The story of the thief on the cross recorded in Luke 23:39-43 is the minimum baseline example given to us in the New Testament gospels…that defines faith plus our good-works for salvation…that will pass the test of fire (Jn. 6:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:13; 1 Pet. 1:7).
This baseline example is illustrated through an actual event in history…spread-out over the short interval of a few hours…rather than a doctrinal concept given to us in explanatory…expository words alone.
This baseline standard for measuring salvation is given to us by no less an authority than Jesus Christ Himself…the Passover Lamb of God atoning sacrifice for sin…at the precise moments of that sacrifice…and from the very instrument…the cross on Calvary Hill…that procured our salvation.
This condemned thief is not coming down off the cross to start a positive, God-composed journey of faith life-script for the remaining years of his life. His wrists and feet are immovably pinned by long metal spikes to the wooden cross-beams of Roman crucifixion. He will die there in a few more hours. There is no time left to do anything good or bad from that moment forward…in any major way.
The thief on the cross at that moment in time…has nothing by way of reformed, future good-works to offer to God on behalf of his salvation…to qualify himself before God. There is no second chance for him to come down off the cross with the promise to live a better life going forward.
Yet when Jesus says to the thief on the cross…crucified alongside Him and sharing His fate that eventful Friday in history: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”…this thief can then confidently take this promise “to the bank.” He can “bet the farm on it”…in utter and complete assurance.
This is not just the word of a great prophet…declaring a future event. This promise comes from Jesus Christ the divine Son of God…the very Word of God in the flesh.
The thief on the cross can rest in the inner peace and assurance of eternal salvation for the remaining few hours he has on this earth…from the extremely privileged position of observing the exemplary character of Jesus Christ the Son of God in action…dying next to him as the Passover Lamb of God for the sins of the world.
I believe this real-life example…spelled-out for us through an action event recorded in the Bible…resolves the controversial theological issue of the eternal security of our salvation while we are still in this life and engaged in our journey of faith…by combining in this specific example both ends of a short time-interval defined as biblical faith in Hebrews 11:1…”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”…in this salvation story of the last final hours of the thief on the cross.
A fundamental problem here with the general biblical interpretation…believed by some people today…that we can lose our salvation…is that Jesus at that moment in time…is telling the thief that later that same day he will be with Jesus in His kingdom.
Jesus…as the divine Son of God…either possesses Himself…or is perfectly exercising through God the Father…timeless foresight.
In my opinion…the part that confuses the issue of eternal security is the seemingly incoherent blend of a God who exists in a timeless environment…and human beings that live in the four dimensions of time and space.
These two things do not appear on the surface…at first glance…to easily mix. But both these realities…God’s timeless existence and our lives spread-out within the forward march of the God-created dimension of time…are absolutely essential for developing confidence in the wisdom and leadership of God…and our placing trust in a God-composed journey of faith for our lives…that have this Hebrews 11:1 risk-element of elongated and stretched-out time.
Our future actualized promise of salvation…the “evidence of things not seen” regarding eternal life…does not occur yet in this current lifetime. This culminating event occurs at our resurrection…at the last trumpet sound…at the great Judgment Day and our entrance into heaven.
This is what introduces an element of confusion…which in actuality is instead another strong apologetic evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible.
This interval of time…the gap in practical, lived experience between where we are now and where we need to get to…this unique feature of biblical faith as defined by Hebrews 11:1…is an inseparable part of the storyline of every positive person in their biblical-quality journey of faith life-scripts…whether we are Moses, David, or the thief on the cross.
Whether our destiny-of-faith moment in history spans years, months, or a few short hours on the cross alongside Jesus the Passover Lamb of God of Isaiah 53…like this thief…the surety of our salvation is not dependent upon any specific duration of time…or more importantly is not dependent upon our performance over that period of time…because with a timeless God having divine foreknowledge…there is no future earthly span of time that conditionally determines our salvation…years, months, or hours.
The simplistic yet powerful lesson of the thief on the cross…is that he cannot “mess-up” his salvation during his remaining few hours…this short interval of Hebrews 11:1 time remaining for him…the brief entirety of his faith-journey…on his cross of execution alongside Jesus…as the sky overhead darkens and the earth rumbles that Friday afternoon.
Why…because the promise of the assurance of eternal salvation…comes from the mouth of the divine Son of God…Jesus Christ of Nazareth…from the cross…in the very act of being the Passover sacrifice for sin. Jesus that moment on the cross…either has Himself or is exercising from God the Father…divine timeless foresight.
This pivotal moment in time and the dramatic circumstances of this historic event…could not be more definitive and decisive on the topic of eternal security.
That Jesus Christ our eternal Savior and King…and this remarkable human thief on the cross having no merit or achievements to argue on his behalf for salvation…should come together in this moment in history…is not an accident (Isa. 53:12).
The promise of entering shortly into paradise…coming from the timeless foresight of Jesus Christ the Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for the sins of the world…while He is suffering and dying on the cross…to the thief also suffering and dying alongside Him…is an iron-clad, irrevocable, unalterable event that cannot change within the span of a few short hours…for both Jesus and the thief on their respective crosses.
The word of God is sure…not only because it is based on the high-quality of His character…but also because it is timeless.
This is a product of the timeless nature of God (Isa. 46:9-10)…and the functional nature of the limitations of time and space that God created for us…so that we might experience and discover the knowledge of good and evil…not in split-second, instantaneous flashes of time…but spread-out over longer intervals of time…sometimes only hours as in the case of the thief on the cross…as expressed in Hebrews 11:1 and as so beautifully told in Luke 23:39-43.