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 seems to introduce an element of confusion, which in actuality is instead another strong apologetic evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible.
The 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.
With a timeless God having divine foreknowledge there is no future earthly span of time that conditionally determines our salvation…whether 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.
This is the case 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…because Jesus Christ here cannot misspeak.
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.
The scriptural arguments for and against eternal security have already been written and fill entire books.
But for the purposes of this book, the biblical narrative stories of faith are the God-designed vehicles that actualize the context of events wherein our souls are measured.”
This is an apologetic argument for the divine origin of the Bible.
The events and circumstances of the narrative stories of faith recorded in the Bible…unlike any other form or genre of human literature…measure our souls on the basis of our faith and relationship with God.
Our souls are not only measured by courage in battle, or the resilience to bounce back from numerous defeats to accomplish greatness, or by an epiphany that changes us from being a crass, self-centered person to becoming a loving person through character growth…being the theme of countless books, theater plays, and movies.
The quality of life-script events that will measure our souls at the apex…at the zenith…of moral reasoning and decision-making regarding our relationship with God…can only originate from God.
The thief on the cross could never have orchestrated the cascade of events that placed him that fateful Friday on a cross of execution alongside Jesus Christ the Son of God…with the opportunity to go along with the crowd in verbally mocking Jesus (Lk. 23:35-39) or amazingly for the first and only time in his life…to discover the power, conviction, courage, and liberated audacity to resist the peer pressure in the moment…and to instead proclaim publicly through the Holy Spirit a faith in the God/man Jesus crucified alongside him.
The thief on the cross manages to find his destiny at the last possible moment, summoning the Holy Ghost courage to testify of this newfound faith after this brief encounter with Jesus being crucified alongside him…to his fellow thief and to any and all others standing around the crosses and listening, that would pass the test of saving faith for time eternal (Lk. 23:43).
On that fateful day…and over a few short hours…the soul of the thief on the cross was measured and found brilliantly passing the test for salvation according to God’s terms and standards.
The point I want to make here is monumental in its importance.
We need God-composed journey of faith life-scripts to actualize for us a context of life-events wherein our souls are measured…precisely so that we can succeed on God’s terms and by His standards and not through the futility of good-works and self-realization according to our ways (Isa. 55:8-9).
This is the record of the biblical narrative stories of faith including this incredibly inspiring story of the thief on the cross.
Choosing amongst the smorgasbord buffet of the wants and aspirations of worldly conventional normalcy and thinking…a great education, a good job, high salary, good marriage, a big house, luxury automobile, European vacation, a stock portfolio, good health, and sending our kids to Harvard or Oxford…will not measure our souls in the way that the life-scripts of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, and the thief on the cross were measured.
The thief on the cross could not have orchestrated the events that led to his salvation that day any more than Abraham could have orchestrated his life-script of faith, any more than Paul could have orchestrated the events that led to him becoming the premier Christian evangelical missionary to the first-century Greco-Roman world.
The grand irony here that is far beyond the contemplative imagination of human literary invention is that the Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, and scribes standing around and mocking Jesus on the cross…who attempted to self-craft “perfect lives” according to their way (Mt. 6:2, 5; 9:12-13; 10:33; 11:16-19; 15:7-9) end-up unknowingly killing Jesus their Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for sin (1 Cor. 2:8).
The grand irony is that the one person who obtained on that day on Calvary Hill the assurance of the eternal security of salvation, for the short but priceless few hours from sometime around mid-morning to when he died at dusk that late afternoon was the thief on the cross alongside Jesus.
There are two massive takeaways from this dramatic scene taking place in Jerusalem in the first-century.
Imagine in our mind’s eye the religious elites standing around the three crosses mocking Jesus, the Roman soldiers who carried out the execution nearby, the women disciples of Jesus including His mother at the base of His cross weeping over what has occurred, and the two thieves crucified on each side of Jesus.
The first massive takeaway from this scene is the huge gulf between the two opposing outcomes of going our own way in self-sovereignty…in contrast to God-sovereignty.
Jesus is the perfect, blemish-free Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for sin. To qualify to be the atonement for sin…Jesus must be perfect. A flawed sacrifice in terms of substandard moral performance in life would be unacceptable. Wealth, popularity, and political influence are not qualifiers in this Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for sin.
The problem of human sin is the precise target homed-in on by the blemish-free moral life of Jesus Christ…perfectly lived according to a life-script composed by God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit.
The perfect life and the perfect life-script of Jesus…lead to the cross on Calvary Hill.
But trying to be perfect according to the worldview of going our own way, as demonstrated by the self-reliant religious elites mocking Jesus…leads to placing Jesus on the cross. These two outcomes could not be more diametrically opposite…could not be more clearly separated.
The second massive takeaway from this scene on Calvary Hill two thousand years ago is that the thief on the cross, immovably stuck there and not going anywhere or able to do anything secular or religious in the slightest way…surprisingly and unexpectedly experiences that fateful day in his life the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” assurance of the eternal security of salvation for the otherwise physically agonizing hours he spends being executed by Roman crucifixion…through the sure words of promise spoken to him by Jesus the Son of God being crucified alongside him.
If we incorrectly believe that we can lose our salvation, this opens the door ever so slightly for self-achieved good-works and self-realization to creep in as the missing ingredient to fill-in the gap of our imperfect moral nature…missing the point entirely as to the redemptive salvation by grace through faith that provides absolute coverage of our sins past, present, and future…even for the thief on the cross experiencing the “peace that passes all understanding” while dying on his cross.
The story of the thief on the cross, composed and orchestrated by God Himself, being totally outside the contemplative imagination of human literary invention tells us our salvation based upon faith in Jesus Christ…in this divinely illustrated case of the thief on the cross…is eternally secure (Jn. 8:36; 2 Cor. 4:7).