What about the thief on the cross?
I have discussed salvation with people from many different denominations. Everyone agrees that faith is the means to receive salvation. The full ramifications of this statement of truth are where the disagreement begins.
We know, according to James 2, that faith without works does not save. What must we believe and act on?
Most but not all believe that repentance is a necessary response of faith. Most but not all believe that confession is a necessary response of faith. Some but not all believe that water baptism is a necessary response of faith. Some but even fewer believe that seeking and receiving the Spirit is a necessary response of faith.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation…2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)
For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10:10 (NKJV)
And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God…1 Peter 3:21 (NLT)
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5 (NIV)
Although, there is a diversity of beliefs regarding saving faith, everyone plays the same ace card when faced with one of these Scriptures.
Luke 23:39-43 (NLT)
One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
If you don’t believe that it is necessary to receive the Spirit, ask about the criminal on the cross. There is no mention of him receiving the Spirit.
If you don’t believe that it is necessary to be baptized, ask about the criminal on the cross. There is no mention of him being baptized.
If you don’t believe that confession is necessary for salvation, ask about the criminal on the cross. He never confessed that he had sinned against God. (He did acknowledge that he deserved his punishment from man, but never mentioned God.) He never confessed his need for a Savior, although you can argue that it is implied. He never confessed that he was bound for hell. He never even acknowledged that there is a hell. He didn’t even pray. He spoke to Christ man to man. He acknowledged that Jesus was a righteous man that didn’t deserve to die. He stated that Jesus would come in his kingdom so it seems that he believed him to be the Messiah, but that is a far cry from recognizing him as God. He did refer to Jesus as “Lord”, but the Greek term that is used simply refers to a master or respected man of authority, although it can be applied to God as well. He never clearly confessed Christ to be God, the Son of God, or the only way of salvation.
If you don’t believe that repentance is necessary for salvation, ask about the criminal on the cross. The text never says that he truly repented. He did acknowledge that he deserved his punishment, but many sinners beat themselves up for the deeds they have done. They just never turn away from them. The Bible is clear that tears of sorrow aren’t proof of true repentance (Hebrews 12:17). We can’t assume that he turned his heart from sin.
Wow, it seems that you can use the case of the pardon on the cross to argue against everything including the essentially of believing that Christ is God manifest in flesh and the only way of salvation. Maybe the thief isn’t a good case study to determine what we must do to be saved today. Let’s examine this situation logically and Scripturally.
Point #1 The gospel is the death, burial, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:2-4 (NIV)
By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
Point #2 The gospel only saves those that believe.
Romans 1:16 (NKJV)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…
Point #3 The thief did not believe in the gospel because Jesus had not yet died. Jesus had not yet been buried. Jesus had not yet risen victoriously from the grave. He couldn’t believe that it had happened because it hadn’t happened. THE THIEF WAS NOT SAVED BY BELIEVING THE GOSPEL!
Point #4 The New Covenant was not yet in effect. The Old Covenant was only fulfilled by Christ’s death.
Hebrews 9:15-16 (NKJV)
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.
Comparing the particulars of our salvation to the criminal’s salvation makes as much sense as comparing our salvation to God’s plan for one of the characters from the Old Testament, such as Noah or Moses. He was under a different covenant and was not required to believe or obey the full gospel of New Testament salvation.
In conclusion, while the thief on the cross is commonly used as an example of our salvation, it is not a valid comparison. To find examples of conversions and salvations in the early church, you will need to look in the book of Acts which depicts the teachings and practices of the Apostles after Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. (A few prominent examples: Acts 2, Acts 8, Acts 10, and Acts 19)
In case you are still wondering what you must do, let’s read one last passage in which this very question was asked and answered.
Acts 2:37-40 (NIV)
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”