The two thieves were similar in many ways. Both were convicted robbers, perhaps even murderers; each was physically as close to Jesus as the other; both were witnesses to the suffering of Jesus; and both called on Jesus to save them.
Initially, both thieves mocked and taunted Jesus (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). One spoke abruptly and angrily: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (Luke 23:39). He sought deliverance, but his words were spat out scornfully in angry unbelief.
The other thief changed his tune. He now spoke sincerely and seriously, addressing Jesus by name, with a heartfelt plea: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42, NIV).
Two thieves and two requests for salvation, but only one was granted eternal happiness with Christ in paradise. In Luke 23:43 the ‘you’ that Jesus speaks is singular, not plural.
Letters of gold
Bishop J. C. Ryle says these verses ‘deserve to be printed in letters of gold. They have probably been the salvation of myriads of souls. Multitudes will thank God to all eternity that the Bible contains this story of the penitent thief’ (Expository Thoughts on Luke, Volume 2, Banner of Truth).
What is so important about the conversion of a dying thief? Why does Ryle say the record should be printed in gold? The significance of these words is that they mean that at the very end of life, only hours from death, a man may find salvation in Christ.
If the dying thief could come to saving faith, then there is hope for all – right up until the moment of their death. It is never too late for any living person to trust in Christ and be saved.
Furthermore, these verses define what is necessary for the salvation of an individual, and what is not. This we shall consider below.
It is often said that every conversion is unique, and that no two personal testimonies are exactly alike. Yet in essence every conversion is the same, because there is only one way of salvation. The indispensable and vital elements of each and every conversion are made explicit in the experience of the dying thief.
Not necessary for salvation
Firstly, to be saved you do not have to be religious. The dying thief was almost certainly a non-religious man. Certainly, he had been justly convicted for a criminal offence (he freely admits his guilt, Luke 23:41). He clearly was neither a law-abiding Jew nor an upstanding member of the local community. Initially, he too cursed Jesus!
Secondly, you do not need a comprehensive knowledge of theology. The dying thief was not saved after hearing a sermon or as the result of an in-depth study of Scripture. As far as we can tell, this man had little or no contact with Jesus prior to their crucifixion together.
Most likely he was a Jew and had some familiarity with the Old Testament. But he probably had little appreciation of the earthly ministry and teaching of Christ.
Thirdly, to be saved you do not need to be baptised. There was no opportunity for the dying thief to be baptised. Soon after he professed faith he was dead. He never became the member of a church. He never received the Lord’s Supper.
Yet he was saved. Salvation is not about being baptised, joining a church, or taking communion. Though these things are profitable and scripturally ordained, they are not essential for salvation.
Jesus Christ saves sinners
Fourthly, to be saved you do not have to be or do good. The dying thief was not saved because he had lived uprightly – he was a criminal. There was little or nothing he could offer to merit a place in heaven. The dying thief is proof that salvation is by grace through faith, and not by our good works.
As J. C. Ryle says, ‘The dying thief was nailed hand and foot to the cross. He could do literally nothing for his own soul’. The thief wasn’t going anywhere and he wasn’t going to be doing anything outwardly to earn salvation. He was in no position to do anything except call out to Jesus for salvation.
Fifthly, you do not need to work off your sins. Christ promised the dying thief that he would be with him in heaven that very day (Luke 23:43). The dying thief did not have to go to purgatory (or some other intermediate place) to work off his sins – to be further purified or wait until enough prayers had been said on his behalf.
The dying thief is a biblical precedent for what we generally call ‘death-bed conversions’. We rightly comfort ourselves that so little is required on our part to obtain eternal salvation. If the dying thief could be saved, there is hope for anyone.
But we must be careful not to use these verses to obscure what is necessary for salvation. There are certain essential elements in any true conversion, and this man’s salvation involved much more than his desperate heart-felt appeal to Jesus.
Even in the economical language used to describe the conversion of the dying thief, we see what is needful for salvation.
Necessary for salvation
Firstly, salvation requires a right understanding of yourself, resulting in true repentance. As we have seen, the penitent thief had initially mocked Jesus, but his attitude undergoes a dramatic change.
He knows Christ is innocent of the crimes which led to his own conviction (Luke 23:41). He understands that Jesus has every right to be angry and bitter – full of resentment at being falsely accused and condemned to a painful death
And yet Jesus is not bitter. Beaten and bruised, he patiently endures the ridicule and scorn heaped upon him. The thief even hears him praying for the forgiveness of those who are killing him.
He begins to regret the mocking words he had spoken, and demonstrates his repentance by rebuking his partner in crime. ‘Don’t you fear God?’ he asks (Luke 23:40). The necessary implication is that this thief does fear God – and is concerned not to heap up further offences that will be held against him.
He rejects what is wicked and wrong, for he realises he is answerable to God. He is overwhelmed by an awful sense of his own sinfulness. He knows he is guilty – that he has been rightly convicted – and openly confesses his wrongdoing and guilt (Luke 23:41).
A right understanding of ourselves is always essential to salvation. As we stand accountable before God for our actions – and face just punishment for our sins – such an understanding leads to repentance.
This is God’s gift, by which the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts, and turn to the Lord for mercy and abundant pardon (Acts 11:18; Isaiah 55:7).
Secondly, salvation requires a person to come face to face with Jesus Christ. Unlike the dying thieves, we cannot do that literally, but we can encounter him through the pages of the Bible and the witness of others who know him.
We need to understand exactly who was on that central cross. The penitent thief looked at the person being crucified beside him and knew he was no ordinary man. The taunts of the watching crowd made it clear who Jesus claimed to be – the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour, the King.
He was convinced that Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing: ‘This man has done nothing wrong’ (Luke 23:41). But more than that, he believed Jesus’ claims! In his request he acknowledges Jesus to be his king: ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).
He cries out to Jesus, whose name means ‘Saviour’. He asks that Christ might remember him, and places what little remains of his life in Jesus’ hands. In short, the dying thief looks to Jesus with the eyes of faith – spiritual sight, imparted to sinners by the Holy Spirit, that discerns the unseen realities of Christ’s kingdom.
It must be faith, for it certainly is not physical sight! The thief looks at the unclothed, bruised and bloodied body of Jesus, hanging in pitiful humiliation, and sees his glorious Saviour and mighty King.
And his faith is rewarded – by words of promise from the lips of Christ, addressed personally to him: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
A right understanding of your sinful self, resulting in true repentance. A right understanding of Jesus Christ, the sinless Saviour, resulting in true faith. That is all that is needed for salvation!