How Could the Thief on the Cross Be Saved?

Some ask, “How was the thief on the cross saved if he didn’t live a righteous life?” Let us consider what this implies about how they believe a person is declared right before God.


Original question: Please clarify this for me. Regarding the theif on the cross. How do you compare his salvation with ours? I mean, he did not live a good life at all. He did not show any fruit of repentance. He did not live right, yet Jesus saved him anyway. How was Jesus able to save him when we are clearly instructed to live right and to turn from sin? As I understand it, he was the only one in scripture who had this deathbed salvation so we can’t rely on that but you know what I mean?

So this is from Sam Rodman. He writes, "Hello, Tim. Please clarify this for me..." Now what I'm wanting you to think is somebody asks you this question. How would you answer? Where would you go in Scripture? What would your counsel be to an individual that asked you this? "Please clarify this for me. Regarding the thief on the cross, how do you compare his salvation with ours?" So he's obviously thinking that there's something different about his salvation and ours. "How do you compare them? I mean, he did not live a good life at all. He did not show any fruit of repentance. He did not live right, yet Jesus saved him anyway. How was Jesus able to save him when we are clearly instructed to live right and to turn from sin? As I understand it, he was the only one in Scripture who had this deathbed salvation. So we can't rely on that, but you know what I mean. Thank you very much. Sincerely, Sam Rodman." Now I know this is probably an easy one. But here's the thing, you want to answer people biblically. You want to answer them clearly. You want to lay down a good, strong explanation or argument if you're answering. So how do you answer? Maybe the first thing we need to do is open up our Bibles to Luke 23 to the passage where the thief on the cross - it's the only account in the Gospels of this thief being saved. We see him show up in the others, but this is the only one that we're actually told. I think that's interesting. Do you guys find that interesting? That the other authors could refer to him but not mention that he got saved? Doesn't that make you wonder what all manner of things we're not told about? Anyway... Luke 23. Do you guys all have it? So, I'll start reading in verse 39. "One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him..." Railed at Christ. "...Saying, 'Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!' But the other rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we're receiving the reward of our deeds. But this Man has done nothing wrong.' And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.' And He said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with Me in paradise.'" So hear his question again: "Please clarify this for me. Regarding the thief on the cross, how do you compare his salvation with ours? I mean, he did not live a good life at all. He did not show any fruit of repentance. He did not live right. Yet, Jesus saved him anyway." I think that's one of the telling statements. "He did not live right... yet Jesus saved him anyway." Basically what that communicates is the fact that he's having difficulty figuring out what salvation looks like. I mean, I think he has a difficulty discerning between what saves versus what proves that we're saved. There is a proof of salvation in Scripture. There's various characteristics of genuine Christianity that come up all over the Scriptures. And yet, that's not the same thing. The proofs of what it means to be saved are not the same thing as being saved. And he perhaps is not clear on that. "How was Jesus able to save him when we are clearly instructed to live right and to turn from sin? As I understand it, he was the only one in Scripture who had this deathbed salvation, so we can't rely on that. But you know what I mean." Now, actually I don't know what he means. I mean, I understand what he's saying, but I think he's implying there that you know what I mean and would agree with me that we can't rely on that. But I would not go down that path. We certainly can rely - any example in Scripture where somebody is converted, obviously we can rely on that. So what do you say? (from the room) So he said that he hadn't repented? But here it sounds like he was repenting? Maybe I'm misunderstanding what he's saying. No, you were understanding exactly right. You're saying that he has mentioned here that there's no evidence that this thief repented. But he doesn't really quote the account at all. He doesn't make any reference to the account other than the fact that it happened. Yes, you're exactly right. Let's just look at the text. The proofs of repentance, the proofs of salvation are here. They're here in the text. But I don't think that that's the biggest issue. The biggest issue is this: he says, "he did not live right, yet Jesus saved him anyway." What's his assumption? (unintelligible) God saves those who live right. One of the greatest texts in my opinion concerning the glory of the Gospel is found in Romans 4:5. Let's look at it, because it just so brings to light the reality. And it really says that the statement that he makes here is diametrically wrong and opposed to what the Gospel teaches. If we go to Romans - do you want a Bible? Okay. Do you have a photographic memory? (unintelligible) It's no problem at all. If you want one just shout, we'll dig one up for you. But in Romans 4:5 we have this statement: (I'm going to start reading in v. 4). "Now to the one who works..." The idea here is a person who is working; a person who in their own effort is trying to gain favor with God. "...His wages are not counted as a gift." In other words, if you work to get to Heaven, you merited it if it were possible. It's a wage. You basically were good and you earned something. That's the idea. That's what he's teaching there. "His wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." So on the one hand, you have the person that works. He gets a wage. The wage is his due. That's over against the person who doesn't work, but he believes in the God who justifies the ungodly. To justify is a legal term. He's declared righteous. The truth that we find is that God saves the ungodly by pronouncing ungodly people righteous. This happens through faith in Jesus Christ. What did the thief on the cross do? He was justified by faith. He was saved not because of his own merits. God justifies the ungodly. Was the guy ungodly? Yes. He was a thief. He was dying for his crimes. The proof of his repentance; the proof that something was genuine here would be demonstrated in what? (from the room) "We're getting what we justly deserve." Tim: That's one thing. Admitting your sin. That's a good indication. Remember what repentance is. Repentance is - the "repent" in English is to think again. Or, from the Greek term, we get this idea of an afterthought or to change one's mind. The idea is he changed his mind about himself. The other guy was justifying himself. (incomplete thought) The other guy was mocking. This man was admitting. He had a change of mind. His mind had been changed to recognize he was a sinner, that he deserved what he was getting. Not only did his mind change about himself, who else did his mind change about? (from the room) Christ. Tim: What are two things he recognized about Christ? (from the room) He said, "Do you not fear God?" So I'm thinking wow, he knows something is going on here. Tim: I would bring that back more to a proper evaluation of himself. He's a sinner. There's a reason to fear God because he's headed towards trouble. But what are the two things about Christ that he recognizes? James: He believes Christ is perfect. Tim: Yes, he believed He did not have sin and he believed He had a kingdom. He's asking Him to remember him. He's looking for salvation. He's asking. So would you say anything else to this guy? James: Just a quick question. In Matthew it mentions the robbers (plural) were mocking Him. So is it your understanding that this man's change of mind... Tim: Yes, I would say his change of mind happened on the cross. He repented on the cross. He came to faith on the cross. James: So what would you say led to that? I mean, we know the supernatural power of God, but was there the sayings of Christ? Tim: We don't see anything more than we're told. I mean, yes, I think there's every reason to believe from the parallel accounts that in the beginning he was mocking, but something began to happen. He was observing something. Anybody know what things were said? (from the room) If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and we'll believe in You. Tim: I'm talking about the things that were said by Christ Himself. What would this thief have heard said? (from the room): Forgive them. Tim: Forgive them. They know not what they do. What else would he have seen? James: It's interesting how they were just mocking Christ, and He didn't defend Himself in pride. So that man witnessed that. That's not Christ saying something, but that speaks volumes to see His response to this reviling and everything. (from the room) They would have seen Christ entrust His mother. Tim: Yes. He would have seen Jesus look down at John and His mother, and say, "Behold your son; behold your mother." He says this: "As I understand it, he was the only one in Scripture who had this deathbed salvation, so we can't rely on that. But you know what I mean." But here's the thing, every individual is saved how? What does Scripture say? Saved by grace through faith. We are justified by faith. Who is the father of the faith? I mean, again, let's go back to the argument in Romans 4. Abraham was justified by faith. And what we're told is righteousness was counted to him because of the faith. And it's not counted to him only. And all of this is not done simply for his sake. And in fact, we're told that this happened, that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness before he was circumcised in order that he might be the father of the faithful whether they're circumcised or not circumcised. (incomplete thought) You go to Hebrews 11. By faith... Abel. All the way back to the very first person who was a genuine child of God. It was by faith. It's always been by faith. And so I wouldn't agree that we can't rely on this. What we would say is that every account in Scripture where somebody was converted, we can rely on. The reality is we're saved by faith. I think where Sam is having the problem is that the length of time didn't exist. So he's having trouble understanding how if that life is not demonstrated, how could he actually be saved? But that's actually a wrong understanding of what it is to be saved. We're saved in a legal fashion. Declared righteous. Counted righteous. The unjust, the ungodly, wicked people, bad people, sinners are counted righteous in a moment in the courtroom of God when faith is exercised in Jesus Christ dying on that cross; in Jesus being that Savior, and looking to Him and trusting Him; trusting in His merits, trusting Him to save. That's what this man did. (incomplete thought) I mean, that "remember me" - he's talking to the only One that can save him. And isn't it amazing? What did he hear that he's actually thinking that Christ is going to enter a kingdom? Remember me when You come into Your kingdom? I wonder what he even thought when he said that? Isn't that interesting? Here you have Christ dying seemingly defeated. That's what those down on the ground were thinking. That's what the other thief was thinking. That's what the two on the road to Emmaus - even His disciples were thinking. We thought it was Him, but it can't be Him, because they killed Him! They crucified Him. And you remember, this was after Jesus came forth and He's walking with these guys. "Haven't You heard all these things that are happening?" What things are happening? "Well, we thought He was the Christ. We thought He was the Savior. But He's not." Why would they think that He wasn't? Well, because He died. Isn't that amazing? This guy is being put to death right next to Him. He's dying on the cross. His life is ebbing away though He gave up His life of His own accord. But He's over here dying on this cross. He's over here bleeding. He's over here suffering, obviously going to die. And this man has the faith to believe that somewhere in all of this there's triumph. There's a kingdom. That Christ is actually the Jewish king. That's what Pilate put up there. The king! What did he put? This is the King of the Jews. And he believed that. And that's what faith is. We live by faith, not by sight. If you're talking about sight, yeah, you'd talk like the other guy. You'd tell Him, "You're the Christ. Why aren't You saving Yourself? What's this all about? Why aren't You saving us? Come down if You're the Christ." The whole thing looks hopeless from man's point of view. He's dead! They're killing our King? What's this? This is the One we hoped... and now? We thought He was going to usher in a Kingdom and He's dying. This thing's looking pretty hopeless right now. And yet, in the midst of all of it - and you've got to remember, he's not sitting there like you're sitting there. He's hanging on spikes. His own life is ebbing away. And somehow in the midst of all that, where he was mocking in the beginning it seems, and now there's been this turn. We don't know exactly all the mechanism that God used to bring this change about, but we know this - you know what happened when the disciples recognized that the Gospel had gone to the Gentiles? You remember how they phrased it? That God has also granted repentance to the Gentiles. Repentance is granted. Repentance is something God gives. It's something the Spirit of God works in people. So definitely God was at work bringing faith. It's the miracle of salvation. God saves in a moment. (incomplete thought) What's the order? That came up down in Mexico - the order. (incomplete thought) What we find is that God calls and then God justifies and then God glorifies. That seems to be the order. To foreknow, to predestine, to call. That's what we have there in Romans 8. There's a call. There's an effectual call and the sinner hears it. Jesus said, "You can't come unto Me unless My Father who has sent Me draws you." And there's this draw and this call, much like Lazarus: "Come forth!" And he came forth from the grave. There's power in that call to raise from the dead. And then the sinner responds in repentance and faith. But I think Sam's big problem is that he's very much confusing salvation and what proves that we're saved. Because the reality is this: the fruit - it looks good, right? Even in that account, even though it wasn't given lots of time to develop. The fruit looks good already just in those few moments. And undoubtedly if he was allowed to live a life, then the reality of the fruit of the Spirit would have all the more blossomed and taken maturity in his life. Anything else on that one? (from the room) I have a question. Does the parable of the manager paying his employees equally just by their hours worked, does that apply at all here? As far as the timeline of this man being saved? Tim: Well, actually, the parable you're talking about would be a great portion of Scripture to take him to. The truth is that... (I've got a mouth full of coffee grounds). The truth is those who are saved early in the day - at a young age - the picture, the parable is the Master calling workers out to the vineyard. And some get called early in the day and some get called right at the end of the day. And yet at the end, they're all given a denarius. And those who work the entire day are looking and thinking that they should get more, but actually it's the same. It seems to indicate what? (from the room) Entitlement? Jealousy? You've got the parable of the prodigal son. His brother refused to come in to the banquet because he'd stayed there and worked all his life. And his brother went out and did all this stuff. And the elder brother was there at home the whole time and he was jealous, which is a picture of the Pharisees. They were jealous. Tim: So you have this prodigal son. And we could say there really wasn't much time to do anything. The father ran out and threw his arms around him and killed the fatted calf. But the reality is the same thing was demonstrated in the prodigal son that we see demonstrated in the thief on the cross. What was that? There's suddenly a change in the thinking. A person comes to himself. A person reconsiders. A person suddenly recognizes: I'm not in a good place and there's a turning towards home. What you have is this guy hanging on the cross, he turns to Christ. His hope is there. Well, okay, we're going to move on to the next one.