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  • Writer's pictureJan Weihl

The Thief on the Cross (Luke 23)

The story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus has become one of my favorite doctrinal teachings. It seems to be one that a lot of people want to dismiss. But when we dig into it, we learn amazing truths regarding, "what must we do to be saved?"

When it comes to salvation, we have to remember that God didn't have one set of requirements for one group and another set of requirements for another group. From the beginning God's requirement for salvation has been faith.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, [9] not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So from Ephesians 2:8-9 we see we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Good works or good deeds are not a part of the salvation equation.

Should we do good works in Jesus' name then? Of course we should! But those works don't save us. Those works demonstrate our faith and a heart of gratitude for our salvation. So we should never say, "I hope I have done enough good." We should say, "Do I really have faith that Jesus' death on the cross wiped out all of my sins so that I am no longer separated from God? Have I repented of my sins and trusted in Jesus as my Lord?"

Once we have realized that nothing we do, can pay the debt for even one of our sins, admit our sins and truly trust in Jesus' finished work on the cross, Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit comes within us as our guarantee of our salvation. From that point on, anyone who has truly repented and submitted to Jesus as their Lord, can never lose their salvation because it's not up to them. It's up to God to keep that person from losing it.

Ephesians 1:13-14 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, [14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

But even with that understanding, our human nature always wants to add some kind of work as a part of the salvation equation.

For instance, many people want to say you have to be baptized to be saved. In fact, many want to get their infant child baptized to make sure they are saved. But if baptism saves us, we have a work we can boast about and Jesus didn't need to die on the cross to wipe out all of our sins.

If baptism saves us, why did Jesus on the cross say, "It is finished!" Tetelestai

This is where the thief on the cross comes in. The thief on the cross realized and confessed his sins next to Jesus and then confessed his faith in Jesus. In response, Jesus told the thief, "today you will be with Me in paradise."

Luke 23:39-43 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” [40] But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? [41] And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” [42] Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” [43] And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

  • The thief on the cross was not baptized. Yet the salvation equation was not a special case for him. The salvation equation is the same for everyone.

  • He confessed his sin, "we receive the due reward of our deeds"

  • He repented of his sin and confessed His faith in Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." Everyone else had given up on "Jesus' kingdom" as He was being put to death on the cross. Everyone else said, "we thought He was the Messiah, but now He is being put to death on a cross which means 'cursed by God." But the thief on the cross saw past all of that and knew Jesus' kingdom was yet to come. "Lord, remember me."

  • Then Jesus confirmed that the thief's faith was enough to save him, without any works and without baptism, "today you will be with Me in paradise."

So should we even get baptized? Of course we should! We get baptized because it is the first step Jesus commanded all new disciples to take.

We get baptized because we are identifying with Jesus death in our place and with His promise of resurrection through His resurrection.

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.

Romans 6:3-4 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? [4] Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

We get baptized to obey Jesus, not to be saved by our own works.

We also see salvation is by faith alone for the Old Testament believers, including Abraham:

Romans 4:1-5 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? [2] For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

So the Old Testament followers of God were saved by their faith, the thief on the cross was saved by his faith, and we are saved by our faith.

The last point we have to understand though is the difference between saving faith and simply believing the facts.

I think there are many who believe like the demons:

James 2:19 "Even the demons believe and tremble."

The demons believe without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus stepped off the throne, came in human flesh through the birth of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead 3 days later to live eternally.

The demons believe the gospel message of salvation but the demons are not saved.

Why? The demons refuse to repent of their sins and submit themselves to Jesus as their Lord God, like the thief on the cross did.

What about you? Do you believe the gospel message of salvation? Awesome! That's the first step. But to be saved, you must turn away from your sins. In other words, stop playing God and trying to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong.

Are you ready to step off the throne and submit to Jesus as the Lord God of your life? That's what the thief on the cross did when he said, "Lord, remember me when You come into your kingdom."

Dear Lord, You have been giving me the words for this devotion for the last 3 days and I didn't know it. Lord, as I draw close to you in Scripture, thank you for always teaching me exactly what I need to know each day. Lord, I pray as I share what You are teaching me, it would help others draw close to You, in your Word. In Jesus' name, amen.

Jan Weihl

Living Word Ministries

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