Sermon on Luke | Saved Like the Criminal on the Cross | Luke 23:39-43

A thief

Saved Like the Criminal on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43)

In my life, I’ve had people annoy me more than I thought was possible. In college, I had a suitemate from the Caribbean; Mark Charles was his name (I’m not going to say anything horrible about him, so I’ll give you his name). Being from the islands, North Alabama winters were far too cold for him. He wanted the thermostat set to 85, and that was too warm for even me. Mark and I had words a time or two.

There is a guy at the gym who is going to be the death of me. I have no idea who he is, or I’d say something to him (and more than likely I’d say something to him and the staff). He and I were (key word: “were”) using lockers next to each other. He gets there earlier than I and showers while I’m still in the pool. I know that because he leaves a pile of dirty towels right in front of my locker. I really don’t want to touch someone else’s dirty towels. I’ve changed lockers.

Have you ever had someone annoy you until you thought you were going to die? Have you ever had a coworker decide that your lunch looked far better and take it from the refrigerator? Have you ever gone to get that perfect parking place at Walmart only to have some kid in a nice sports car grab it? Have you ever had a sibling who liked to pick, pick, pick, but then if you retaliated, you got in trouble?

There are some annoying people in this world. And, in doing evangelism, there’s an annoying guy in Scripture: that thief on the cross. I don’t in any way mean to imply that the thief annoys me or that the way Jesus responded to him annoys me. But, what annoys me is that Satan can successfully use that thief to keep people from obeying the gospel. The reasoning goes like this: The thief on the cross wasn’t baptized, he only had faith, and I, therefore, only need faith and I do not need to be baptized.

A big part of me wonders why people gravitate to the thief; in the Gospels, several folks have salvation without baptism. After a paralytic had been let down through the roof in front of Jesus, the Lord says, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (Mk 2:5). As Jesus stands in Zacchaeus home, the Lord declares, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). When the woman washed Jesus’ feet in Simon’s house, Jesus said, “I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Lk 7:47). When the accusers of the woman caught in adultery leave, Jesus looks at her and says, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11).

I think one reason people may not use those examples is that more than faith was required. Granted, in two of those cases, action followed salvation, but there was action, nonetheless.

Jesus used that paralytic as a “teachable moment.”

He was making the point that He, as God in the flesh, could forgive sin. Therefore, Jesus told the paralytic to take up his bed and walk. The text never says that the paralytic had any faith in Jesus, but his friends did (Mk 2:5). In your heart of hearts, do you believe that if the paralytic had refused that command of Jesus that he would have kept his salvation?

With both Zacchaeus and the woman caught in adultery, repentance was called for.

Zacchaeus promised to make big changes in the way he treated people (Lk 19:8). Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11).

With the woman at Simon’s house, a woman who surely was a lady of the night, received forgiveness because she loved much and demonstrated that love to Jesus.

The tears likely speak to remorse as well.

What we’re going to do this morning is different from what we usually do: We’re going to think long and hard about the thief on the cross and his salvation. We’ll think about some things we just need to know, but we’ll also think about some things we need to do. Here’s a lesson that even the thief demonstrates: “More than faith is necessary for salvation.”

Scripture (Luke 23:39-43)

I’m sure some folks would want to rake me over the coals for saying that the thief demonstrates “More than faith is necessary for salvation.” Notice the dialogue here in Luke’s Gospel. One thief is blaspheming (speaking evil of) Jesus. The other thief, the one who received salvation, rebuked him. In that rebuke, the penitent thief demonstrates his faith. He readily confesses that he is sinful, but Jesus is not. He understands that Jesus will soon have a kingdom. He calls the Lord by name. In the King James and New King James, the thief calls Jesus “Lord.” For many reasons, it’s preferable to understand the original reading as “Jesus.” But, that still seems to indicate that the thief knew who the Lord is.

From Luke’s account, I believe we see that the thief carried out much that we need to do for salvation.

He has already heard of Jesus.

That’s an unmistakable conclusion; he recognizes Jesus as sinless and he knows the Lord has a kingdom. Yet, beyond that, I cannot say.

He obviously does believe.

He repents of sin in Luke’s account.

You might could make a case that when he says he’s dying justly for his crimes that that’s repentance; I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Yet, this thief clearly repented. “Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him” (Matt 27:44). The thief clearly repented at some point along the way.

That is all important because people will say that all the thief did was believe, and that is simply not the case.

It is not out of the question that the penitent thief was also baptized. I had a guy not terribly long ago call me a heretic on Twitter because I posted a sermon saying that baptism is absolutely essential to salvation. He said that the thief on the cross was never baptized; therefore, baptism is not essential to salvation. He about had a stroke when I asked him to prove the thief was never baptized. You know that many were baptized before that thief went to the cross. Mark 1:4-5; Notice two things: One: John’s baptism was for the remission of sins. It was temporary, but it was still for the remission of sins; and, Two: Notice also that “all the land of Judea” was going out to John to be baptized. The disciples of Jesus also baptized (Jn 4:1-3).

I don’t know if the thief was baptized or not. I found a writer in our brotherhood saying that there was no doubt but that the thief was baptized; I’m a long way from making such a definitive statement. However, you cannot establish that the thief was never baptized.

You need to understand some other things about the thief dying beside Jesus.

That thief could never have been saved in the same way we are.

You hear people say that you need to believe on Jesus in order to be saved. When the jailer asked Paul and Silas what he needed to do to be saved, they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Salvation, therefore, is absolutely dependent on our believing “on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

However, that isn’t the whole story. Paul, writing with his inspired pen, tells us something very specific that we must believe. Romans 10:9. Notice that we must believe “that God has raised Him from the dead.” That’s past tense. The penitent thief could not have believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4. The Corinthians were being saved by standing firm in the gospel they had believed. That gospel consisted of four parts: Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. How many of those events had taken place when the thief received his salvation? Not even one!

That thief also received salvation before the Old Testament was nullified.

Hebrews 9:15-17; Colossians 2:13-14. While it is very true that the thief received salvation before the Old Testament was nullified, he died after Jesus. I think, therefore, that this is the weakest argument we could use in trying to understand the thief’s salvation and our own.

A direct corollary to the idea of the Old Testament’s still being in force when Jesus forgave the thief: Christian baptism was not commanded until after the Resurrection.

John the Baptizer baptized people “for the remission of sins” (Mk 1:4). I believe that when Jesus’ disciples baptized in John 4 that they also baptized for the remission of sins. However, after the Resurrection, people could no longer be properly baptized with John’s baptism (Acts 19:1-5). I personally believe that the apostles and anyone else baptized with John’s baptism before the cross did not need to be baptized again. But, that’s a moot point for us.

Christian baptism was commanded by Jesus after His Resurrection and was first preached at Pentecost. Jesus commanded that baptism in giving His Great Commission (Matt 28:19; Mk 16:16). The apostles proclaimed that baptism beginning at Pentecost. When the multitude at Pentecost asked what they could do to have forgiveness, Peter responded: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Colossians 2:11-12. “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the Flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21).

Jesus forgave people as He chose while He walked this earth.

“The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6). However, now that Jesus has died, His will is in effect (Heb 9:16-17).


Because “More than faith is necessary for salvation,” how should we live?

We need to be prepared to help people come to Jesus.

“Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Pet 3:15).

You know that many people are caught up in error over what we’re talking about this morning. I preached a sermon on the cross a few years ago, and I happened to mention in passing some of the things we’ve discussed this morning. A lady with whom I was studying came forward to be baptized. The thief on the cross was her single objection to baptism. That Sunday she was taught truth and she responded. That was the first time I’d ever baptized someone at the conclusion of a sermon.

I have no doubt but that some of you may need to share the truths we’ve discussed with friends. We can’t use the truths we’ve discussed this morning to “pounce” on people. We need to use these truths to lead people to Jesus. Peter talks about sharing truth “with meekness and fear.” Think of meekness and fear in this way. Meekness says I’m sharing truth, but I’m no better than you. I had to come to Jesus the same way you did. Fear is reverence, respect. I share truth because I respect the Will of God. I share truth with my neighbor, because I respect him and want him to come to Jesus. I’m not going to bash him over the head with a Bible, but I’ll respect him enough to share truth and to do so lovingly.

If you wish to be saved, you must give God more than faith for salvation.

Those who teach that faith alone saves are very fond of texts which declare that we are saved by faith. We most certainly are saved by faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). It would be heresy to deny the central role faith plays in our salvation.

But, just because faith saves does not mean that faith alone saves.

Repentance is vital to salvation.

“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3, 5); if you perish without repentance, I think repentance is very important. “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Confession is vital to salvation.

Matthew 10:32-33. Romans 10:9-10.

Even baptism is vital to salvation.

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). “Now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

Have you honestly done everything God requires for your salvation?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.

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