“Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). Jesus said this to the thief on the cross that defended Him, while the other thief ridiculed Him. This verse has caused a controversy of opinions, with many using this event as the basis of the doctrine of Sola Fide (faith alone) or that baptism is not important for salvation. But can we really infer that from this? What else is represented in the two thieves on the cross? May God grant love and wisdom in my words as well as in those reading this. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why This Doesn’t Work
The gospel fundamentals are that we believe Christ died, was buried and resurrected. This is what we profess in the Nicene Creed. He conquered death by death so that we may attain eternal life. However, in the case of the thief on the cross, he could not have possibly believed that Christ was raised from the dead, because He had not yet died, let alone been buried or resurrected yet.
Romans 10:9 – “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This verse is used frequently as well, but how can you reconcile that the thief could be saved by faith alone when there was no way the thief had the saving faith of Romans 10 that the gospel requires of us today? This argument could be turned around back on itself, could I use the thief on the cross to prove that people can be saved without believing Christ rose again? That it’s an optional belief because of the outlier of the thief on the cross? Of course I couldn’t, and no Christian of any denomination could. The point being we can’t use his one case as the foundation without using and comparing to all the rest of the Bible.
Under a Different Law
Our Lord Jesus Christ forgave many people throughout the Scriptures, but He did not forgive them under the terms of the gospel, as it was not enacted yet. Hebrews 9:16-17, “In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.” This so Christ completed in His death, removing the Old Law while fulfilling it, transforming it into His New Covenant.
“During his lifetime, a man may distribute his possessions to anyone he wishes in any way he wishes. But after the man’s death, no one has any right to receive any of his possessions except according to the terms of his will or testament. The will does not come into effect till He dies.” (1).
The fact is the thief was not under the gospel yet, and was indeed still under the Old Law. Our conditions so-to-speak and the thief’s conditions are different. We know from Galatians 4:4 that Christ Himself was under the law, so we know certainly this thief was too. “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…” (2).
A Friend’s Faith
In Mark 2:5, Christ forgives a man based on his FRIENDS’ faith. “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” How can a man be saved by his friend’s faith and not his own? Do we use this as an example of not having faith in ourselves? As long as I have friends with great faith I don’t need it myself? This is nonsensical of course, but you see the point. These unusual circumstances do not negate the normative expectations God has left for us. “Because of their faith Jesus will heal the paralytic. This is also a lesson about how much a prayer coming from a community of faithful people – the Church, can help someone in need.” (3).
It seems fairly apparent the friends are the object of “their” in the verse, not the paralytic man. Additionally, Jesus saw the faith of the friends but forgave the man, he didn’t forgive the men with the faith he saw in this passage.
The two thieves on the cross represent two general classes of people, those who in trial and suffering reject God and those who in trial and suffering still follow God. One thief remained defiant to the end, the other chose to repent. Repentance is the message of the thief on the cross, not faith alone. The good thief ACTED upon his repentance and witnessed to the bad thief; “But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40–41).
Witnessing to others is a ‘work,’ it’s an action of reaching out to others. So while this event is indeed a powerful witness to faith, and faith is so immensely important, I would address only contention with the word “alone,” as we see also see a work being done by the thief. How we define what works are is most helpful in understanding our other Christian brethren. Most importantly, the event is a message of repentance. The thief recognized his own sins and his own wrongdoings just as each of us are!
Those who say the thief on the cross is a message of faith alone are in my opinion only taking one step of many. Indeed he believed, but he also repented, he confessed, he witnessed/preached, he loved, he trusted, he prayed. And isn’t this what Christ calls all of us to do too? I pray these words find you well, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sources: David E. Pratte, Gospel Way 1999. The Orthodox Study Bible, Galatians 4:4. Fr. Sasha Radoicic, Serbian Orthodox Church 2018. Lee Wolf, Spiritual Insights 2015.