believe. It is the grand obstacle with sinners who are often stung with guilt; but finding their corrupt appetites so strong, they think it impossible for them to live a godly and a Christian life, impossible to conquer lusts which have long held dominion over them. Hence they are led to palliate what they cannot approve, and at length to conclude their transgressions necessary. To such the dying thief speaks, and his address to them is most forcible, admitting of no reply. For where can evil habits be more confirmed than in such a criminal? Where more strongly riveted the fetters of iniquity, than on one whom justice suffered not to live? Where could hardness and blindness of heart, stupidity and profaneness, in short a mind more truly awful, be found, than in one who had called down destruction upon his own head; and when nailed to his cross, at first wicked and blasphemous as his companion, only has so much life left as to utter his request for pardon and salvation before he gave up the ghost. Here sin, if ever, existed in its utmost degree of virulence and malignity. Here, if ever, Satan must have been able to keep his goods, and look upon the prisoner as hia prey, no less than if he already had been damned. Yet behold, no sooner did even this poor man cry, than he was heard. He asks, and he receives; he seeks, and instantly he finds redemption. "Out of the deep" of guilt, corruption, and slavery to sin, he lifts up his voice for mercy to the Redeemer; and, according to the " working of His mighty power," this most abominable sinner is washed, and cleansed, and justified, and sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by His Spirit. In the self-same day, the thief was at one time under the curse of the Law, void of every thing savouring of holiness, replete with all evil; and at another, ransomed from the hand of all enemies, a Saint with Christ in glory. In what a striking manner does this proclaim that there is liberty for the captive; that nothing can withstand that merciful arm, which is ready to bring salvation to the chief of sinners, whenever they cry for it, and depend on Christ wholly and solely.
I remember, about twenty-seven years ago, the virtue of salad oil as an antidote against the bite of a viper was discovered, and laid before the College of Physicians ;* the power of this medicine was to be proved by experiment before their eyes. Accordingly the viper-catcher was bit by two of the most venomous adders at once. The poison was suffered to mix with his mass of blood so long, that his face grew black, his tongue swelled to a great size, a delirium seized his head, and the whole man was a frightful spectacle. When things were at this extremity, the oil was applied, first outwardly and then inwardly, and to the full conviction of every one present, and the praise of the glorious medicine, all the effects of the poison were speedily wrought off.
Behold the thief on the cross! The venom of sin. was running in his blood, and had corrupted him from head to foot, —no one favourable symptom was found about him, when death had already begun to seize upon his body,—his soul was in all appearance as near eternal perdition, as he was near the end of his natural life,—when in a moment the power of the grace of Christ, the virtue proceeding forth from Him, recovered the thief, and carried him up to heaven as His trophy, the very first fruits of His own death on the cross; and placed him before Himself in glory. 0 sing unto the Lord, for He hath done this excellent thing, that it might be known on all the earth that He will do the same for every humbled sinner. "Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Sion; for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee."
Lastly. The whole company of the faithful are exceedingly prone to fall into unbelief; to doubt and to fear they shall not be accepted j and often they pass their days without lasting and solid comfort, not able firmly to trust either in the righteousness of Christ, or His grace. To refer such, for their reproof, instruction, and consolation, to the prophets, the apostles and martyrs; to propose to them the examples of Abraham, and Moses, and other saints of the first rank, would be to discourage them. But when they are bid to go to the thief on the cross, and there satisfy their doubts,—when those who are daily praying to Christ, daily looking up to Him for help, are sent for instruction to that scandalous transgressor, who only once prayed, "Lord, remember me," and was eternally saved,—conviction of their unbelief must flash into their minds.
* An account of this experiment, M.D., Secretary of the Royal Society,
which was made June 1st, 1734, be- will be found in the Philosophical
fore several members of the Royal Transactions, vol. xxxix., p. 313, for
Society and others, on a man named 1735-36; and in the Gentleman's
William Oliver and upon several ani- Magazine for 1738, p. 416. mala, drawn up by Cromwell Mortimer,