In April 1994, Milwaukee pastor, Roy Ratcliff, received a phone call from a local prison warden. The warden informed him that a prisoner wished to be baptised and asked if he would be willing to perform the rite. Intrigued, and never having been involved in prison ministry before, Pastor Ratcliff asked the name of the prisoner. With a sense of hesitation, the warden replied, “Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the Milwaukee Monster, was one of America’s most infamous serial killers, responsible for the murder of at least seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His was one of the first murder trials in which national media were permitted to record and broadcast proceedings.
Pastor Ratcliff agreed, with some trepidation, to meet Dahmer. Over the next several months, he not only baptised him, but visited him weekly to disciple him until his murder at the hand of a fellow inmate in November 1994.
News of Dahmer’s conversion was received with a degree of scepticism, but Ratcliff, in a better position than anyone to discern, harboured no doubt as to the veracity of his profession. He tells the story in Dark Journey, Deep Grace.
When Jesus was crucified, he was placed between two criminals. Older translations speak of “thieves,” but the Greek word simply means “an wrongdoer.” Scripture does not specify the crimes of these criminals, but they were sufficiently heinous to warrant death by crucifixion, a penalty typically reserved for slaves, murderers, pirates, and traitors.
At first, both criminals mocked Jesus (Matthew 27:41–44) but, before long, one came under conviction of sin and rebuked his fellow for continuing to revile the Lord (Luke 23:39–41). It was at this point that he pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied with the second of his seven sayings from the cross: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).
If the first utterance of Jesus from the cross speaks of forgiveness, the second speaks of salvation. The words of Jesus to the penitent criminal assure us that no one, in whose lungs remains the breath of life, is beyond the saving grace of God. Jesus’ words teach us several lessons about the magnitude of the salvation that God offers in Christ.
First, this saying teaches us that nobody is beyond the reach of grace. Even those deemed by Roman authorities to warrant the severest of penalties could be reached by the grace of God.
Though Paul described himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 3:15), to many, his conversion is understandable. After all, though he rejected Christ, he still led a pre-conversion life of the highest ethical standards. After his conversion, he spent years faithfully serving the Lord, making up for whatever offence he had once caused. Those who struggle with the notion of salvation by grace alone have little difficulty with the conversion of morally upright men and women, or with the conversion of those who spend a lifetime of selfless service post-conversion atoning for their evil deeds.
The penitent criminal, however, had neither of these. Before he met Jesus, he led a life in which he feared neither God nor man, but ruthlessly wronged others in his quest for self-fulfilment. After conversion, there was no opportunity for him to turn over a new leaf and faithfully serve his Lord. Yet God required neither of these things from him. He was saved by grace alone through faith alone, quite apart from any works. If God could save a person like that, who can he not save?
We learn, second, what is required of those who will come to Christ for salvation. The hymnist expressed it this way: “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” This is exemplified in the story of the penitent criminal.
We don’t know if this man ever met Christ before the cross. We do know that, when he met Christ on that fateful day, he met him as a co-accused. And what was Jesus’ crime? Like any crucified criminal, it was inscribed above his head on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). At first, the criminal found this to be source of great derision, but over the next three hours, he came, by grace, to see its truth: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
We don’t know what interaction, if any, this man had with Jesus over those three hours, but evidently he came to believe several things: (1) that a day of final judgement was coming; (2) that he was a sinner deserving of death; (3) that Jesus was sinless and did not deserve death; (4) that Jesus was Lord of all; (5) that Jesus was able to save him; and (6) that Jesus was truly the King his accusation claimed him to be. Having no good works to contribute, he simply believed these truths and, in faith, cried to Jesus for mercy.
Third, Jesus’ words to the criminal teach us something about the nature of the salvation he offers: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” A great deal can be said here, but I want to focus particularly on the promise of fellowship. The word translated “paradise” is of Persian origin and spoke, literally, of a walled garden. When a Persian king wished to honour a citizen, he made him a “companion of the garden.” The citizen was chosen to walk in the royal garden with the king and share fellowship with him.
Jesus promised the criminal far more than forgiveness; he promised him eternal fellowship with the King.
People sometimes imagine that it must be extremely difficult to find salvation in Christ, but the penitent criminal shows us that it is as simple as asking the Lord for salvation. This word from the cross reminds us that the worst sinner may be saved. It reminds us that salvation doesn’t depend on religious ceremonies, good deeds, or any contribution from the sinner. It reminds us that there is no time too late to call upon the Lord for salvation.
But the word also serves as a warning: “You shall be with me in paradise.” In Greek, there are singular and plural words for “you.” Jesus used the singular. Only one of the two thieves would be with Christ in paradise. The other received the just rewards for his actions that day and will one day receive an even greater judgement. Because the second thief did not call on the Lord, he faced the first death and will one day face the second. But the other thief, though he died that day on the cross, received the promise of eternal salvation as he called upon the name of the Lord.