Jesus was being crucified between two thieves. For a brief time, both of these gentlemen were mocking him along with everyone else (Matthew 27:44). But then, one of these thieves repented and recognized his sin. He even recognized Jesus for who he was. God worked in this mans’ heart as he cried out, “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me!” But Jesus denied his request. Instead, he said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43). Today, the thief on the cross is a beloved story among Christians, and we even appeal to this story to resolve theological disputes. I wonder what this nameless criminal condemned to shameful death would have thought if he knew that his story would be prominent in theological discourse. He might be surprised that we could learn anything from him. But I think there are at least 5 truths we can learn from thief on the cross.
1 – Deathbed conversions are possible. Often we wonder what happened to those of our loved ones who died outside of Christ. Did they die in their sins? Of course, everybody who denies the Son will be condemned (John 3:18). But if we know somebody who lived in rebellion to God, and then we find out that they died, that does not necessarily mean that they died outside of the kingdom. For this thief was mocking Jesus just before he repented of his sins. As he was dying, he recognized his sin and he turned to Jesus in faith. God worked on him, perhaps employing his fear of death and fear of the unknown, and brought him into repentant faith. The same could be speculated for our loved one of whose spiritual state we are unaware. God could have used their fear of death to bring about true repentant faith and hence welcome them into the kingdom. One could be saved on their deathbed.
2 – One can be saved without water baptism. When people discuss the role of water baptism in the soteriological model, they will appeal to the thief on the cross. Since the thief on the cross was not baptized in water, and he was saved, it follows necessarily that baptism in water is not a necessary aspect of salvation. It is possible for somebody to be saved without water baptism. In response, one might suggest that the thief on the cross was within the perimeter of the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, of course he would not be baptized. But the question is, what does the Old Covenant entail? How is one saved in the Old Covenant? I argued in my article Were The Jews Saved By Works Or By Faith Alone? that in the Old Covenant, people are saved by faith alone. This means that the thief on the cross, if he was under the Old Covenant, would be saved by faith alone. But the question is, why would God add ordinances that are necessary for salvation when throughout the history of his people, he maintained that people need only put their trust in him for salvation?
3 – Works are not necessary for salvation. Many people believe that the Jews were saved by the keeping of the Law. They kept the Torah and merited salvation through their righteousness. Such a person thinks that in the New Testament, we are no longer saved by works of the Law but rather works of the Spirit. In this way, justification comes by works. But the thief on the cross lived in decadence and unrighteousness. He was not a pious Jew. He was a thief. He stole things from other people. He did not live up to the standards of the Law nor did he bring forth the fruit of the Spirit throughout his life. He had no works to provide. The thief on the cross disconfirms the idea that works are necessary for salvation.
In response, some people appeal to the doctrine of Purgatory. He could have gone to Purgatory to perform meritorious deeds. However, Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Some people thing that when Jesus said this, what he meant was, “Very truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” He is telling the thief today. The thief will not be with him today, but rather, he is relaying the information today. But I am afraid that this is not consistent with Jesus’ usage of that idiom. Jesus did not say, “I tell you today,” and then relay some truth. Instead, he often said, “I tell you,” and then he relayed some truth (John 1:51, 14:12; Matthew 18:3, 25:40, etc.). It would therefore be consistent with the usage of this idiom for Jesus to say, “Very truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
4 – The spirit separates from the body at death. There are some devout Christians who believe that when a person dies, they go into a brief soul sleep, wherein they pass out of existence until the final resurrection at the end of the world. That is why Paul often referred to those who were dead as “sleeping.” But the encounter that Jesus had with the thief on the cross seems to shut down that doctrine. For if the thief will be with Jesus in Paradise “today,” it follows necessarily that the soul separates from the body. Since the final resurrection at the end of the world did not happen that day, Jesus must have met the thief on the cross again in Paradise when both were disembodies spirits.
5 – Jesus will forgive anyone who turns to him. Many individuals have this conception of religion wherein they cannot come to God because they have done so many evil things in their lives. God will reject them out of hand because they are so evil. Well, there is certainly a measure of truth in that. But it is applicable to all of us, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). In resolution to this problem, when Jesus was murdered, all of the wrath of the Father that we deserve was poured out upon him. He took our place. He died for us, absorbing the punishment that we deserve. Three days later, he rose from the dead. Anybody can turn to him in faith. The thief on the cross demonstrates that the vilest sinner can turn to Christ and he will take them as they are and make them new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17).
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