(Taken from The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ by James Stalker and concerning the two thieves with Jesus at Calvary)
It was an awful extreme of wickedness to be engaged, so near their own end, in hurling opprobrious words at a fellow-sufferer. Of course, the very excess of pain made crucified persons reckless; and to be engaged doing anything, especially anything violent, helped to make them forget their agony. It mattered not who or what was the object of attack; they were reduced to the condition of tortured animals; and the trapped brute bites at anything which approaches it. This was the state of the impenitent thief. But the other drew back from his companion with horror. The very excess of sin overleaped itself; and for the first time he saw how vile a wretch he was. This was brought home to him by the contrast of the patience and peace of Jesus. His brutal companion had hitherto been his ideal; but now he perceives how base is his ferocious courage in comparison with the strength of Christ's serene endurance.
The desire to explain away the suddenness of the conversion has led to all sorts of conjectures as to the possibility of previous meetings between the thief and Christ. It is quite legitimate to dwell on what he had seen of the behaviour of Jesus from the moment when they were brought into contact in the crucifixion. He had heard Him pray for the forgiveness of His enemies; he had witnessed His demeanour on the way to Calvary and heard His words to the daughters of Jerusalem; the very cries of His enemies round the cross, when they cast in His teeth the titles which He had claimed or which had been attributed to Him, informed him what were the pretensions of Jesus; perhaps he may have witnessed and heard the trial before Pilate. But, when we attempt to go further back, we have nothing solid to found upon. Had he ever heard Jesus preach? Had he witnessed any of His miracles? How much did he know of the nature of His Kingdom, of which he spoke? Guesses may be made in answer to such questions, but they cannot be authenticated. I should be inclined with more confidence to look further back still. He may have come out of a pious home; he may have been a prodigal led astray by companions, and especially by the strong companion with whom he was now associated. As there was a weeping mother at the foot of the cross of Jesus, there may have been a heart-broken parent at the foot of that other cross also, whose prayers were yet going to be answered in a way surpassing her wildest hopes.
The question of the possibility of sudden conversion is generally argued with too much excitement on both sides to allow the facts to be recognised. Among us there may, in one sense, be said to be no such thing. Suppose anyone reading this page, who may know that he has not yet with his whole heart and soul turned to God, were to do so before turning the next leaf, would this be a sudden conversion? Why, the preparation for it has been going on for years. What has been the intention of all the religious instruction which you have received from your childhood, of the prayers offered on your behalf of the appeals which have moved you, of the strivings of God's Spirit, but to lead up to this result? Though your conversion were to take place this very hour, it would only be the last moment of a process which has gone on for years. Yet in a sense it would be sudden. And why should it not? What reason is there why your return to God should be further postponed? There are two experiences in religion which require to be carefully distinguished: there is the making of religious impressions on us by others from the outside--through instruction, example, appeal and the like; and there is the rise of religion within ourselves, when we turn round upon our impressions and make them our own. The former experience is long and slow, but the latter may be very sudden; and a very little thing may bring it about.
Another way in which it is possible to minimise the greatness of this conversion is by questioning the guilt of the man. When he is called a thief, the name suggests a very common and degraded sinner; but it is pointed out that "robber" would be the correct name, and that probably he and his companion may have been revolutionaries, whose opposition to the Roman rule had driven them outside the pale of society, where, to win a subsistence, they had to resort to the trade of highwaymen; but in that country, tyrannised over by a despotic foreign power, those who attempted to raise the standard of revolt were sometimes far from ignoble characters, though the necessities of their position betrayed them into acts of violence. There is truth in this; and the penitent thief may not have been a sinner above all men. But his own words to his companion, "We receive the due reward of our deeds," point the other way. His memory was stained with acts for which he acknowledged that death was the lawful penalty. In short, there is no reason to doubt either that he was a great sinner or that he was suddenly changed. And therefore his example will always be an encouragement to the worst of sinners when they repent. It is common for penitents to be afraid to come to God, because their sins have been too great to be forgiven; but those who are encouraging them can point to cases like Manasseh, and Mary Magdalene, and the thief on the cross, and assure them that the mercy which sufficed for these is sufficient for all: "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us from all sin."
The fear of those who endeavour to minimise the wonderfulness of this conversion is lest, if it be allowed that a man of the worst character could undergo so complete a change in so short a time on the very verge of the other world, men may be induced to put off their own salvation in the hope of availing themselves of a death-bed repentance. This is a just fear; and the grace of God has undoubtedly been sometimes thus abused. But it is an utter abuse. Those who allow themselves to be deceived with this reasoning believe that they can at any moment command penitence and faith, and that all the other feelings of religion will come to them whenever they choose to summon them. But does experience lead us to believe this? Are not the occasions, on the contrary, very rare when religion really moves irreligious men.
(Picture taken from the film The Passion of the Christ)