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What True Conversion Looks Like

April 19, 2019 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: Holy Week 2019

Topic: Holy Week Passage: Luke 23:39–43


An Exposition of Luke 23:39-43

By Pastor Brian Wilbur

Date:   April 19, 2019

Series: Holy Week 2019

Note:   Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard   Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



The big realities are set before all of humanity right here on Golgotha, “the place that is called The Skull” (Luke 23:33). In that place “they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right, and one on his left.” (Luke 23:33) Here we behold the Crucified Savior dying among condemned criminals. Although these two criminals were being executed for crimes committed against the state, the deeper and more pressing reality is that they were sinners who were guilty before the holy God. They stood on the brink of eternity. In just a few hours they would fall into the hand of the living God, and how would they escape His piercing gaze, His perfect justice, His blazing fire? Consignment to hell is the righteous sentence imposed upon every sinner who refuses to repent and believe.

It is not only these two criminals who stood on the brink of eternity – we all do! In just a few short hours – and in comparison to eternity, 70 or 80 years is like a few short hours – we shall stand in judgment before the Just Judge. Rightly has it been said: there is a heaven to be gained, and a hell to be feared. Every human being must see himself or herself in the two criminals hanging on a cross. We reap what we sow: and when we sow a life of sin, we reap the consequence of sin, which is death, not only physical death but spiritual and eternal death, everlasting misery and shame, with none to help.

And yet, the holy and gracious God sent His dear Son into this scene of sin and death. Paul describes the heart of the gospel message when he told the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) Paul told the Galatians what they had encountered when they heard the gospel message: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1) We behold “Jesus Christ and him crucified” in the preaching of the gospel and in the pages of Holy Scripture. 

But for these two criminals in Luke 23, there was a physicality to their beholding of Christ. They were there when Christ Jesus was crucified; they were crucified alongside Him; they saw Him with their very own eyes and heard Him with their very own ears. The world’s sin-sick brokenness was on full display, and they were right there in the thick of it. And in the thick of this darkness, they beheld the suffering Savior. And yet, physical sight is not the same thing as spiritual sight. Both criminals saw Jesus with their physical eyes, but only one began to see Jesus with spiritual eyes.

Every human being must see himself or herself in the two criminals hanging on a cross. Some remain spiritually blind, whereas others have their spiritual eyes opened. There are only two ways to go, and these two ways are exemplified in the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. We either remain in our sin and perish, or we experience a narrow escape through faith in Jesus and enter into the realm of eternal life.

But just like these two criminals, we all start in the same place – we all start off in the realm of death. We are all conceived and born in a state of iniquity. You don’t have to teach kids to lie, cheat, steal, and hate – because these things are in us. We are dead in trespasses and in bondage to sin. Both criminals had conducted their entire lives as unbelieving sinners. Both criminals were affixed to the cross in a state of unrepentance. For both, their final hours began under the threat of eternal peril.


Before we take a close look at the exemplary conversion of the second criminal, let’s take note of the fact that unconverted sinners hate Christ. This hatred is on full display in Luke 22:47–23:39. Let these things sink in:

  • The betrayal: “[Judas] drew near to Jesus to kiss him” (Luke 22:47).
  • The arrest: “Then they seized him and led him away” (Luke 22:54). Rebellious creatures dared to put their Creator on trial!
  • The false accusation: “Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him” (Luke 23:1-2). “The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him.” (Luke 23:10)
  • The rule of a malicious mob: “Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.” (Luke 23:20-23) Sinful humanity wanted Jesus to be crucified.
  • The mockery and abuse: “Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him.” (Luke 22:63) “And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.” (Luke 23:11) “[The] rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”” (Luke 23:35-37) “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39) They had no category for a suffering and dying Savior. They thought that any ‘savior’ worthy of the title would manifest his might in visible action. Getting crucified didn’t measure up, and so they stumbled over the foolishness and weakness of the cross. And their impious and wicked hearts just poured out their venom.

It is not fitting that we sinners point our finger at those sinners for their filthy vile, without owning the filthy vile that is present in each one of us. Stuart Townend rightly penned these words in the beautiful hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”:

“Behold the Man upon a cross,

My sin upon His shoulders.

Ashamed I hear my mocking voice

Call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held him there

Until it was accomplished.

His dying breath has brought me life.

I know that it is finished.”[1]

To be an unconverted sinner is to have in our hearts profound irreverence and ingratitude to God and to God’s holy Son. And it wasn’t just one criminal who displayed hatred for Jesus, the other one did also. Before the second criminal was gloriously converted, which is the point that Luke focuses on, he was among the mockers. Matthew tells us that these two criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus were, in fact, thieves. And after noting the mockery by the religious leaders and others passers-by, Matthew says: “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:44)

But after a short time, a remarkable and indeed miraculous change began to take place in the heart of the second criminal. True conversion is always miraculous: it is the supernatural work of God in a sinner’s heart, it is God graciously opening the eyes of the blind and liberating the soul of the captive. True spiritual perception is always the result of God’s work in us ­– and this is true both in the initial hour of conversion as well as in the ongoing growth that we experience in the Christian life. Jesus’ physical miracles which He describes in Luke 7 – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the dear hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22) – are signposts pointing to the greater spiritual miracles that Jesus had come to perform. Jesus came so that a spiritually blind criminal could receive his spiritual sight and thus see the glory of Jesus, and could have spiritual ears to hear and believe the good news, and could be awakened to spiritual life and be forever delivered from his paralysis of soul – and this is what happened just a few precious hours before the criminal bid farewell to his earthly life.  


So let’s look at verses 40-42 and get an important glimpse at the God-given miracle of true conversion. What happens in a sinner’s heart when God is bringing forth conversion in that sinner’s heart? The answer, according to this text, is three things.[2] If you, a sinner, would be truly converted to Christ, then you must experience these three things.

1) Conviction of Sin

First, you must be convicted of your sin. Look at verse 40 and the first part of verse 41:

“But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.”” (Luke 23:40-41)

To be rightly convicted of one’s sin doesn’t mean that you are sorry that you got caught, or that you are sorry about the temporal consequences, or that you are sorry about the social shame that you are now experiencing. All that is neither here nor there in terms of proper spiritual conviction. The second criminal is being awakened to spiritual life, and what does he say? “Do you not fear God”! Of course, he is rebuking the other criminal for speaking insensitive and reckless words against Christ. But what it shows us is that the second criminal is beginning to see things in relation to God. Forget the Roman government that has condemned him, forget the Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders who are gathered around, forget the crowds and passers-by, there is something – no, something doesn’t quite capture the idea – there is Someone of much weightier importance with whom we have to do: God. “Do you not fear God”! Fearing God, reverencing God, standing in awe of God, being overwhelmed by the holiness of God, trembling at the word of God – that is the starting point of spiritual sanity.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10)

“Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” (Proverbs 3:7)

The first criminal, still mocking the Savior, continued to be wise in his own eyes, continued to be proud, continued his lifelong commitment to “the way of evil” (Proverbs 8:13) – and it showed in his “perverted speech” (Proverbs 8:13). Instead of humbling himself before the Holy One, he mockingly demanded that Jesus prove Himself by fixing everything – “Save yourself and us!” – not in the least expecting any such thing to happen.

But the healthy and holy fear of God began to grow in the second criminal’s heart. He considered how unfitting it was for a criminal to hurl insults at someone else – I mean, whatever a criminal has, it isn’t the moral high ground. But the second criminal wasn’t just pointing out the guilt of the other guy. He recognized that both of them were suffering “justly” for their wicked deeds: “And we indeed justly” – in other words, “we [are under the… sentence of condemnation] justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” The second criminal realized that he was a criminal indeed, a guilty thief, a man who was guilty of ungodly conduct, a man who was justly condemned for his misdeeds. While pride continued in the first criminal’s heart, humility was birthed in the heart of the second. He was convicted of his sin. He didn’t deny it any longer, but he owned it. He needed a Savior.

Friend, you may not be a criminal in the eyes of the state, but you are a great sinner in the eyes of God. Have you been convicted of your sin? The hymnwriter Isaac Watts got it right when he wrote:

“Was it for crimes that I have done

He groaned upon the tree?”[3]

Scripture says: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We are as guilty before God as the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, and we are in much as need of a Savior as they. Indeed, it is conviction of sin that puts us in the position of recognizing our need for a Savior.

2) Convinced of the Savior’s Excellence

Thus we come to the second component of true conversion: you must be convinced of the Savior’s excellence. You must see the beauty of His character, and you must be convinced of His ability to save. Here we will focus on the second part of verse 41 and verse 42, but to maintain the flow of thought let’s pick things up at the beginning of the second criminal’s comments in verse 40:

““Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”” (Luke 23:40-42)

At the heart of conversion is beholding the glory of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul says that what unbelievers – unbelievers like the first criminal in Luke 23:39 – what unbelievers fail to see is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Spiritual blindness prevents sinners from seeing the true beauty of Christ. But when the eyes of the blind are opened, what do they see? They see the loveliness of Jesus. Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 4:5-6,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)

When true conversion happens, it happens because God has sent forth His light into the sinner’s heart and transformed that blind heart into a seeing heart that sees “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Since seeing or not seeing the glory of Christ is the fundamental difference between the believer and the unbeliever, it should come as no surprise that what is happening to the second criminal in Luke 23:40-42 is that “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is shining into his heart, and thus he begins to behold the excellence of Christ.

Notice three things that the second criminal begins to see as he looks at Jesus.

Jesus is Holy

First, he sees that Jesus is holy and that Jesus’ suffering is unjust. The second criminal understood that his own punishment was justly deserved, but the case was quite different with respect to Jesus: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” The second criminal, a thief who had been condemned to death, was probably well acquainted with scoundrels like himself. And yet he knew that this man beside him was no scoundrel. Here is a good man, a just man, a righteous man, a man who does not deserve to die. Here is an unblemished character in a blemished world. Here is a man who is not like us: “And we indeed justly [are under the same sentence of condemnation], for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Behold the innocent sufferer, the Holy One who stands in the midst of sinful men.

Jesus is the King

Second, he sees that Jesus is the King who will exercise His royal authority in a kingdom that is not of this world. When he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he reveals that he has come to understand that Jesus is not a nobody figure who will die and do no more, nor is he a merely good man like one of the ancient prophets who was put to death and now awaits a heavenly reward. Jesus is much more! Jesus is the King who will exercise His royal authority after He dies! What kind of faith is this? It is a God-given faith, a faith that arises when the light of Christ’s glory floods into a person’s heart.

We need to understand the second criminal’s comment in the wider context of this passage. Jesus has been mocked precisely with the words “Christ” and “King”. What we need to understand is that all the unbelievers in this passage are expressing their unbelief precisely in terms of not believing that Jesus is the Christ and not believing that Jesus is the true King. The titles “Christ” and “King” are basically synonymous. In terms of the Old Testament background these titles refer to God’s Anointed One – that is, the One that God has anointed and chosen to lead and save and rule His people. And it is this very point that unbelievers disbelieve:

  • “And they [the religious leaders] began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”” (Luke 23:2)
  • “[The] rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”” (Luke 23:35)
  • “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:36)
  • “There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”” (Luke 23:38) Pilate was responsible for having this inscription written above Jesus, and he didn’t do it in an attitude of faith. The irony, of course, is that the statement was actually true!
  • “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”” (Luke 23:39)

The religious leaders and the soldiers and the first criminal shared this in common: they did not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Chosen One, the King of Israel. But the very thing that they disbelieved is the very thing that the second criminal came to believe: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He came to understand that Jesus really is the Christ, the Chosen One, the King. Moreover, he came to understand that Jesus’ kingship wouldn’t be extinguished by death. We are saddened when the lives of good men who show great promise are cut short – we wonder what might have been, what they might have accomplished, what difference they might have made. But the second criminal, with God’s light shining in His heart, understands that Jesus’ descent into death isn’t the end – somehow, on the other side, He will “come into [his] kingdom” and exercise His royal authority. The kingdoms of this world will pass away, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ will endure forever. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and glory of His other-worldly kingdom will fill eternity with everlasting light.

Jesus is Able to Redeem Him

First, he sees that Jesus is holy. Second, he sees that Jesus is the true King. Now third, he sees that Jesus has the ability to redeem him. I base this insight on the simple logic that since he asks Jesus to remember-and-redeem him – and since Jesus’ subsequent response (v. 43) shows that the man’s request wasn’t an empty word but an expression of true faith – then the man must have believed that Jesus was able to remember-and-redeem him.

Think about the situation: Jesus is about to die, and this second criminal is about to die. And this second criminal is guilty as charged: he is a dishonorable and corrupted man who lived his life an unbelieving, discontented, and greedy man who stole from others in order to enrich himself. He had not lived as a worshiper of God, and he had not shown proper love to his neighbors. And now he was at life’s end, and what could he do? Could he make himself fit for heaven? Not a chance! Could he atone for his sins? Not a chance! Could he reform his life? How could he, when he was just about to die!

An hour or two ago, he had begun to fear God, and he was beginning to get sobered up, spiritually and morally speaking. But he had no right to God’s mercy. No sinner has a right to God’s mercy – if it was a right, then by definition it wouldn’t be mercy. Sinners have forfeited all their rights! What he needed was mercy, grace, undeserved kindness. There was only one Person on earth who could help him, and it was the Crucified One lifted up on a cross right next to him. His whole life had come to this decisive point – an entire life of wrongdoing had come to this final opportunity: he got several hours next to Jesus on Mount Calvary.

He looked at Jesus, and He realized that there in Jesus Christ the King was a wellspring of grace. Surrounded by a world of cruel men, here was a Man who had an uncommon but compelling graciousness about Him. They hurled insults at Him, but He didn’t give it back. Jesus didn’t just have a gracious disposition, but He actually had the power to extend divine grace to guilty sinners. The man’s destiny depended on whether King Jesus would exercise His sovereign authority to save him. If King Jesus remembered him in the kingdom beyond, then he would be raised up to eternal life. If not, all would be lost.

Friend, have you come face to face with the beauty of Christ. Perhaps some of you are just dabbling at religion, playing at church, or faking it. But here on the cross stands forth the holy, kingly, gracious, and all-powerful Savior. He is lovelier than anything or anyone else in the entire universe. If you would be truly saved, He is the One you must see.

3) Cast Yourself on the Savior’s Mercy

According to this passage, the first thing involved in true conversion is conviction of sin. The second thing is beholding and becoming convinced of the Savior’s excellence. The third thing is simply this: you must actually cast yourself on the Savior’s mercy! You must entrust yourself to Christ!

The second criminal doesn’t just ‘see things’ in a moot exercise of 11th hour spiritual reflection. What is happening here isn’t a recollection of deathbed regrets and a wish for what might have been. This guilty man is on trial in the presence of God, and God’s light is shining into his heart, and he is convicted of his sin, and he is convinced that Jesus is both pure and powerful to save, and he won’t stop there. True conversion involves turning to Christ in an attitude of faith, and this is what the man does. He entrusts himself and his eternal future to the King who stands before him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is an exercise of faith. There is nothing magical about these particular words, but these particular words express his faith. “Jesus, remember me.” Jesus, have mercy on me. Jesus, save me. After a lifetime of misdeeds, he puts his guilty soul into the hand of Christ. And the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ came and died for this very purpose: to give rest to guilty souls, and raise them up on the last day. This dying sinner realized that his sin could be overcome by the grace of the holy King, and that by the same grace he could come to share in the King’s holy kingdom. So he cast himself on the mercy of Christ.   

Perhaps you are someone who is full of theological information, but when it comes to actually trusting Jesus in any kind of meaningful way, you are empty. You don’t need to read another book. You don’t need to attend another conference. You don’t need strategies for better living. You don’t need to keep fooling yourself that you’re someone with great faith when, in fact, you’re not. You don’t need to keep fooling yourself that your parents’ faith or your spouse’s faith will somehow get you in, which it won’t. What you need to do is look upward to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and say to Him, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Trust Him, and He will save you! 


All those who come to their senses, abandon their sin, and put their confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ, can have assurance of their eternal home. Jesus said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40). The second criminal looked on the holy Son of God, believed in Him, and immediately received the Savior’s rock solid promise: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) At the last hour, the guilty thief had been redeemed by the Crucified King. Though he could only look back on a wasted life, now he could look forward to a glorious future with all the saints

"In a land of endless beauty,

Where our robes will be pure white,

And the King of kings will be there,

And we’ll praise His name for life."[4]


As a closing word, let me share this:

“There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains:

Lose all their guilty stains,

Lose all their guilty stains;

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains.

“The dying thief rejoiced to see

That fountain in his day,

And there may I, though vile as he,

Wash all my sins away:

Wash all my sins away,

Wash all my sins away;

And there may I, though vile as he,

Wash all my sins away.”[5]

To which I now add another verse:

Behold the holy Lamb of God,

His body broken on the tree;

Come, feast on heaven’s living Bread,

And live eternally:

And live eternally,

And live eternally;

Come, feast on heaven’s living Bread,

And live eternally.[6]

Friend, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and He will forgive your sin, cleanse your heart, and satisfy you forever with His unfailing love.



[1] Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” © 1995 Thankyou Music.

[2] I am not saying that these three things are the only things that happen in a sinner’s heart when God is bringing forth conversion in that heart. What I am saying is that this particular passage – Luke 23:39-43 – calls attention to three things.   

[3] Isaac Watts, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”

[4] Pat Denny, “A Foreign Land.” My friend Pat sang the entirety of his song right before I preached this sermon at our Good Friday Service.

[5] William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain.”

[6] I wrote this verse, patterned after Cowper’s “There Is a Fountain.”

More in Holy Week 2019

April 21, 2019

The Victory of Christ

April 14, 2019

The Shadow of Death and the Promise of Life