Blog | Jesus (with commentary by Kevin Calzia, J.D. Bale, and C.H. Spurgeon)
People are made for telling stories—it’s why we have language, and mouths, and ears to hear. We love telling stories because we were made to tell stories, and we love hearing stories because we were made to hear One Story. It’s only when we realize what that One Story is, and who wrote it, that we fulfill our purpose in life, which is to glorify God by preaching and loving to hear the preaching of His Gospel.
When I first asked Kevin Calzia to grab some beers and tell me his story, it was immediately clear that he knew what was what: “I only have a story because Jesus wrote it.” Amen.
Later on in the conversation he added, “Just pick a place and I will be there… as long as there is good beer.” Again, Amen.
Eventually we got our beers (Me: Monkey Paw/Stone Black Lager, Founders Double Trouble IIPA; Kevin: Sculpin, and Rich Man’s IIPA) and told stories about sinners saved by grace.
When a person goes about telling their own story, there are several stages that they go through: who they were, what happened to change them, and who they are now. In each telling, we tend to emphasize one or the other as the “meat and potatoes.” Kevin and I were at the Monkey Paw to talk about conversion, but in his telling it was difficult not to hear him talk about “what he was before”—a thief—and be reminded of one of my favorite stories that Jesus wrote a long time ago.
Everybody knows the story from Luke 23: 39-43 of the thief who defends Jesus, asks for forgiveness, and is promised a place in Paradise. He is a model for death-bed conversions, but Charles Spurgeon once preached a great sermon considering the life that might have set up the transformation of his heart.
Spurgeon points out that the man must have been something much more villainous than a mere thief to be crucified. Many suppose that the two criminals on either side of Jesus were predatory “bandits” and insurrectionaries—co-conspirators of the infamous Barabbas, whose cross Jesus “stole.”
Many scholars also assume that he was a Jew, and that as a criminal condemned along side Jesus, was probably present for the whole ordeal leading up to the Crucifixion—the trial, debate, torture, hike up to Golgotha, and raising of crosses. He probably witnessed Jesus defending His innocence and asserting His divinity before Pilate. He saw Jesus suffer well and carry His Cross humbly, and the thief heard Him pray that God would forgive a crowd of people conspiring to murder Him.
Knowing that only the hearing of The Word of God changes hearts (Romans 10:17), Spurgeon supposes that all of the Scripture and prophecy that the “good thief” had heard growing up might actually be playing themselves out right before his eyes. “Hey, this is all really familiar…” he probably thought just before realizing that everything he had heard might be referring to the wonderful and innocent man hanging next to him—a man that was willingly enduring the punishment fit for crimes he never committed. Seeing Jesus acts caused him to reflect on his own heart.
Spurgeon imagines that the march up to the Crucifixion was “the first part of a sermon preached to that bad man’s heart,” and continues saying,
“And when The Cross was lifted up… I suppose he could see that inscription written in three languages—‘Jesus of Nazareth- King of the Jews.’ If so, that writing was his little Bible, his New Testament… [Or] perhaps this dying thief read the Gospel out of the lips of Christ’s enemies. They said, ‘He saved others!’ ‘Ah!’ he thought, ‘Did he save others? Why could he not save me?’ What a great bit of Gospel that was for a dying thief—‘He saved others!’ I think I could swim to Heaven on that plank.”
As the story goes, the man who deserved to be crucified believed in The One who didn’t, realized he had nowhere to run, confessed his sin, and went (not very far, really) to Christ for help. And he was saved.
People loved the story of the “Good Thief” so much that in apocryphal traditions they gave him a name, Dismas, and made up all manner of stories to flesh out and “complete” the story of his life. He is venerated as the “patron saint” of hoodlums and those condemned to death. A journalist once imagined the very much unofficial “St. Dismas” as a kind of angelic baseball player, “who roams the outfield of eternity making shoestring catches of lost souls.” But Dismas isn’t that Outfielder—Jesus is (he also plays every other position. On both teams. He’s basically the only one playing…) Dismas doesn’t save souls for God anymore than he saved his own soul. When a sinner is saved, God gets the glory, and to claim otherwise is to literally rob Jesus of the worship that is his due.
And we don’t need to make up stories about this nameless criminal, because Jesus ordains that His Gospel continues to repeat itself throughout history in the lives of hoodlums like Kevin Calzia.
Kevin explains right off the bat that he was born and grew up with “two godly parents who loved him very much” and was raised in “the church,” at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside. He was actively involved in church activities and ministries, and constantly in community. Church was a big part of his identity.
But Kevin was also leading another life. In junior high he was living out a “party and rock n’ roll” lifestyle, hanging out with punk-rawk kids in his neighborhood, drinking and doing lots of drugs. In 7th grade he got suspended for possession of marijuana. In 9th grade he was expelled from one school for tagging. After a couple years of “rededicating” his life to Jesus, he eventually went back to seeking the acceptance of his old “party and rock n’ roll” friends during 11th grade. “Insurrectionist” sounds about right.
Then when he was 18 and working in a Bank of America cash vault, Kevin started embezzling money. “It started out as a fluke,” he explained. One day he accidentally took a $50 bill home that had gotten stuck to a time sheet. He didn’t get caught and so he kept doing it. “Well, if it’s that easy, why don’t you just… take the money? You work hard. You deserve it.” This went on for 9 months, moving up from $50 bills to 1 and 2 thousand dollar stacks of cash. Eventually he was found out and charged with $98,000 of embezzlement and initially threatened with 3-5 years in federal prison.
By the Grace of God he only served two weeks in jail and 180 days of work release, in large part due to his full cooperation and confession—a degree of genuine repentance.
His very public “fall from grace” and condemnation put an immediate end to his double life. Everybody around him got to see him for who and what he really was—a liar and a thief. At the same time, Kevin got to see everyone else for exactly who they were—also a bunch of lying sinners. When we was released from jail all the people that he had been in fellowship with for years turned their backs on him, shunned him, offering no support or hope for reconciliation.
This, more than anything else brought out a bitterness in his heart toward God and His church. “You can’t be real—How can I be forgiven, but the people who you have in charge, in the leadership… turn their backs” and “literally walk away.” The only friend who stuck by him—driving him to church and Bible study—was his future wife, Sam. When Kevin was arrested again a few months later for getting drunk in public and vandalizing a car, even she walked away.
The poor choices that he continued to make were driving away all of the relationships that he had put his faith in. It was only then, after hitting rock bottom and being truly alone that he began to see his sin for what it was. Like the penitent thief on the cross, he experienced the condemnation and abandonment that he probably deserved, and realized he had nowhere to run, which is when he began to realize how much he really needed Jesus.
Like the thief, Kevin grew up with the truth of Scripture, but never relied upon it. When he tells the tales of his sinful life growing up, he speaks of thinking that he could “go to God when he felt like it.” “The more I sinned, and the more I treated God like a thing I could run to when I needed Him, the more I got a very, very callous heart.” Even as God was continually “prodding” him, “gripping at his heart,” he only ever saw God as a means of bailing him out of trouble or a front that helped him embezzle acceptance and approval from others. Never mind all the money he stole, Kevin was constantly stealing grace and thinking that he was getting away with something. Repentance was a choice he could make on his own terms without being held accountable, and he continued to make the wrong choice, until choice itself was finally taken from him.
“I knew that Jesus lived and died for my sins, and that was always a variable that I chose to accept or not… But when I realized that I had no way in it… that He still desires me, and knows how filthy and how ugly– like, I’m gonna completely sin the rest of my life—but yet He loves me… I just found comfort in knowing that when I do nothing at all… He still loves me.”
Kevin came to the same realization that the thief did on the cross: He deserved condemnation and punishment, Jesus didn’t. But Jesus chose to take it anyway.
As Kevin explains, it was the message of God’s sovereignty that changed him—first coming from an older brother hyped on John Piper, then from the confirmation of Scripture itself—that there was no variable. Looking back he sees his experience with sin and condemnation as a means of grace. God’s purpose in letting him fail so miserably was to “run him through” the experience of guilt and punishment, all the while preaching, “Kevin, I’m gonna have you at one point. Why are you doing this?”
In the end, a couple years after being arrested the second time all the while being moved by the Spirit as it preached a sermon through Scripture and his life, Kevin relented, confessing that, “If I had the choice to do anything other than love Jesus, I’d do it.” He called out to God saying, “If you want me… you have to take me,” like the thief on the cross next to Jesus pleading, “take me with you!” And Jesus did.
That is the real “meat and potatoes” of the story: Jesus did. Kevin tells this story, all the while saying, “I hate talking about myself” every 10 minutes, because his love for talking about what Jesus did outweighs all the shame.
And that is the glory of how this all works out.
Kevin Calzia was and will always be a hoodlum, and he is justly condemned to death. Yet God glorifies Himself in awarding Kevin a grace denied to the penitent thief: the opportunity to live and tell the tale, to tell stories about how Jesus stole him away from Sin and Death, to preach the Gospel joyfully. God also gave him the support of his wife. Kevin openly confesses that the first leg of his “march to the cross” involved him continuing to go to church despite how messy it was, in order to “woo Sam.” It never worked out that way—instead God wooed him. It wasn’t until after God took control of his life that the things in their relationship started to actually work. For years, when he didn’t think he needed it, Sam preached the Gospel to him. Now that the Gospel has been and continues to be made real in his life, he gets to return the favor.
God gave him the acceptance and the security that he couldn’t steal for himself, and now he knows that it can’t be taken away. And because of this, like “Dismas” he gets to know that the Eternal Kingdom of Heaven is always at hand.