A number of years ago I counseled a man in the church I was serving in.
The man had a burden for his father who was dying in a VA Hospital. The son’s burden was that the father would respond to the gospel even as he lay dying.
The dying man was a World War 2 veteran and had lived a life apart from Christ. According to the son the son’s childhood had been a living hell with frequent beatings, drunkenness and spousal abuse. The father had few friends and had alienated all of his family. Now, he lay dying from cancer.
The father was hated by nearly everyone who knew him and when he finally passed away only six people showed up at the funeral which was held in a VA Chapel. One of the people who came didn’t even know the deceased and just wanted to honor a veteran in some way. The other person who did not know the deceased was me and my job was to give a short message to a very small crowd of five.
The father, in some sense was a war criminal, guilty not necessarily of war crimes but guilty of some pretty horrible crimes against his family and many others. He was not a nice man without any perceived redeeming qualities what-so-ever.
When I counseled the son (prior to the father’s passing) my text was the same as the one that resonated with Pastor Gerecke when he was asked to minister to the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but 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 him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 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; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:32-43 ESV)
As we can see from the text Jesus was crucified between two criminals usually identified as thieves or robbers. Robbery suggests murder and capital punishment as opposed to petty thievery that would not require the death penalty.
Most of the Nuremberg defendants believed they would be hung while the two thieves knew for a fact they would die because they were already on the gallows so-to-speak as represented by the crosses they already hung on.
The parallel between the two sets of condemned men is obvious.
Are men facing death for their crimes capable of genuine repentance and the forgiveness of their sins?
Let’s examine the text to see if there is any evidence that the thief’s conversion was genuine.
The first observation we can make from the text is that Jesus assured the thief that on the very day he would be with Jesus in Paradise. That is compelling textual evidence that the thief was truly converted but there is more.
The parallel text in Matthew indicates that at first both thieves mocked Christ (Matt. 27:44).
At some point the second robber stopped mocking Jesus and instead asked for salvation. If you were to read the rest of the story you would see that certain signs and wonders would follow this incident.
The second robber made his request for salvation before any of the signs and wonders took place thus indicating something else convinced him to repent.
We can also note that the text records that everyone around the crosses were mocking Jesus; the crowd, the soldiers, the robbers, the scribes and Pharisees, everyone. To repent and ask Jesus for salvation would mean the robber had to swim against the tide of popular opinion and the mockery of the Savior.
The second robber also rebuked the first for not fearing God. The second robber clearly recognized Jesus’ innocence and it suggests a recognition of Jesus’ deity. The rebuke of the first robber was for being irreverent. In other words the second robber went from being a mocker himself to someone defending Jesus in a very short time. What could explain this apart from a genuine change of heart?
Remember what Pastor Gerecke had said about his former SS Lt. Colonel who played the organ at the worship services. He said of the man, “the simple Gospel of the Cross had changed his heart.” So it was with the second robber.
This is a key point. For any of the Nuremberg defendants to be genuine about repentance they would, like the robber, have to realize that Jesus was innocent of everything and that he was indeed God who was dying for the genuine crimes of others!
The second robber asks Jesus to remember him in His kingdom thus recognizing that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus grants him the request; the guilty dying for the innocent and the innocent paying for the guilty party’s sins.
As the first robber and others mocked Jesus by telling Jesus to come off the cross and thus do a miracle (he saved others and cannot save himself) the second robber recognized Jesus did not have to come off the cross to save anyone because Jesus simply had the authority to save.
Furthermore, the second robber noted his own guilt and the fact he deserved death. He asked Jesus for salvation on the basis of mercy and grace with nothing to offer in return. No good works, no self-justification, no excuses. He just relied upon Jesus mercy and grace which is all we have to appeal to in salvation.
Luke does not say what changed the second robber’s mind at that late hour. In order to discover that answer we have to look elsewhere in the Bible.
In John Chapter Three Jesus told Nicodemus that the process of being born again is a mysterious working of the Holy Spirit-the results are evident, but the process is unseen. The second robber showed evidence of a changed heart. I think all would agree, but what changed his heart?
In Acts 16 Luke writes of the conversion of a woman named Lydia. Luke writes, “the Lord opened her heart to believe.”
And so it is with all who believe, you, me, a robber on a cross, a Nazi about to be hung. Salvation belongs to the Lord declared the prophet Jonah (Jonah 2:9) meaning that salvation is a sovereign work of God from start to finish just as it is the secret work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men that we can only see the results of.
We judge people by the scope and magnitude of their sins and thus minimize our own by comparison.
I’m not as bad as that father who beat his wife and children.
I’m not as bad as the drunk next door.
I’m not as bad as the pornographer, the robber or murderer and certainly not as bad as any Nazi.
All of those statements may be true from a human, self-righteous point of view with the person making the statements never realizing that they have within themselves the capacity for every one of those heinous sins.
The old statement, that there by the grace of God go I rings true.
The words of James come to mind:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
(James 2:10 ESV)
While we may differ in the scope and extent of sin Scripture in an individual’s life is quite clear that all far short of the glory of God.
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
 in their paths are ruin and misery,
 and the way of peace they have not known.”
 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
(Romans 3:10-18 ESV)
There simply isn’t any wiggle room. All are guilty and all without Christ will perish according to God’s Word (Rom. 6:23)
Consider the apostle’s Peter’s first sermon:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24 ESV)
Peter is informing those hearing the sermon that they are guilty, either implicitly or complicity in killing the Son of God even though they had ample proof of his deity.
The Holy Spirit is active in the hearts of the crowd and they respond:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-39 ESV)
Jesus died on the Cross for sinners like you and me as well as the worst of the worst. Even the apostle Paul thought himself as the worst of sinners before he received Christ:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)
Paul considered himself the foremost among sinners because he persecuted the church and was complicit in the murder of Stephen.
He goes on:
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16 ESV)
Paul was an example of God’s mercy and grace. Once a hard-hearted Pharisee that persecuted the church in the hopes that people would not believe; now the apostle to the Gentiles (anyone not a Jew) preaching the good news that anyone no matter what they have done can be saved.
Paul himself is blown away by what he is saying and he exclaims the wonder of it all like this:
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17 ESV)
Pastor Gerecke recognized these truths. Once more he recognized that these truths could apply to even the worst of the Nazi war criminals and so he agreed to work with them.
On a human level it’s nearly incomprehensible that some of these men could be forgiven by God for their crimes but we forget that God forgave the apostle Paul and the crowd that repented at Peter’s first sermon. God’s ways are not our ways and we should rejoice in that for it should give us, the foremost of sinners hope that we have a Savior who can and does save even the worst of the worst.
This side of heaven we will never know who among the Nazis at Nuremberg was genuinely repentant. All we have is Pastor Gerecke’s testimony and what he believed about men who believed they were about to die.
And that perhaps is the greatest take-away from Pastor Gerecke’s mission to the Nazis, all die, all had an opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness; some did, some maybe and others clearly did not.
The question then becomes what do we do with our sin because we too will die.
Thank God for his mercy and grace to all those who truly repent and believe upon Jesus as their Lord and Savior.