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      The Theology of the Repentant Thief on the Cross

      Wednesday, October 24, 2007

      They gave him (Jesus) vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing did they cast lots. And sitting down they watched him there; And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, You that destroy the temple, and build it in three days, save yourself. If you be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, saying, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, who were crucified with him, reviled him the same way.
      (Mat 27:34-44)

      And with him (Jesus)they crucified two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which said, And he was numbered with the transgressors. And they that passed by derided him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, you that destroy the temple, and build it in three days, Save yourself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him.
      (Mar 15:27-32)

      Notice first here in both of these descriptions what the Scripture says. After the record is given of the horrible ridicule, reviling, and mocking that Christ endured from the unbelievers who crucified him, we are told that, not one, but both of the theives crucified with him reviled him in the same way. Notice that.

      And there were also two others, malefactors, led with him (Jesus)to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his clothing, and cast lots. And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he is Christ, the chosen of God. And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar, And saying, If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And one of the malefactors who were hanged railed at him, saying, If you are Christ, save yourself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto you, Today shall you be with me in paradise.
      (Luk 23:32-43)

      Notice here what happened. I'm not sure when, but I'm assuming (and this is only speculation) that sometime after Jesus uttered the words, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." the one thief was convicted of his unbelief and, because of his conviction, led to repentance. Notice in the first two accounts, the repentant thief is actually taking part in the ridicule and reviling. What changed? It was grace and mercy producing conviction and repentance, plain and simple. Notice what he said after the unrepentant thief railed Jesus saying "IF YOU be the Christ..." The repentant thief said, "Do you not fear GOD?... We deserve condemnation for our sins, but this man has never sinned. Then he said to Jesus, LORD, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

      The repentant thief at the beginning of the crucifixion was reviling the Lord, definitely not believing in him. Before the end of the account, HE WAS CALLING HIM LORD. What did Jesus say because of the Lord's grace and the thief's belief and repentance? "Today you will be with me in paradise."

      There is much talk today, as there has always been, about the importance of sound theology. There are some who take it to the extreme saying that "every 't' must be crossed and every 'i' dotted" before you are saved at all. There are others who are what have been historically called "liars and heretics" who say things like "We don't need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to be saved." I prefer siding with using the historical terms to classify these people, and it seems like these people are the only ones who object to anyone doing so. Knowing these two things, however, let's examine the doctrine of the saved thief in detail:

      1) He was an ungodly, reviling, repulsive, sinner. He was dead in sins and trespasses. There was nothing in him that could win him any favor with the Lord. If the Lord "looked in him for goodness" what would he have found, but hatred for his very Name?

      2) We're not told exactly how, but by the grace of God, the thief was convicted of his ungodliness. At the beginning of our account, he is joining in with the unrepentant sinner in reviling the Lord. At the end of our account, he's rebuking the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief of Jesus being the Lord and his self-righteousness.

      3) The thief believed in Jesus Christ. His faith was counted unto him for righteousness. What righteousness did the thief have on the cross of his own? The righteousness he was given from Christ was the only reason Christ told him, "Today you will be with me in paradise."

      4) He confessed with his mouth that Jesus is Lord.

      5) The only way that this or any God-hating, God blaspheming, reviling, ungodly sinner can enter heaven is by no other thing than God's sovereign grace. Was it up to the thief's free-will to repent and believe or was it God's mercy that opened up the thief's heart to understand the truth of the Lord and believe? It certainly wasn't because of any works that the thief had done from the time he was carrying his cross mocking the Lord to the time he was hanging on the cross that "helped him come around".

      The point is, sound doctrine is necessary. Not only is it necessary, but it is not trivial to a saved person. The thief reviled Jesus then later "had sound doctrine" when he called him 'Lord'. He also had the doctrine of repentance down, but why? Was it because the man used "his keen intellect just in the nick of time" that he was saved or was it because of God's grace and mercy? Many people become saved by the grace of God and years later they learn exactly how and why. What does this mean? This means that sound doctrine tells what the Lord does and has done. Once a sinner has been saved by grace, the process starts and the person realizes their fault, repents, and believes. Not by works of righteousness we've done are we saved, but because of God's mercy and his purpose. If the thief would have lived beyond the cross, this is sure: He would have sought the Lord because he had the desire to grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (sound theology). While the person is not saved by an intellectual assent to doctrine, once they are saved, they want to know all of the sound doctrine possible because they love the Lord and seek to honor Him. They give up their ungodly way and seek Him alone because they love Him. They have a hate for false doctrine because it is not of the Him. If someone comes and says, "You're saved by works.", one who loves the Lord and loves sound doctrine is offended and rebukes the heresy because the heresy is a direct slander against the Lord. Our Lord saved the thief even though the thief didn't have "every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed". The Lord was merciful to him and opened his heart to believe and repent. If the repentant thief would have lived longer, you can be assured he would have strived to make sure that the "i's were dotted and t's were crossed", though, because the Lord gave him the grace to want to honor Him. Keep this in mind if you consider people who want to learn sound theology "legalistic" or "only fit to be in an ivory tower": The unrepentant thief who the Lord didn't save never cared about learning the truth of the Lord at all. To him, it was just considered "trivial" and may have even been deemed "doctrinal matter that divides him and his friends", and he is now in hell forevermore.

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