How Was the Thief on the Cross Saved?

By faith.

Luke 23:39–43 (ESV)

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

If Romans 10:9 says, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” then how is it that this guy’s saved? He doesn’t confess Him as Lord—he only asks to be remembered—and he doesn’t seem to know anything about resurrection.

Yet we know, beyond any doubt, that this “thief on the cross” was saved. Our understanding of saving faith has to include him. So, what was his faith? What did he believe?

We know a number of things about the thief’s faith from this passage:
1) He knew that Jesus was innocent.
2) He knew of Jesus’s reputation, including the power to get all three of them out of their predicament.
3) He knew that Jesus was a king.
4) He knew that crucifixion wouldn’t prevent Jesus from coming into His kingdom.
5) He knew that after he died, Jesus “remembering” him would be significant.
6) He “preached” these things to the other thief.

Number 6 takes care of the confession part of Romans 10:9, but how could he have believed that Jesus would be raised from the dead?

He didn’t. That detail doesn’t apply to this guy. It doesn’t apply to John the Baptist either. How Jesus would come into his kingdom isn’t the issue; it’s that He will—or that He did in our case.

After the resurrection, anyone who knows who Jesus is has to believe in His resurrection. His Lordship and His resurrection go hand-in-hand. If Jesus was raised, He is Lord. If He wasn’t raised, He isn’t Lord (He isn’t anything). That’s why we say that the Old Testament believers had the same saving faith.

They didn’t know the details, but they foresaw Him and what He would accomplish.

The simplicity of the thief on the cross’s faith is a thing of wonder. I love to study (and write about) complex doctrines, but I need to be careful not to overvalue them. Simple faith is saving faith, and the first Christians had simple faith.

Those simple Christians are the ones Jesus chose to spread His gospel to the ends of the Earth.

We could use a few more like them.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.