The Penitent Thief

And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43, NASB

I forget where I originally read this at, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately. That penitent thief… How often is he pointed to in order to explain salvation and what is required for it? See, it didn’t take baptism! See, it didn’t take the sacraments! It didn’t take turning over a new leaf, righting any wrongdoings, or making a pilgrimage. All it took was calling upon the Lord!

But is that really what happened? Did a lost sinner really get saved while hanging next to Christ? The “standard” answer is yes, he did, but how do we know that?

What if he met Jesus before? What if he had faith in Him prior to then? What if his expression — his calling out to Jesus — on the cross was the result of a faith already present within him rather than the faith of a newborn believer?

I’m in complete agreement with the fact that baptism, the sacraments, and all that other stuff are not required to be saved. However, I do not believe we are dealing fairly with the text — or the reputation of that man who called out to Jesus — when we point to it as proof of salvation being by grace alone through faith alone.

Perhaps the thief did get saved at that instance, but for us to claim that with absolute certainty is to claim to have a knowledge about that man’s past prior to his execution that we simply cannot have.

Rather than pointing to the passage in argument with Roman Catholics and others who would claim saving grace is administered through works as well as faith, we should point to the passage to give assurance to those who believe that when death comes knocking at their doors, they will be with Jesus Christ. He — and He alone — is our hope.

2 thoughts on “The Penitent Thief”

  1. Rick, in the account of the crucifixion given by Mark, he records that both thiefs had hurled insults at Jesus.

  2. As does Matthew’s account, it seems. And John’s affirms that it was two criminals that were led to Golgotha with Jesus.

    In e-Sword’s Gospel Harmony, these verses are listed together:

    Matthew 27:44 – Both criminals revile Jesus.
    Mark 15:32 – Both criminals revile Jesus.
    Luke 23:39-43 – One criminal reviles Jesus; the other rebukes his fellow criminal and asks Jesus to remember him.
    This particular account does not appear in John, unless I’m overlooking it (which is possible).

    John Gill in his commentary states that “the thieves also” is a Hebraism — or a way of wording things common to Hebrew. He compares the passage to Jonah 1:5, which records Jonah going down “into the sides” of the ship. Clearly, he didn’t go down into both sides, but rather into one or the other. That “the thieves mocked him” could be a way of stating that one or the other mocked him, without specifying which.

    However, if indeed they both mocked him, then what happened between their mocking Him & the one rebuking the other for doing so? “Merging” the Gospels would place such events within a verse or two of each other. For one to go from a Christ-hater to a Christ-believer so instantly with no apparent cause would then be one of the biggest arguments for a Reformed understanding of election that I could think of. Just as Paul was changed miraculously by the Lord, so this thief could have been changed in an instant on the cross.

    That both thieves were in the like condemnation and were both mocking the Lord would certainly show that election truly is unconditional … and that grace truly is irresistible.

    There are two possibilities; I’m uncertain if an authoritative choice can be made between them:

    (1) Both thieves were mocking Christ, but one was miraculously changed.

    (2) One thief was mocking Christ, the other being led to the cross as a believer in Jesus already.

    Both provide overwhelming assurance that we will be with Christ, and I think that’s the point of that particular word from Jesus, “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

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