Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Theology of Salvation Based on The Thief on the Cross

"39 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." (Luke 23:39-43).

What is true salvation? There has been long-running controversy in Christian circles, especially among fundamentalists especially with a Calvinist flavor on the very issue of what essentially completes salvation. More specifically, barring the concept of election, there is a contention between being justified by faith only as that which completes salvation and being sanctified as well that guarantees eternal life and heaven.

The party that believes that justification by faith alone completes one's guarantee for eternal life goes so far as to accuse the other side as preaching "Lordship salvation". Hence, at the expense of oversimplifying the issue, we pose the question, "Is the sinner required to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior to be saved? Or, is it enough for the sinner to just accept Jesus Christ as his Savior and not necessarily Lord?

Note that this does not seem to be a critical issue among Arminians, especially the Wesleyans. In contrast to the Calvinists who believe on "once saved always saved unconditionally", Wesleyans believe and even major in the doctrine of sanctification and necessarily so since they implicitly and explicitly claim that the Christian may lose his salvation by habitual or lifestyle sin. Hence, to guarantee eternal life, one must be constantly walking with God in the power of the Holy Spirit. One's assurance of salvation is based on how dead he is to the world and alive only to God.

The non-Lordship side contends that sanctification is not necessary for salvation and usually points to the thief on the cross as an example claiming that the thief lacked opportunity to be sanctified. Unfortunately, however, as one looks closer to the thief on the cross, a critical analysis will reveal aspects that may actually support the Lordship side.

We explore the following points:

First, salvation involves the knowledge and awareness of God's justice. “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?" Where there is no fear of divine condemnation, there can be no genuine repentance. Where there is no genuine repentance, there can be no genuine salvation.

Second, salvation involves awareness of one's sin and guilt. The repentant thief declares in verse 41, "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds..." Hence, this thief, compared to the hostile one, accepted his own guilt. This is a condition which necessitates a Savior. The other thief, by the way, just wanted a way out of the cross. In fact, he did not even want justification. He just wanted to escape the penalty for his sin. Now, does this not sound familiar? Isn't this what most Christians, both nominal and evangelical, really want? Many think that receiving Christ is just like a free ticket to heaven (note the word "free" ticket, it does not even cost these Christians anything, and that is what they want!). And when trials and tribulation occur in their lives, the opt out of the Spirit-filled life.

Thirdly, salvation involves recognizing Jesus as the Savior. "...this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The penitent thief now turns to Jesus for salvation. The thief also recognized the innocence of the Savior, "...this Man has done nothing wrong.” Note that the incident about Barabbas permeates all four gospels. This incident would be the best gospel picture for the substitutionary death of the Lamb of God for all mankind. It would be safe to assume that the penitent thief was a first hand witness to all these events, and when he requests the Lord to "remember" him when Christ comes into His kingdom, he must have meant that, like Barabbas but in a spritual sense (since they were facing death) that Jesus would assume his penalty in the after-life and thus make him worthy to enter His kingdom as well. Nevertheless, to this thief, Jesus IS the Christ! THE Savior!

Fourth, the thief was willing and ready to face the consequences of his deeds. "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds..." There are sinners who turn to Christ, not so much to gain salvation, but to escape the consequences of their deeds or misdeeds. Hence, he demonstrates evidence of his guilt and a willingness to leave things in the hands of God. Now, this willingness is what we now call "saving faith". It is the faith that comes out of surrender. We surrender to trying to do things our own way. We acknowledge that ONLY God can save us from the mess we have created for ourselves. No one else can. Nothing else can. We acknowledge that henceforth, only what God wills in our lives makes sense. Nothing else does!

Finally, there is the issue of divine "ownership". The thief did not have the luxury of reading Paul's epistles which declares that "we are bought we a great price". However, verse 42 is clear, "Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” " The word, "Lord" and the phrase "Your kingdom" are the giveaways. The acceptance of the Lordship of Christ was explicit in his final statement on the cross. The thief lives in a culture and context where kurios (Lord) and doulos (bondslave) are commonplace. I would believe that the thief knew exactly what he was talking about, perhaps better than most theologians of our time.

"Lord" is not only addressed to someone with higher authority but to someone who can lay claim to your own body. A "bondslave" is not just someone who is owned by his Lord but someone who willingly gives himself to this master and slave relationship. Sanctification is turning over ownership to our lives and bodies to God. Sanctification starts with being dead to sin so that it no longer has any claim to us. Sanctification is simply the process where "he must increase and I must decrease" and hence we become more and more like Christ.

Lest I may be accused of stretching this incident to support "Lordship" salvation, I would contend that the problem with the non-Lordship perspective lies behind their reasoning that Lordship is not explicit in Paul's discussion of Soteriology in the book of Romans. This reasoning arises primarily from a faulty concept of the 3 aspects of salvation: Justification, Sanctification, Glorification. The presence of Glorification as an aspect of salvation sidetracks the concept into thinking that these three aspects are actually stages which are to be treated serially, meaning the next stage comes after the completion of the previous stage. In other words, Sanctification can come only AFTER Justification, since Glorification can only happen after the believer's mortality is gone. Unfortunately, nothing can be more unbiblical than that assumption. A more critical reading of Paul's soteriology would reveal that there is a little of all three at the point where the non-Lordship people call the justification stage. If we can demonstrate this, this should prove that true salvation is not confined to pure justification alone but involves all three aspects.

To begin this proof, we agree that justification is definitely present at the point of true salvation.

Note, however, that repentance is a necessary condition before accepting the provision of salvation through Christ's death on the cross. Note also that sanctification starts with reckoning the old self dead to sin and the new self alive to God. Now isn't this just a restatement of "turning to God from sin or turning to God from self" which is the essence of true repentance? Logically, isn't this actually saying that the correct attitude before justification is the exact same attitude necessary for sanctification? But then sanctification is NOT possible unless, one accepts that Christ is LORD of one's life and should be in total control? Ergo, accepting Christ as Lord is necessary for sanctification, and is the correct attitude before justification! In other words, if one has truly repented of his sins, he has actually begun the process of sanctification! To granularize sanctification apart from justification implies an erroneous concept of true biblical salvation precisely because they come as a package.

The concept is similar to the exegesis of the "fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22. Note that "fruit" is singular. However, Paul enumerates a list of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control". Hence an apparent inconsistency in grammar but magnificently depicting the great spiritual truth that the fruit is a "package" of ALL those things listed. One cannot claim to have the fruit of the spirit, if he has joy but not love, right? The same is true with salvation. One cannot be truly saved if he is justified but not sanctified!

As far as glorification is concerned, this aspect is essentially more of experience than of geography. It is a truly grave misconception that the experience of heaven can never happen in this life. Isn't this what the "abundant life" in John 10:10 is all about? Or, is the abundant life something less than the heavenly experience? Although it is true that glorification, technically, means being "absent from the body but present with the Lord", is not the presence of Christ or the presence of God a real experience in this life? I believe that many times Christians are misled by theological technicalities that they completely miss out on what salvation is all about. The 20th century has been notorious for specializations and specifications so much so that it has attempted to dissect or compartmentalize the Christian experience and draw a clear line between salvation and the Christian walk and life whereas they should all come as a package.

It is better to err on the safe side in this discussion. If a Lordship believer is wrong on this issue, he is still saved. However, if a non-Lordship believer is wrong, he may one day hear the master's voice declaring, "I never knew you!"

[Added April 03, 2017]  Note the focus of both thieves on the cross. The one who riled or hurled insults at Christ wanted ONLY salvation from his predicament and NOTHING ELSE. If he got freed by Christ, it is natural to expect that he would go back to his old lifestyle of thievery and robbing people. So this thief did NOT get what he wanted at all. The repentant thief, however, focused on Lordship.  There is no mention of salvation in any of his short statements on the cross. The only thing that stands out is his recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord.  Guess what? He is the one that got saved!!!
What profound theology this demonstrates! At the heart of true salvation is Lordship and not necessarily the desire for salvation. This is consistent with the Great Commandment and God's purpose in history of creating a people of faith who would love him back the way he loves them!!!


  1. I agree with the concept of Steve's propositions. However, in this blog site, we are strict with hermeneutics which includes NOT EDITing the words AND INTENT of Scripture, so I have to make the following response:

    First, to itemize the "rich man's plan of salvation" and the "thief's plan of salvation" is to muddle the issue. What you called the "rich man's plan of salvation" actually come from the very words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, it is Christ's plan of salvation (albeit misunderstood).
    What you called the "thief's plan of salvation" also comes from the very words of confirmation of the Lord Jesus on the cross. The thief was saved but never baptized. However, it does not mean that the thief did NOT have the heart nor desire to be baptized if given the chance. We cannot second guess here but simply interpret in the light of the immediate context, the bigger context and the big picture.

    So to make a sweeping statement that both plans cannot save is misleading. I agree with Steve in concept but I just do not want to be careless with those two statements.

    By the way, if understood and interpreted correctly according to the principles in this blog site. Both plans DO SAVE. The lists that Christ gave both are simply required proofs of true saving faith which the rich man did not have but the thief apparently did.

  2. By the way, since both plans of salvation work according to the very words and confirmation of Jesus Christ Himself, we have to determine the common thread between the two. In both cases, it was all about a committed relationship with Christ and NOT a religion NOR a sequence of steps to be saved. That is the most important point here. Our highly intelligent God is concerned ONLY about relationship and not impressed by ritual methods or ritual steps. Substance and not just letter.