The previous article, “How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?” brought on a whirlwhind of comments about the Protestant belief in salvation by faith alone vs. the belief of the rest of Christianity in salvation by faith together with works.
Here is the first comment there, by a reader named David:
I know you have commented on this before, but I’m not sure where: What did you think of the criminal on the cross who Jesus assures will be with him in paradise that very day? This criminal seems like the quintessential example of someone who did bad things all of his life yet he is assured paradise seemingly based on a profession of faith in Jesus at the end of his life. I don’t think anyone would dispute your argument that one’s character cannot be completely changed in an instant; however, I think it is possible to begin a saving relationship with Jesus Christ in an instant such that someone could be assured of Heaven. God cannot change one’s character in an instant but He could potentially declare someone NOT GUILTY in an instant. In my evangelical circles, there is this concept of imputed righteousness that Paul talks about. Your true character reformation occurs over the rest of your life, but when you “accept Christ” you are seen as “righteous” in the eyes of God because of what Jesus did.
I was chatting with some of my friends this week. Some were conservative evangelicals and another one somewhere in between like me. One posed the question: can two people live identical lives but believe different things about Jesus and go to different destinations when they die. I think most of agreed that, no, this was not possible. But we were picturing two people who lived very good lives yet did not believe the same things about Jesus. Then my one more evangelical friend brought up the example of the thief on the cross as an example of two people who had lived really bad lives, yet one went to heaven and the other presumably went to judgement.
Have a great week!
Thanks for the great question, David!
About “imputed righteousness” please see, “The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 7: Imputed Righteousness?” Short version: There is no such thing. Paul has been badly misunderstood on this as well, based on the faulty, non-Biblical notions that we are saved by faith alone and that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. (See: “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does” and: “Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?”)
Instead, we can accept Christ’s righteousness into ourselves by acting from his love and living according to his commandments (instead of acting from our own selfishness and folly), while recognizing that it is Christ acting through us, and that nothing good we do is our own—as he himself told us:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Now let’s look at the two thieves on the cross as narrated in Luke 23:39–43.
The story of the two thieves on the cross
Here it is:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)
Luke is the only Gospel in which the story is told this way. In Matthew and Mark, both thieves hurl insults at Jesus (see Matthew 27:38–44; Mark 15:27–32). The Gospel of John mentions two others crucified with Jesus (see John 19:18), but does not record that they said anything.
In Luke, though, we get this tantalizing story about two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus, one of whom is saved, and the other of whom presumably is not.
Was the second thief saved by a mere profession of belief in Jesus Christ? Did this instantly change him from sinner to saved, as Protestants often claim?
Let’s take a closer look, from the perspective of the interpretation of the Bible provided by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), and through a closer reading of what, exactly, the story says, and what it means in human terms.
(The next three sections are an edited and expanded version of part of an answer I recently wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
Swedenborg’s commentary on Luke 23:39–43
Swedenborg comments on Luke 23:43 (“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”) mostly to support his teaching that people who die are immediately resurrected into the spiritual world, contrary to the common traditional Christian belief in a future general resurrection and Last Judgment, when everyone who has died will be raised from the grave and judged at once. (See: “What Happens To Us When We Die?”)
However, in Swedenborg’s work Apocalypse Explained #600:6, he does provide a brief commentary suggesting the meaning and significance of the two thieves:
The two robbers who were crucified, one on the right and the other on the left of the Lord, have a similar signification to the sheep and the goats. That is why it was said to the one who acknowledged the Lord that he would be with him in paradise (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:39–43). And in John:
Jesus said to his disciples who were fishing, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. (John 21:6).
This brief commentary is picked up and expanded upon by the Rev. William Worcester (1859–1939) in his set of Bible study notes titled The Sower, vol. 5, p. 386:
The thieves crucified with the Lord in a manner represent mankind whose trials and temptations the Lord shares. One thief represents those who are not humbled by temptation and do not receive the Lord’s help so mercifully offered; the other thief represents those who do receive His help, and through Him find victory and peace. This is consistent with the statement in Apocalypse Explained #600, that by the two thieves crucified with the Lord the same is meant as by the sheep and goats on the King’s right and left (Matthew 25:33).
In short, the two thieves on the cross in Luke 23:39–43 represent two general classes of humanity:
- Those who do not accept salvation from the Lord
- Those who do accept salvation from the Lord
(This does not mean that only Christians can be saved. See: “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?”)
Further, Luke 23:39–43, seen in its context as a conversation taking place while the three (Jesus and the two thieves) were being crucified, represents the two different ways that human beings respond to the trials, temptation, pain, and suffering of life. Specifically, the two thieves represent:
- Those who, despite much trial, pain, and suffering in life, reject God and salvation, vs:
- Those who, through the trials, pain, and suffering of life, come to repentance and an acceptance of God and salvation
The thief who thought only of saving his own skin, and shouted derisively, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39) represents people who have no interest in repentance and spiritual rebirth, and therefore no interest in the salvation offered by the Lord.
Meanwhile, the thief who recognized that he was a sinner, witnessed to the other thief, and asked Jesus for mercy represents people who recognize that they have thought, felt, and acted wrongly, repent of their sins, do good works instead, and turn to the Lord for salvation.
The second thief on the cross is not an example of faith alone
There is a basic fallacy in thinking that the second thief on the cross is an example of salvation, or justification, by faith alone. Understanding this fallacy, and what was really taking place, requires a deeper and more realistic look not only at the vignette presented in Luke 23:39–43, but at its wider context.
Jesus, as Christians universally believe, was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). His crucifixion was his final and greatest temptation, and even its terrible agony did not induce him to sin in any way.
The two thieves, by contrast, were quite human, and definitely sinners. Perhaps they were common thieves. Or perhaps, as some believe, they were insurrectionists against Roman rule, who committed violent crimes in the course of their rebellion. Either way, they broke the Ten Commandments and committed evil and sinful actions.
Now they were facing the punishment for their crimes.
And of course, they didn’t just suddenly pop up on crosses beside Jesus. They had been caught, arrested, and tried for their crimes—and now their sentences were being carried out.
How did each thief respond to the terrible trial and temptation that he had already gone through, and to the agonizing death he was now suffering?
- One thief remained defiant to the end. Rather than repenting of his evil actions, he derisively called on Jesus to save them, despite the fact that he was not at all sorry for what he had done, and would likely do it all over again if given the opportunity.
- The other thief had clearly been brought to repentance by his arrest, trial, and punishment. Yes, all we see of him is what he said on the cross. But human psychology tells us that this did not just happen all of a sudden. There was prior thought, and a change of heart, involved in what he expressed to the other thief and to Jesus.
Why was one thief saved, but not the other?
The reason the second thief was saved, while the other was not, is that he, unlike the other, repented of his evil deeds. In so doing, he took his first step toward salvation, just as John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples preached many times in the Gospels and the Acts: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (see Matthew 3:1–2; 4:17; Mark 1:4, 14–15; Luke 17:1–4; 24:44–48; Acts 2:38; 5:29–32).
Further, the second thief not only repented, but he also acted on his repentance by witnessing to the other thief, even as he himself was enduring the agony of crucifixion:
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40–41)
Witnessing to non-believers, even if it is done through words rather than through physical actions, is a good work. It is an action of reaching out to others and offering them the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ.
How many criminals in prison are at all sorry for their crimes, or even admit that they’ve done anything wrong? There are very few guilty people in prison. Just ask them!
Instead, as in the story of Jeremy Wilson in the previous post, once they get out of prison they commonly go right back to their old law-breaking ways.
And while they’re in prison, they are much more likely to brag about what they’ve done than to urge other prisoners to admit that they’ve done wrong and are being justly punished, as the second thief on the cross did.
So the second thief is not an example of salvation by faith alone. Rather, he is an example of:
- Repentance: He recognized that he had done evil and was being justly punished for his sins,
- Good works: He witnessed to the other thief even in the midst of his own agony, and
- Faith: He turned to the Lord and asked the Lord to remember him when he came into his kingdom.
It was on the basis of his repentance, good works, and faith, and not on the basis of mere “faith” by itself, that Jesus said to the second thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
In short, the story of the two thieves on the cross is a confirmation of the Bible’s overall teaching that in order to be saved, we must repent of our sins, do good works instead, and have faith in the power of the Lord to save us and bring us into God’s kingdom.
Are we saved in an instant?
What about the evangelical Protestant belief that we are saved in an instant by our faith in Jesus, even if it takes the rest of our life to reform our character?
First, salvation is not a mere matter of “faith,” or intellectual belief in Jesus. This is made plain throughout the Bible. For an especially clear refutation of justification by faith alone, see James 2:14–26.
Make no mistake about it: the Protestant belief in justification by faith alone, formulated by Martin Luther 1,500 years after the Bible was written, is false because it is contrary to the plain teachings of the entire Bible.
Salvation is not an event but a process of changing selfish, greedy “sinners” (to use the Bible’s term) into good and thoughtful “saints,” or righteous people. This does not and cannot take place in an instant. It requires an extended period of reforming our desires, thoughts, and actions from the inside out. And it is something we cannot do by ourselves. It is the Lord God who does it within us from the inside out, if we will only open the door and let God into our lives (see Revelation 3:19–21).
So no, we cannot be saved or justified in an instant.
However, what can happen within a short period of time is that we can turn our life around, and start heading toward heaven instead of toward hell.
Life is a spiritual journey. Which way are you headed?
Think of your life as a spiritual journey. You are traveling from the emotional and intellectual character you had as a child and a young person to the character of the person you will be to eternity, in either heaven or hell.
As you travel that spiritual path, you will be headed in a particular direction:
- You may be headed in the direction of hell, as you live out your greedy, self-absorbed, power-hungry desires, seeking money, power, pleasure, reputation, and success for yourself regardless of how it affects other people.
- You may be headed in the direction of heaven, as you seek to put aside your natural focus on yourself, and instead show love and kindness to your fellow human beings by serving them and doing good deeds for them every day, as God commands us to do.
The pathway is different for each one of us. And our particular destinations in particular parts of heaven or hell will vary all over the spiritual map. But the bottom line is that whatever direction we’re traveling in at the time of our death, that’s the direction we will be traveling in to all eternity.
So the most important question for your eternal salvation or damnation is: Which way are you traveling? Are you traveling toward heaven? Or are you traveling toward hell?
We can’t be changed in an instant from a selfish and greedy person into a thoughtful and loving person. There is no magical event of Christ’s righteousness suddenly being “imputed” to us so that we are instantly deemed “righteous” just because we believe in Jesus, even though the fact is that we are still selfish, greedy jerks!
What can happen within a very short time is that we can change direction. If we are on a path toward hell, we can turn around and start heading toward heaven instead.
And as soon as we turn around, our eternal fate changes.
At that point, even if we are still in hell, we are now traveling out of hell instead of deeper into it.
Imagine yourself turning around on that pathway of life, and heading in the direction that goes toward heaven instead. You can see that no matter where you are right now, if you keep traveling the path in the direction opposite to the way you were going before, you will eventually end out in heaven, not in hell.
Repentance and the pathway to spiritual life
In the Bible, the point at which we turn around is called “repentance.” And that’s what “conversion” is all about.
So no, we can’t be saved in an instant. Salvation is a long, difficult, and painful process in which our character is changed piece by piece from evil and selfish to loving and good.
But by repenting from our former destructive life and turning around toward God and heaven, we can change our eternal destination and our eternal home from a hellish one into a heavenly one, even if we still have a lot of work ahead of us to get there.
The pathway to heaven and salvation involves setting aside our old selfish, destructive, and sinful ways day by day, turning to the Lord in trust and prayer for help day by day, and living a new life of love and service toward our fellow human beings day by day.
The prophet Ezekiel states it beautifully:
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:21–23)
For further reading:
- How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
- Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth