It is shameful when a beautiful Biblical portrait becomes warped into a grotesque aberration for the furtherance of false doctrine. Such is often done to the noble thief who stood up for Jesus as they and another thief were crucified together:
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).
Sadly, some pervert this blessed man’s example into a defense of the unbiblical “faith only” doctrine. When advocates of this doctrine are presented with clear Biblical evidence of the need to be baptized prior to receiving salvation, they respond, “I want to be saved like the thief on the cross!” They reason that since the thief on the cross could be saved without being baptized, they can as well.
First of all, it might be worth noting that the Bible never states whether or not the thief on the cross had been baptized previously. When John was baptizing, “there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). Subsequently, “Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John” (John 4:1). Large numbers of people had been baptized upon hearing John’s and Jesus’ preaching. That the thief knew that Jesus was to “come into His kingdom” implies that he had heard Jesus and the kingdom preached at some time. Thus, it is entirely possible that the thief on the cross was one of the multitudes that were baptized. This is not to say that he was certainly baptized, but to note that those who have to resort to the thief on the cross to affirm salvation without baptism resort to an instance in which it is not known one way or the other whether or not a man was baptized. It is a rather weak leg on which they stand.
Second, the thief on the cross was saved under the Old Testament, as the Old Testament was the Divine law in force throughout the life of Christ (Matthew 5:17-18; Galatians 4:4). The death of Christ was required before the New Testament could be put in place: “For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth” (Hebrews 9:16-17). And through His death, the Old Testament was taken out of the way, and the New Testament put in its place (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 8:6). Now that mankind is accountable to the New Testament, one is saved by the means directed by the New Testament, which includes baptism (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4).
Third, the circumstances surrounding the thief’s salvation were unique. While on earth, Jesus performed a number of works like none seen before, and that were not to continue indefinitely after His death (Matthew 9:33; John 9:32; 1 Corinthians 13:8). This included Jesus’ varying determinants for bestowing the forgiveness of sins. Jesus affirmed that “the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). While on earth, He occasionally bestowed forgiveness of sins under unique circumstances. One such occasion was when He granted forgiveness of sins to a bedridden paralytic man who was let down through the roof before Jesus (Mark 2:3-5). The paralytic’s faith was not even a factor; it was the faith of his friends, who let him down through the roof, that prompted his forgiveness (verse 5). (It might also be worth noting that Jesus never commended anyone’s faith, neither upon this occasion nor upon any other, until He observed that faith in action.) Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralytic and of the thief on the cross were similarly unique; yet there is not similar clamoring, saying, “I want to be saved like the paralytic man!” Why? It is because the thief’s forgiveness seems to justify the “faith only” doctrine, while the paralytic’s does not. However, both situations were unique, neither delineating the necessary steps of salvation, especially not for men and women today under the New Testament.
Thus, one misleads himself when he seeks to be saved in the same manner as the thief on the cross. Yet there are numerous ways one should want to be like the thief on the cross:
The first thief on the cross “railed,” or “blasphemed,” against Christ. The second thief knew that such words were spoken against an innocent man, and thus sinful: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 17:15). Not only were they spoken against an innocent man, but against a man that both thieves had at least heard to be the Christ, the Anointed of God. The Hebrews writer exhorts readers to “consider him [Jesus] that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself” (Hebrews 12:3). One such contradicting sinner was the first thief, and the second thief distanced himself from the sin of the first, and rebuked his error.
We should aim to take such a firm, resolute stand for the truth. And when one stands for the truth, he stands against all things opposed to it (Psalm 119:128; Proverbs 8:13; Romans 12:9). The second thief did not compromise with the self-seeking worldly mind of the first, and we can have no compromise with the world (Romans 12:2; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15). We must distance ourselves from sin, and rebuke it: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11).
When the second thief rebuked the first thief’s sin, he did not do so in an attempt to make himself look good. He admitted he was wrong and deserving of his punishment, while the first would make no such admission.
One cannot live righteously while refusing to acknowledge his sins. Solomon warned, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). One must certainly forsake the sins he has done, but he must also confess them. John speaks of the second law of pardon, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Some are too stubborn to admit they could ever be guilty of wrongdoing (compare with verses 8, 10). Some make a “confession” in which they actually attempt to conceal their sin (such as, “If I have sinned . . .”), even though their brethren know exactly what their sin is (compare with James 5:16). Even Judas made a far better confession than this (Matthew 27:3-4). How much better it is to be like the thief on the cross, who acknowledged his shortcomings!
Not only did the thief on the cross stand against sin, he stood with Jesus. He acknowledged his own shortcomings while acknowledging that Christ had none.
Christ provides a way far better than any alternative. His way is better than any other religion, for no other religion looks toward the one true God (1 Corinthians 8:5-6). His way is better than any human philosophy, for all such wisdom is foolishness compared to the wisdom of God (1:19-20, 25; 3:18-20). Christ’s way is the only way; as He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). How amazing it is that the Divine One of such perfection provides us access to God! “For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). We may as well acknowledge Christ’s superiority while we are here on earth; for the day is coming when all will acknowledge his superiority—but an acknowledgement that waits until then will be too late to be of profit (Philippians 2:9-11; Romans 14:10-12).
“I Want to be Forgiven of My Sins”
The thief on the cross had committed heinous transgressions to be deserving of crucifixion. “Crucifixion was regarded as one of the worst forms of execution. Cicero calls it the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful and ugly.” Perhaps the thief’s crime was accompanied by violence or insurrection against the government. Additionally, the thief may have gone beyond his capital offense to join the first thief in reviling Christ, before he changed his mind and his actions (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). However, as he did change his mind and his actions, he could be forgiven of his sins—regardless of how atrocious they may have been. It may have seemed incredibly audacious for such a sinner to request, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Yet Christ clearly conveyed that he was pardoned of whatever he had done.
If we will change our minds and our actions, we likewise can freely partake of God’s forgiveness. And what a cleansing thing it is to have all guilt removed, to restore one’s soul to fellowship with the One in Whose image it was created! As David exclaimed, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile” (Psalm 32:1-2).
“I Want to be with Christ in Paradise Upon My Death”
Not only was the thief on the cross forgiven, but Christ also promised him, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). As soon as the thief would yield up his spirit in death, he would pass from indescribable agony to unspeakable joy. He was going to a place of desired comfort and delightful company. Paradise is depicted as a place where Abraham comforts his previously troubled descendants in his bosom (Luke 16:22-25; compare with Romans 4:11-12; Galatians 3:29). The thief was told he would be with Christ in paradise; and faithful Christians likewise “depart . . . to be with Christ” upon ending their mundane sojourn in the flesh (Philippians 1:23). What greater delight could there be, other than receiving one’s final glorification, entering into the city of God on the Judgment Day—a delight to be enjoyed by all inhabitants of paradise? (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
The thief on the cross provides a beautiful portrait of salvation, and of what we should all strive to become, regardless of what we have been before. No, we cannot expect to be saved in the exact same manner as the thief on the cross. But if we will stand where he did, acknowledge what he did, and submit ourselves to Christ as he did (according to the terms Christ gives to us—Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 8:35-38), we can be saved just as surely as he was. I want to be saved like the thief on the cross!
 Johannes Schneider, Stauros, stauroM, anastauroM, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999 printing), 7:573.
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