Gospel according to Thief


Gospel According to the Thief on The Cross

                                                Jim Burns

How does the thief on the cross fit into our theology?

No baptism, —-no communion, —no confirmation,

no speaking in tongues —— no mission trip,

no volunteerism —-no church clothes.

— He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray.

—He didn’t say the sinner’s prayer

— He was nothing more than a thief.

— Jesus didn’t take away his pain,

—Jesus didn’t heal his body, or rebuke his scoffer.

-Yet it was a thief who walked into heaven the same hour as Jesus did by simply believing.

He had nothing more to offer other than his belief that Jesus was who he said he was.

He knew nothing about the doctrine of justification by grace…knew nothing about soteriology… nothing about pneumology, he knew nothing about Election and Predestination, Pre-Trib or Post-Trib…. He knew nothing about theology period!

Just a half-naked, dying man on a cross unable to even fold his hands to pray.” 

The thief was standing at the Pearly gates looking like a calf looking at a new gate.  Just standing there, confused, bewildered, and amazed! The angel Raphael was on duty in the guard shack at the Pearly Gates that day. He saw a half-naked man, with dried blood on him and looking like he didn’t know what to do.

The angel Raphael said, “Why are you here?”  The man said, “I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” Raphael said to him.  “I just don’t know.”  Raphael said, “Then how did you get here?”  Again, the confused man said, “I don’t know.”  the Angel, then a little confused and frustrated himself, said to the man, “Then, on what bases are you here?”  The thief threw up his hand, “The only thing I know is the man on the middle cross told me to be here, that’s all I know.” 

Let’s look at Luke 23:32-43 to set the stage of our study.  Read again the key verses: 42 and 43.

Theologians have batted back and forth like a tennis ball for centuries about how one receives admittance into the kingdom of heaven.  It seems customary that one will come forward at the church service, confesses his/her sins to a pastor, become baptized into the Christian faith, become a member of a church, serves in some capacity in the church, give his/her tithe and offerings, read the Bible regularly, and attend all services at the church, attend a Bible class, and go out and share Jesus with others.

There is a wheelbarrow load of do’s and don’ts, ceremonies, rituals, rote prayers and many other traditional things one must do to get to heaven.

I submit to you one of the greatest gospel messages shared to the world was one of  three men on crosses the day Jesus was crucified – the thief on the cross.  He didn’t do a ritual ceremony, he didn’t bring an elegant theological treatise, he didn’t perform any religious ritual, “He said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'” [1]

The other criminal who hung there that day, hurled insult at Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”[2]  But the other one rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We, you and me, are getting our just punishment, we deserve what we are getting. But this man has done no wrong, as we have.[3] 

And then, the thief said to Jesus, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus said to the thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”[4]

By any measure of any scale, the statement was astounding to Jesus’ disciples. He is dying on the cross with the two criminals, and now He is saying to one of the thieves they would be together in paradise. Most of the disciples had fled or were lingering with disillusionment, but what did he mean by saying “today we will be in paradise?”

What do we see here on that lonely hill that day?  We see on one side of Jesus’ cross a fellow condemned man, with his life ebbing out of him, looking across to another dying man, not a criminal, but the Messiah himself.  I don’t know, and no one can grasp this, but somehow, he understands that Jesus was not an imposter, that Jesus was the real deal, and the thief put his entire faith, in the last minutes of his life, in Jesus’ hands.  He had no one-hundred percent guarantee, he had no written contract, he simply placed his fate in the hands of Jesus by faith.  Wow!

Just how could this thief have this quality of faith exist at such a dark time?  Already darkness was falling over the whole land with a sadness that is almost more than anyone could bear, yet a dying thief, one who had admitted many crimes dying by the minute, believed in another dying man was the Messiah, and exercised his faith in Him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Wow!

Did he confess his sins?  Yes he did!  He confessed that he was being punished justly, his death on the cross was deserved for the deeds he had done[5]  Did the thief repent?  Not verbally, but I think he did as he mingled his repentance with a hope and plea for mercy.  When the thief said to Jesus, “Remember me…”[6]

This man had no opportunity to go to a house of worship and give a confession to a priest or minister; he had no opportunity to be baptized; he had no opportunity to be admitted into good standing in the membership of a church or do any of the others things that many religious policies require.  The only thing he could do was what he did, and Jesus honored his request.  Wow!

The gospel according to the thief on the cross gave me a great solace while serving as a fire and law enforcement chaplain, where death was a common occurrence on a daily basis, giving last rites to many a person who was a victim of a homicide, suicide, or a tragic accident where a person had no time to do all the things that are commonly done in a religious setting.  My parish was in the mud and mire, the grit and grime of tragic injury and death; where my parishioners had no time for religious rituals.  I can only hope that at that split moment between life and death they exercised the split-second thought to do what the thief on the cross did – access their faith in Jesus, if only for a split moment in time. 

I know there is a lot of discussion about deathbed conversions.  The example of the thief on the cross is often cited as a precedent for deathbed conversions. 

It is conceivable that the thief had attended one of Jesus’ meetings, or at least heard about Jesus’ outdoor teachings, and had probably been tossing around in his mind about if that guy is real or not.  It was at the moment of his own death, that he had to make a decision, was Jesus said he was, or was he just another one of those guys roaming around the country side spouting off about God. It was time to get off the fence, he was to either get on one side or the other. He chose to get off on the side with Jesus.  He didn’t have a lot of time to do what he needed to do, and he did it, right in the nick of time. 

I know there are many people who repent and confess Christ on their deathbeds or in a ditch, or in a crumpled automobile, or being burned to death in a house fire, and even people who have shot themselves. It seems to be a normal reaction in such circumstances that one turns to God.  

So, in my experience, I believe it is possible for one to be saved on one’s deathbed, like the thief on the cross did.  On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of people, who survived their deathbed experience, felt they were dying in a crumpled automobile, on a shooting scene and it seemed to be all over, saying to me at the time they were going to die, “Chaplain, I’ll follow Christ, if I live through this,” and they don’t. 

Then there are those who say, “I’ll follow Christ later, I want to have some fun then I’ll repent on my deathbed.  The honest to goodness fact is that many of them don’t get the chance to repent on their deathbeds.  Many are taken away from this live in tragic accidents, sudden heart attacks, are shot with no idea what was happening, and they never have the chance to repent. 

Yes, deathbed salvation is possible, as the thief on the cross indicates this, but it must not be relied upon.  I have stood by the bedside of some who have given a deathbed confession of their faith in Jesus, and even at their dying breath, appeal to their family member not to wait like I am doing, get your life right with God now.
Some of the most evangelistic pleas have been to those on their deathbeds, pleading for their family members to confess their sins and give their lives to Jesus.  

That’s what the thief did to the other guy on the cross, one received one rejected.
Yes, I believe in the gospel according to the thief on the cross, but it is not the ideal way to get right with God. 

God wants us to come to him in any way we can.  Sometimes when our whole world has turned upside down, we realize that Jesus is what He says He is, and we need to bend our knees to His majesty, Lord of Lords, and Kings of Kings and receive Him as Savior and Lord, but the best time is today!

The best time is today.  Now is the accepted time. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[7]  

We have no promise of tomorrow, we never know what tomorrow may bring. Yes, God will receive you by faith in the fleeting moments of our lives, but the wise thing is to settle that destiny right now, the accepted time.  The best way to settle salvation is today!


[1] Luke 23:42-43

[2] Luke 23:39

[3] Luke 23;40-41

[4] ibid

[5] Luke 23:41

[6] Luke 23:42

[7] 2 Corinthians 6:2

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