Our quest for authentic Christianity in the modern era has taken us on an adventure of exploration into some of the most essential aspects of our calling—discipleship, truth, love, freedom, worship, and community. I hope the things we’ve shared together to this point have helped both of us grow in our personal resolve to continue this walk of faith for a lifetime. Now, I’m afraid, our voyage must take a rather troublesome turn toward some of the more turbulent waters with which the authentic child of God in today’s world may be required to contend. I think we would be remiss were we not to explore our calling to spiritual warfare.
However, in embarking upon this facet of our calling, I think it essential, child of covenant, for us to often remind ourselves, and one another, that, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Timothy 1:5, NASB). We need to remember that, in all things—every time we open our mouths, put pen to paper, or set down to a keyboard—we must be “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, NASB). And so, I want you to know that, today, as I write, I’m praying that God will help me be like Jesus who, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, NASB).
I have a friend, and brother in Christ, who I trust is now with our Lord in paradise. Just a couple of months prior to this writing, he was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. Something interesting about my friend and brother is that he wore a tattoo that said: “Warrior for Christ.” I’m not sure just how wearing such a dictum speaks to people, or what it conjures up in their minds. For some, a saying like that symbolizes utter submission to Jesus as Lord and a willingness to live sacrificially; to go anywhere and do anything within the scope of God’s will that may be required to help advance the cause of Christ. I believe this is what my friend intended to convey with the tattoo. But for others, making such a statement may project a certain warlike attitude that speaks of personal and religious pride. Mottos like that can sometimes draw attention to, and exalt, the warrior himself rather than the Lord he claims to serve.
I sometimes think back to the times of the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries when alleged Christian warriors, sanctioned by the church, thought it appropriate to take up the sword, to fight, to kill, and to die in an effort to gain access to, and possession of, the so-called “holy places” in and around the city of Jerusalem. These warriors for Christ completely misunderstood our Lord’s call to spiritual warfare. Neither Jesus, nor the apostles and prophets of the 1st century, ever summoned God’s children to physical battle, or to any act of violence.
As children of God, we are called to become warriors for Christ in the sense that we’ve been exhorted to “fight the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12, NASB) and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3, NASB). But as we prepare ourselves for spiritual battle by putting on “the full armor of God”—truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and all prayer and petition (Ephesians 6:13-18, NASB)—we must remember that people are not our enemy. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this fact when he says:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ…
(2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NASB)
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
(Ephesians 6:12, NASB)
People, regardless of the sin in which they are entangled or the false doctrines they espouse, need our compassion. I’ve often told my own children that, “only the hand that loves is fit to discipline.” In the same way, only a heart filled with love and compassion is truly prepared to speak truth—sometimes hard truth—to this religiously divided, lost, and dying world. Just as we must differentiate between the sin and the sinner, so also, we must sometimes differentiate between a false spirit—teaching, doctrine, philosophy, theory—and the false prophets propagating them and who are in need of deliverance.
There are several false spirits, in particular, that have wreaked havoc among people who profess the Christian faith down through the years; and that continue to raise their ugly heads among us from time-to-time. As you actively pursue your walk of faith in Christ, you will surely encounter some of these false spirits somewhere along the way. So, I think, it behooves us to be aware of them so that we can be prepared to counter them with truth and love when we must; and not be caught off guard.
The Apostle John admonishes God’s children with these cautionary words, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1, NASB). He then goes on to address a particular false teaching, or spirit, that was plaguing the ekklesia during the 1st century; specifically, false doctrines regarding the identity of Jesus. While it seems almost inconceivable that any so-called “Christian” church would get that wrong, the fact is that there are many who call themselves Christians, and many alleged Christian organizations in the world today, that do not believe what the Bible teaches with regard to the Trinity, or what we sometimes call, the “Godhead”—“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NASB).
We need to understand that the term, “God,” is not a name, but a designation of being, like the word, “human.” We also need to understand something of the dual nature of God—that God is both plural and singular in nature. Back in the very earliest passages of scripture, we are confronted with the pluralistic nature of God. God’s prophet, Moses, in the very first chapter of Genesis, says:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
(Genesis 1:26-27, NASB)
As a new Bible student, coming to this passage for the very first time, one might ask, “Wait a minute, who is the ‘Us’ and the ‘Our’ in verse 26—these are plural pronouns?” Then, with a little research, we discover that the Hebrew word that Moses used in the book of Genesis—and the word used consistently throughout the Old Testament—for “God” is “elohim”—the masculine, plural form of the noun “eloah”; and that this plural word is translated as “God” 2,326 times in scripture (Lockman, 1998).
But why is this plural word, “elohim,” translated as “God” and not “Gods.” Again, it is due to the dual nature of God; only, now, we are confronted with the singularity of God. Notice that, after using the plural pronouns, “Us” and “Our,” in verse 26, Moses then goes on to use the singular phrase, “in His own image,” in verse 27. Later in the Bible, Moses tells the Jewish Nation: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4, NASB). And so, we are left scratching our heads in wonder at the virtually indescribable dual nature of God—a single divine entity with a plural essence.
Concerning the identity of Jesus, then, the Apostle John says:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:1-4 & 14, NASB)
When one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, said to Him: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” Jesus said to him: “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (John 14:8-11, NASB).
Later, the Apostle Paul would write about the identity of Jesus, saying:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
(Philippians 2:5-7, NASB)
The Hebrew writer also records some prophetic statements made by the Heavenly Father in regard to Jesus, the Son, saying:
For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’? And again, ‘I will be a Father to Him and He shall be a Son to Me’? And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, ‘And let all the angels of God worship Him.’ And of the angels He says, ‘Who makes His angels winds, and His ministers a flame of fire.’ But of the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions.’
(Hebrews 1:5-9, NASB)
No doubt about it, this Jesus, whom we call “the Son,” is, indeed, God in the flesh—just as the Heavenly Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Together, these three divine entities comprise the very essence of all that is God. People who doubt this fact, or who deny that Jesus, the word, “was God” and that “the word [God] was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 &14, NASB) are not of God; they are, in fact, manifesting “the spirit of the antichrist.” As the Apostle John worded it:
…every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
(I John 4:2-3, NASB)
Of course, false spirits concerning the identity of Jesus are not the extent of evil spiritual influences in our world. The Apostle Paul also confronted false teaching regarding the finished and complete work of Christ which He accomplished for us through His own sacrificial life, death, and resurrection. There were some teachers in the 1st century who believed that a living and obedient faith in Christ was not enough for salvation, or to keep one walking in harmony with God. They taught that people also had to keep various traditions of the Jewish religion—things commanded in the Law of Moses—in order to be in a saving relationship with God. Paul says that he confronted these people, saying:
But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.
(Galatians 2:4-5, NASB)
Paul loved people. He even went so far as to say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Romans 9:2-4, NASB). He went on to say, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:1-2, NASB). Yet, regardless of how much he may have loved them, Paul still labeled some people, “false brethren,” and says that he, “did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour” (Galatians 2:5, NASB).
Paul then goes on in his letter to God’s covenant children who were living in the region of Galatia to rebuke them for listening to those false teachers and losing sight of their faith, saying:
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
(Galatians 3:1-3, NASB)
It grieved Paul to see these new covenant children of God who had started out strong in their Christian walk—depending only on the truth provided by the Spirit and putting all their faith in what Jesus had accomplished for them—now being sidetracked into the religious traditions of men and thinking that they were actually going to be saved by how well they managed to keep certain requirements of the Law of Moses. Paul went on to severely warned them, saying, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4, NASB). From this we learn that one sure fire way to “fall from grace”—and, yes, you can fall from grace—is to stop trusting in Jesus and His sacrifice for your salvation, and to begin trusting in your own ability to sufficiently know and keep some law—the law of Moses, or any other religious law—well enough that you, in some way, think you have earned, merited, or deserve salvation. This kind of spirit is known as “legalism”—and it’s a killer!
Please note, however, that this term, “legalism,” does not equate to obedience. God expects our obedience. As we have seen in previous chapters, love requires our obedience. Remember that Jesus prophesied condemnation upon those who refuse to obey the will of God, saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21, NASB). Obedience is not legalism. But trusting in your obedience to save you is certainly legalism. Our trust, our faith, our hope is in one thing only—the amazing grace that God has made available to us through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Christ our Savior. For this reason, Jesus also said, “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10, NASB).
There is another prevalent false spirit in the religious world that, at first, may seem like the polar opposite of legalism, but in some ways remains closely aligned with it; and that the false doctrine of salvation by faith alone. When I say, “faith alone,” I mean the idea that people can be saved simply by believing in God without responding in obedience to the will of God.
Sometimes, this false spirit manifests itself by teaching that all one must do to be saved is “pray the sinner’s prayer,” or “accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” or “ask Jesus into your heart.” Ironically, this idea in itself is a refutation of this doctrine for it requires a person to actually do something, does it not?
The reason that faith alone and legalism are, also ironically, not very different from one another is because both place the emphasis on the believer—either the believer’s works, or the believer’s faith—rather than squarely and wholly on the grace of God. People tend to forget that, ultimately, it is our relationship with God and His grace toward us by which we are saved. Faith is only the vehicle by which, or through which, we gain access to God’s grace; and our works are only the outgrowth and evidence of our faith. Yet, while some people magnify their works and trust in them for their salvation, others magnify their faith and trust in the fact that they have faith to save them; two sides of the same coin.
A significant flaw in the faith alone ideology is that it simply fails to recognize Bible teaching regarding how our works validate our faith; as well as how both our faith, and the works that grow out of our faith, go together to bear witness to our personal relationship with God through Christ Jesus our Lord. The result is that important Biblical commandments, set forth by God in scripture as being necessary to our initial salvation, as well as continuing to enjoy a saving relationship with Him, are often set aside as being secondary or optional, and sometimes they are disregarded altogether.
I speak with reference to such commands as when Jesus said that, “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47, NASB); or when He said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16, NASB). The question on the table is: “Is faith alone—mere belief in God or even mental acknowledgement and acceptance of Christ—all that is required of us, and sufficient in and of itself, to bring us into a saving covenant relationship with God; or is repenting of the sin in our lives, and being baptized to express our faith in what Christ has done for us—both specific commands of Jesus—also required?”
Furthermore, we might also ask: “What about our life with God after coming to Christ and being ‘born again’ (John 3:3)”? Jesus said:
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
(Matthew 10:32-33, NASB)
After initially confessing our faith in Christ, must we continue to confess Him as our Lord and Savior throughout our lives, or are we now at liberty to deny Him whenever convenient? Remember our example of Peter and his denial of Christ the night before the crucifixion? What if Peter would have continued to deny Christ throughout his life or whenever it was inconvenient for him to be seen as a Christian? What would that have said about his faith and about the condition of his heart? Must we continue to confess Christ, repent of our sins, and pursue ‘the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 2:14, NASB)? Or, now that we are saved, can we refuse to do such things, while pursuing a life of unrighteousness, and still be pleasing to Him?
And what about Jesus saying to the ekklesia in the city of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16, NASB)? What’s that all about, if all anyone has to do is believe? I mean, after all, why should their “deeds” matter, so long as they have some kind of faith, right?
For example, one might ask the question, and many do: “Can one continue to pursue an active homosexual lifestyle, even though the Bible says, ‘Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God’ (I Corinthians 6:9-10, NASB)?” If all that matters is our faith, and not our works, then why should the practice of homosexuality, or any of the other items listed here, count at all? And the truth is, for many so-called “Christians” in our world today, they don’t. A plethora of alleged Christian scholars and churches have found thousands of ways to explain away clear and plain Bible teaching. And the false spirit of faith alone has done nothing but contribute to this whole fiasco.
The reoccurring problem in today’s world is that, not only do we have thousands of churches, and indeed, whole denominations that have sold out to Satan’s subtle schemes in order to appeal to the masses and build membership, but we also have popular people of power, prominence, and prestige who come along daring to say such things as:
If baptism were a requirement for salvation, we would certainly say that. But you couldn’t support that knowing, for example, that the thief on the cross had no opportunity for baptism or church membership. Yet on his confession, paradise was secured. Jesus said to him, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). (Graham, 2004)
Well, what Mr. Graham thought or taught over the many years of his ministry, or, for that matter, what any of the rest of us may think or say, is irrelevant. Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved”—enough said! In the section below, we will deal more thoroughly with the thief on the cross and see why the Calvinist’s position on this matter is, in fact, lacking Biblical precedent.
Of course, as discussed in the previous section, we must all agree that we are saved “by grace through faith” because even when we’ve done our best, still, as the prophet Isaiah states, “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6, NASB). Even the things we do right, including our loving acts of obedience to the will of God, “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB). We dare not think that we can go before God and claim any righteousness of our own; as though we deserve His favor or He owes us anything because of our works of service.
The scriptures teach that we are not saved either by our works or by our faith alone. In fact, the very term, “faith alone,” can only be found one place in scripture; and, there, the Bible says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:24&26, NASB). We are saved by God’s grace and, in His divine wisdom, our faith and our works interact together to testify to the content of our heart. It is more than a mere system of belief to which He calls us; it is an authentic walk of life. We have to understand that genuine faith goes way beyond mere belief; it requires that we act on our faith and demonstrate our love for God through obedience to His will. As the New Testament prophet, James, points out, “…the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:19-20, NASB).
The Thief on the Cross
At this point in our study, beloved child of God, I feel the necessity to offer a treatise on the matter of, “the thief on the cross.” You may consider this somewhat of a diversion, but I think it’s necessary to discuss this issue a little more in-depth because, as we have seen from Mr. Graham’s comments above, it is something we will often encounter.
People will sometimes go to great lengths in their attempt to reinterpret a passage of scripture, or an event in Bible history, in order to make it agree with their doctrine. For example, concerning Luke’s account of the thief on the cross, Abrams (2006) says:
One passage the baptismal regeneration people have never really correctly understood is Luke 23:42-43 and the fact the thief on the cross was saved as Jesus declared, and was never baptized. They try to skirt the matter by saying this was before the Church Age when baptism was initiated. They state that Romans 10:9-10 requires that to be saved a person must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. The thief could not have believed that because Christ had not yet arisen. The problem with that idea is that it does not take into account how were people in the Old Testament saved? [sic] Old Testament saints were saved by faith, through the grace of God as Hebrews 11 explains. This chapter is the Bible’s Hall of Faith and states repeatedly how from Abel on men believed the revelation they were given by God and were saved. Abraham never heard the name of Jesus Christ or of His death, burial and resurrection, but he was certainly saved…. (para. 5)
The Bible teaches that no one in the Old or New Testament who was saved, merited or earned it in any way. The thief died in the Old Testament dispensation during the time the Mosaic Law was in force. He expressed saving faith while hanging on a cross and had no time to keep any law therefore the keeping of any part of the law was certainly not a part of his salvation. Jesus declared that the repentant thief (malefactor) would be with Him that day in Paradise because the thief believed in Jesus Christ and nothing more… (para. 7)
As seen in the above text, Mr. Abrams (2006) interprets the scripture in light of his own theological positions—trying to prove that simply believing God’s promises constitutes saving faith. However, even a casual reading of Hebrews 11 reveals that the theme of the chapter is, “faith in action.” The whole message of that chapter is intended to demonstrate for us, in example after example, how that authentic faith is much more than mere belief. The Hebrew writer’s message is that faith consists not only of a conviction within one’s heart, but the physical expression of that conviction, as well.
In the section above, Abrams (2006) speaks of Abel, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4, NASB). Does that sound like “faith” is only “believing” to you?
Abrams (2006) also mentions Abraham, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8, NASB). I’m thinking Abram’s appeal to these Old Testament characters to try to prove that faith is really nothing more than believing is not really working in his favor.
But, back to the thief on the cross. I am often amazed at how quickly people of Calvinists heritage run to this particular illustration to try to prove their point concerning baptism not being a part of God’s plan for receiving the forgiveness of sin. They inevitably say, “Well, what about the thief on the cross, he wasn’t baptized and Jesus saved him?” To this point we must point out that:
- First, if it’s just the act of baptism we’re talking about, how does Mr. Abrams (2006) know that the thief on the cross had not been baptized with the baptism of John? He very well may have been. According to the Bible, “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (Luke 7:29-30, NASB). Perhaps, at one time or another, the thief on the cross had, indeed, been among those people who were baptized by John, or one of his disciples. Just because he was now hanging on a cross beside Jesus, does not mean that he was totally disobedient to the will of God. It was the religious leaders—lawyers and Pharisees—who, like Abrams and company, “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (verse 30). Why is it always the religious leaders who, seemingly, cannot see what the common people so easily see? But whether or not the thief on the cross had ever actually been baptized with the baptism of John is really a moot point because, it’s Jesus’ baptism—commanded after His death, burial, and resurrection—that we have in view here, not John’s baptism or any other.
- Second—and, really, of greater importance—despite Abrams (2006) claims to the contrary, it remains important to the discussion to remember that the thief on the cross both lived and died prior to Jesus’ commands concerning baptism. When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NASB) and, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16, NASB), He made these statements after His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is an expression of saving faith symbolizing the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—as we die to self and to sin (Romans 6:6), are “buried with Him through baptism into death” and raised up to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, NASB). How could the thief on the cross have been expected to have done any of that when Jesus had not yet died, nor had He issued His commandment regarding baptism? Therefore, the whole appeal to the thief on the cross and his apparent lack of Christian baptism—or any other new covenant expression of saving faith—is, again, a moot point!
If the Biblical account of the thief on the cross has anything whatsoever so say about our own salvation, it is not with specific regard to baptism or any other expression of the faith to which we are called in accordance with the terms of the new covenant. Rather, much to the chagrin of the legalists on both sides of all such issues, it speaks to the beautiful, compassionate, and ever gracious character of our wildly passionate God, Who will not be tamed or constrained by any man’s theology.
I have had both conservative legalists and liberal legalist—people who base their salvation, and that of others, on how well they adhere to particular tenets and practices of some religious doctrine or another—tell me that, if God makes a single exception for any individual with regard to what He requires for salvation, then He must make that same exception for every person. Such legalistic thinking, however, does not take into account that God looks deeply into our hearts—individually, person-by-person—and deals with us accordingly.
The thief on the cross is a first class example of God’s personal attention to, and intimate dealings with, the individual human heart. As the thief hung there beside Jesus, suspended between heaven and earth, and between two covenants—the old covenant with its Law of Moses, which was obsolete and passing away (Hebrews 8:13), and the new covenant, which was about to be inaugurated with Christ’s own blood (Hebrews 9:15-16)—he was, to be sure, in a unique position.
Whatever faith and obedience the thief had demonstrated in accordance with the Law of Moses, or even with regard to the prophetic authority of John the baptizer, was now all behind him and there was nothing more he could ever do to show his penitence. He could do nothing to make restitution in accordance with the old law. He could offer no animal sacrifice for himself down at the temple. If he had not yet submitted to John’s prophetic authority, it was too late now. No one was going to take him down from that cross and over to the Pool of Siloam for baptism. Everything pertaining to the old covenant dispensation was behind him and irretrievable.
Likewise, whatever expressions of faith and love that were to be required by our Lord Jesus in accordance with the terms of the new covenant in Christ were beyond him and out of his reach. He had no knowledge or comprehension of some future baptism that Christ had not yet even commanded, or of what such an act of surrender might one day mean with regard to becoming a new covenant child of God.
All the thief had to offer God in that moment was a living faith in Jesus as the Christ; a saving faith that prompted him to, well, do something—so he opened his mouth and rebuked the other criminal, then confessed his own sin and guilt, and then, finally, confessed Jesus as His Lord and King as he entreated Him to remember him. It was not exactly in keeping with the Law of Moses under which, technically, he lived and died. It was not exactly what John the baptizer had been preaching earlier. It was also not entirely in keeping with what Jesus Himself, and the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, would later command following the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But it was all that he had to offer in that moment; and, by faith, he offered God what he had—a desperately surrendered heart.
I think it incredulous for the Calvinists among us, or anybody else, to run to the thief on the cross and so tritely use him as some kind of rhetorical devise to justify their own theological positions; and especially to use him to negate something that Jesus Himself would later command following His own death, burial, and resurrection. I think it must break the thief’s heart—and I hate continually referring to him as, “the thief,” must he continue to wear that label for eternity? Furthermore, I know it breaks our Lord’s heart for such a beautiful example of intimacy and compassion to be used in such a legalistic way. Seeing his heart as he hung there on the cross beside Jesus, I can’t help but believe that, had that man somehow miraculously survived that whole ordeal, and then heard his risen Savior say, “he who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), he would have been among the first in line to surrender his heart and life to Christ in baptism.
What I learn from the account of the redeemed man on the cross—thief no longer—is that God will forgive whomever He chooses, whether such forgiveness conforms to human expectations, interpretations, or scriptural applications, or not; and nobody’s doctrine or dogma—Christian, Calvinist, or otherwise—can get in the way of that! As the Apostle Paul records it, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Romans 9:18, NASB). But God does not harden good and honest hearts. I know this because Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, NASB). And the Apostle Peter said, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, NASB).
If a person is actively seeking God, like that merchant who was constantly in pursuit of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46), or even if a person simply has an open heart and, like the man who accidently found the hidden treasure buried in a field (Matthew 13:44), is willing to do anything to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom once they have discovered it, then God will surely give that person every opportunity to know the truth, to respond in living faith, and to be saved by the blood of Christ. But there is a huge difference between that kind of person—one like the man who was redeemed by Christ’s love on the cross—and someone who, being more devoted to their religious dogma than they are the Lord Jesus, continues to walk contrary to the teachings of God’s word.
I was asked one time, by a liberal legalist, if I thought that someone killed in a tragic accident on their way to be baptized would still go to heaven. I answered, “In view of the thief on the cross, I believe that, yes, of course they would.” “But,” I continued, “I don’t think someone who is running in the opposite direction, away from the waters of baptism, will be saved.” When he asked me to explain that further, I simply said, “Well, as we learn from the account of the thief on the cross, it’s all about what is going on in our heart. A surrendered heart seeking the Lord’s will is one thing, but a rebellious heart seeking its own will, or willing to put some theological concept ahead of the expressed will of God, is quite another.”
The new covenant children of God understand that, while “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17), still, we do not put our faith in our works, or even in our faith. We are not saved because we have faith, or because we have works, or because we have a faith that works. We are saved because Jesus died for us on the cross! A living, active, working faith merely grants us access to what Jesus has done for us; but we are wholly dependent on God’s grace—His intimate knowledge, and compassionate handling, of our heart—for our salvation. I love that redeemed guy on the cross, for his heart, for his faith, for his faith in action, don’t you? And I love my Lord, all the more, for His compassion toward him, and toward me. See you in paradise!
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