The thief on the cross is perhaps one of the most frequently used examples to support the doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Many believe he is perfect to show how someone can do nothing besides make a profession of faith in Christ to seal their eternal destiny. To quote John MacArthur,
“No doctrine is more important to evangelical theology than the doctrine of justification by faith alone… the church stands or falls on this one doctrine… The thief on the cross is the classic example. On the most meager evidence of his faith, Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). No sacrament or work was required for him to procure salvation.”
John MacArthur, Jesus’ Perspective on Sola Fide
However, is that what is actually being communicated by Luke in his account of the thief on the cross? Was faith the only thing present for the thief’s salvation? Let us dive into Luke 23 and examine the whole picture.1
“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.’”
The first exchange we see taking place is between the two thieves, the first ‘railing’ at Christ and asking for deliverance from their current situation.2 He is then rebuked by the second thief, but it is critical to note what he is rebuked for: appealing for deliverance from the justice he deserves – “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly…” The second thief acknowledges and embraces justice and recognizes the injustice being done to Christ Who is receiving the same treatment as they are, though He had done nothing wrong. Only after affirming that they are receiving the “due reward of our deeds”, does the second thief appeal to Christ for mercy, but again, it is critical to note where that appeal of mercy is: mercy from judgment in the next life, not this one. He recognized that it is only through serving justice in this life that he could appeal for mercy in the life to come. Only after this takes place does Jesus affirm the thief’s salvation. How ironic that this “classic example” used by evangelicals to support that justice isn’t needed to obtain mercy, actually teaches that very thing.
We see the same order of commitment to justice before salvation earlier in Luke’s gospel with Zaccheus, where Jesus proclaims “salvation has come to this house” only after Zaccheus makes his commitment to repay those he had defrauded (Luke 19:1-10). This account is also incredibly similar to that of Joshua and Achan, where Joshua instructs Achan to “give glory to God” just before they stone him (Joshua 7:10-26). In other words, acknowledge and embrace the justice you deserve now so that you can receive mercy in the next life. In short, justice always precedes mercy.
Next, we examine the idea that the thief had no acts of obedience or partaking of the sacraments. Let us consider what repentance is, a commitment to stop sinning, make your wrongs right, and change going forward (Matthew 3:1-8; Luke 3:3-14). Since following Christ is not optional and repentance is the first step in following Christ (Mark 1:15; 6:12; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 19:4), this means repentance is itself an act of obedience. This ties in closely with the thief’s baptism. At first glance, it seems like an obvious argument that the thief was not baptized, however, considering what baptism is and what it represents tells a different story. Romans 6:3-6 teaches that baptism represents us being united with Christ in His death, our old self being crucified with Him, and being “raised… to the newness of life.” So while we are baptized in order to join Christ in His death symbolically, the thief was joined with Christ in His death literally. The thief’s was the truest form of a baptism, whereas ours, though not any less powerful, is a symbolic baptism. This is further supported by Jesus Himself who spoke of His death in this way – as a “baptism to be baptized with” – Luke 12:50 (see also Mark 10:38). We also know that baptism is where we are saved (1 Peter 3:21) and receive our initial washing from all sin in our previous life (John 13:1-30; Matthew 26:26-29). This understanding allows us to make sense of Jesus’ confident assertion that the thief would be with Him in Paradise. The thief was in the midst of his baptism, so long as he remained obedient in his repentance, any sin in this life would be cleansed upon his death as his baptism was completed and ushered him directly into Paradise. This is also why the thief did not (and had no need to) partake of the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Table is provided for our continued cleansing from sin in our lives after we have received the initial washing from baptism. Since the thief was in the midst of receiving his initial baptism and cleansing from sin as he died with Christ, there was no new sin that he was required to have cleansed through partaking of the Table.
If the account of the thief was not recorded to communicate that salvation is through faith alone, what is being taught by this account? It is demonstrating what needs to be present for a deathbed conversion to be legitimate. The thief’s proclamation about Jesus – “this man has done nothing wrong” – and appeal to Him for salvation in the next life is clear evidence the thief knew Who it was that Jesus claimed to be and had intimate knowledge of His teachings. Similarly, his understanding and embracing of the justice he was serving and the defending of Jesus against those mocking Him show his love, loyalty, and obedience to Christ. This account, similar to the one in James 5:14-15, shows that someone must have an existing knowledge of Christianity and relationship with those who are responsible for dispensing salvation (in this case Christ, in the case of James 5, “the elders”). This teaching dispels the widespread idea that one can use Christ as their fire insurance policy: having no real interest or desire to follow Him, they simply make a profession of faith and go to heaven. Anyone thinking this is taught in Scripture will be badly (and eternally) burned.
After a very brief examination, the “classic example” of Sola Fide, on which “the [evangelical] church stands or falls”, has gone the way of Humpty Dumpty. How then should we understand the story of the thief on the cross? As we have seen, the thief did far more than have faith alone. He embraced the justice he deserved, responded in obedient repentance during the life he had left, and was baptized into Christ’s death. Much more took place than a simple profession of faith that so many Evangelicals today rely on. The point not to miss, like the thief on the cross, embrace the true gospel and recognize the real Jesus who only brings with Him into paradise those who practice both faith and faithfulness, or join the many who will go to Hell for embracing the false gospel of Sola Fide.