There is a sense in which everyone is saved just like the thief on the cross. Every person that will stand justified and reign with the Savior is saved the same way the thief was as he hung nailed on a Roman cross next to the Lord. Paul wrote, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). From Adam until the Lord returns, every person is saved by God’s grace (His part in man’s salvation) and man’s faith (man’s part in salvation).
Every human being that has lived or will live can have peace with the God of peace and reside in the Heavenly realm for eternity. Such is the love of the Father. He desires that all men everywhere are saved from sin so that Heaven can be their eternal abode (2 Pet. 3:9).
Because the God of all Creation longs for His special creation to be with Him, He has revealed the plan, or eternal scheme, of how man can lay hold of eternal life. The Bible reveals God’s thoughts, plans, and Divine execution concerning the salvation of mankind.
The central figure of salvation is His Son, Jesus the Christ. God did not send His Son immediately into the world at the dawn of creation when sin first enslaved mortal man. “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). He chose instead to make salvation a process.
In that process man came to realize: 1. He was eternally lost in sin; 2. He desperately needed to find a way back to God; 3. He was powerless to reach God again, and so required help; 4. Nothing in the physical realm would help him attain heaven; 5. Without an adequate sacrifice, any law that God gave would just serve to remind man of his sinful condition.
When rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15), the Bible student finds three distinct laws, or periods of a particular kind of law. In these three periods of time — the Patriarchal Era, the Mosaic Era, and the Christian Era — there were commandments given that might only pertain to one person for a short period of time. There were laws that only affected a specific group of people for a long period of time. How does the student of God’s Word determine which is which? Context. The context of the commandment is to be studied as well as the command. A sincere contextual study will lead the reader to understand if the commandment being studied is for him to obey.
An example of this is Abraham. “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12:1). Does the Bible student read this passage and come to the immediate conclusion that it is necessary to leave their native land and become a pilgrim in some foreign place? It never would enter the mind. It is very clear that this commandment given by God (“The Lord said” is a commandment!) was to a specific person at a specific time and did not need to be obeyed by anyone else.
Now the Bible student comes to this passage: “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).
After reading this passage, many have concluded that merely saying “Lord save me” results in salvation. Is merely an acknowledgment enough for salvation today? It was not enough then, and it is not enough now. The Bible student must apply the same reasoning to this passage as to the one concerning Abraham: keep it in its context.
It must be kept in mind that other than these few spoken phrases and the fact that he is a thief being executed beside the Lord, there is no knowledge of his past. However, the things he does say exposes some things that he knows and believes.
“Dost Thou Not Fear God?”
This man believed in God. The question was uttered as a response to the other thief as he mocked Jesus and said, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:38). The conclusion the faithful thief made was that he and the other man were being punished, not by Rome or circumstance, but by the providence of God (Rom. 13:3). He also knew the Law. This demonstrates further to the reader that knowing the Law does not equate to obedience in every area.
“Due Reward Of Our Deeds”
He displayed godly sorrow. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and repentance leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). This man knew that when one did right God was pleased, but when one did evil punishment was a just reward. Every man sins (Rom. 3:23), and this man was no exception. Even though the consequence of his sin on earth was death, it did not have to be his eternal consequence.
The mocking thief was only sorry he got caught. He demonstrated worldly sorrow. His sorrow not only led him to physical death, but also to eternal punishment. The Lord only said to the one, “Today, shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
“This Man Hath Done Nothing Amiss”
Jesus was innocent! Even the men that were condemned to die with Him knew that He had done nothing to deserve death. The faithful thief knew the character and works of the Lord. Jesus was very popular because of His miraculous works and His doctrine (Luke 9:11). It was this very popularity coupled with His leadership that caused the Jewish council and chief priests to hate Him so fiercely. Their lawless hands raised Him on that cross, and all the people knew it.
“Remember Me In Thy Kingdom”
Such a phrase could not have been expressed unless it was heard and explained. This man was exposed to the teaching of John the Baptist, the disciples of the Lord, and Jesus the Christ. John taught the people, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). The disciples were told to preach, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7). The Lord said, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
The thief must also have known something of the spiritual nature of the kingdom. He recognized the fact that he and the Lord were about to die. Yet, he still requested that he be a part of the kingdom – when the Lord comes into it. What great faith! Perhaps he heard the Lord say, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
Taking all of this evidence of what the faithful thief said, is it reasonable that he heard about baptism as well? Spoken of John the baptizer, “And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). So, if the faithful thief heard John, then he heard about baptism.
Perhaps the thief was not in the Jordan valley. “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized” (John 3:22). When John the baptizer, the disciples, and the Lord preached repentance and the kingdom, they also baptized. Since the thief repented and spoke of the kingdom it is reasonable to conclude at the very least he heard of baptism, if not was even baptized.
To say that the thief was not baptized is like saying he had no wife and children. There is no way to know if he did or did not because those facts are not revealed.
The New Testament Was Not In Effect
Assuming that this faithful thief was not baptized, does that extend to salvation today? The Hebrews writer records, “For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth” (Heb. 9:16,17). Jesus spoke to the thief that he should be in Paradise, signifying that He was still alive and that His New Covenant was not yet in effect. Since this is the case, Jesus could save anyone He so desired in any fashion that He desired. Salvation is His power to give and to withhold.
Now that He has died and is at the right hand of God, His will is in full effect. That will commands, “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48). From Acts 2 forward, there is not one example of anyone being saved that was not baptized.
What is the main reason for desiring to be “saved like the thief on the cross”? A desire to be saved without water baptism. In essence, the masses crave a cheap salvation.
Salvation today comes like the faithful thief on the cross. From his very words, there is revealed a process of salvation. He heard the Word; He believed that Word; He demonstrated Godly sorrow and repented; He proclaimed his belief before men that Jesus was going to His kingdom and that he desired to be a part of that kingdom. Jesus granted that request. Jesus gave His grace and mercy to that man just before his legs were broken, and he gasped his last painful breath.
That man turned to Jesus as the source of his salvation. Today all sinners that desire salvation must submit to that process in His revealed will and call on His name (Acts 22:16).
Byran is the preacher for the Cape Fear Church of Christ in Fayetteville, NC. He does mission work in Southeast Asia, is a part-time instructor of Fishers of Men, and is an instructor at Central Carolina School of Preaching. He is married to Jennifer and they have two children in college.