We judge of any power by the results which it effects. We gain some knowledge of the power of steam by its capacity to drive a huge mass of steel and wood weighing twenty thousand tons through the water at the rate of twenty knots an hour. There we have some standard by which we can gauge the force which sends our earth round the sun at twenty-five miles a second, or that which propels a whole solar system through space. But we may apply the same method, of estimation by results, to the powers of the moral and spiritual worlds. Judged thus, it was indeed a stupendous power which was exerted by Christ from the Cross. For what result can be more amazing than the reversal, at the last, of the character slowly built up by the habits of a lifetime? It is, of course, useless to speculate on the antecedents of the robber (not "thief") who turned to our Lord with the words, "Jesus, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom." We know only what is implied by the word "robber" or "brigand," and the fact that he had joined, with his fellow- sufferer, in the mockery of our Lord. But the words thus addressed by him to Christ, in their context, represent the most wonderful "phenomenon" of human life, a genuine and thorough-going conversion. And the power which wrought that stupendous result was the patience and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The weak things had, as so often since, confounded the strong. In His matchless forbearance, in the prayer for His executioners, the royalty of Christ our Lord was disclosed, and the "title" over His head was vindicated.
1. First then, we learn from the Second Word the Mind and Will of God towards penitence. There is no interposing of delay. Forgiveness is instantaneous. No pause intervenes between the prayer for pardon, and the pardon itself. But, that instant response was to genuine "change of mind," not to the repentance which is merely regret for the past, still less to a cowardly shrinking from a deserved punishment, but to a definite act of the man's will, repudiating sin, and ranging himself on God's side. The rejection of sin, the identifying of self with God's attitude towards it, that, we have seen, is alone, in the New Testament sense of the word, repentance.
2. The penitence of the robber, on analysis, discloses the three familiar elements --
(a) Contrition is obviously implied in the whole action.
(b) Confession -- "we receive the due rewards of the things which we wrought."
(c) Amendment -- in the separation of himself from those with whom he had hitherto joined in reviling Christ.
Now it is worth noting, that our Catechism bids us examine ourselves not about our sins, but about our repentance; "whether they truly repent." We are meant to ask ourselves --
(a) Is our contrition real? And here, for our comfort, we remember that God accepts as contrition the sincere desire to be contrite.
(b) Have we made such a painstaking self-examination as to ensure our making a good confession? "If we confess our sins" (separate, detailed sins, not our sinfulness in general terms), "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins."
Have we used "sacramental" confession, according to the teaching of the Prayer Book, that is, when our conscience told us that we needed it?
(c) Is our resolution of amendment a clear and honest one? What sins are there, some of whose results we are able to modify or in part reverse (false impressions, untruths, acts or words of unkindness)? God is generous in forgiveness. Surely we are bound to be generous in our amendment. There is a sense in which the results of sin abide beyond possibility of recall. Yet I believe that the instinct which bids us "make up for" a hurt inflicted on a beloved person, is a Divine instinct in our nature, and one which we are to carry into the region of our relation to God.
3. We notice another important truth as regards the Divine forgiveness. It has nothing to do with the removal of punishment, the release from penalty or consequence of sin. The forgiveness of the robber was immediate and complete. But he had still to hang in agony, and there awaited him the frightful pain of the crurifragium, the breaking of the legs by beating with clubs.
The sooner we learn the two great truths about the punishment of sin, the better.
(a) Punishment is inevitable. It is a necessary result of the constitution of the physical and moral universe, of the working, in both regions, of those laws which are the expression of the Divine Mind.
(b) Punishment is remedial. Many Christian theologians have fallen far below Plato's conception of God, as One Who can only punish men with a view of making them better.
Think of one of the punishments of repented sin, the haunting memories of past evil. In this case, both principles are very clearly discernible. Each recollection may be made the means of a renewed act of rejection of sin, and thus become an opportunity for the deepening of repentance.
And what disclosure does this second word contain of the Mind and Will of God in us, as manifested not towards, but by ourselves? Our lesson is the prompt recognition and welcome of any, even the slightest signs of amendment. It may be our duty to punish. It is always our duty to keep alive, or to kindle, the hope in an offender of becoming better. In that hope, alone, lies the possibility of moral amendment. There is the golden rule, laid down by St. Paul for all who have to exercise discipline over others, in words which ring ever in our ears -- "lest they be discouraged."