During the Roman Era and the Middle Ages, the Christian world almost completely accepted the teaching that one had to confess and repent of every and any sin in order to be saved. Even after being saved, most Christians understood that one had to continually confess and repent of new sins committed. Any sin, no matter how little, condemned a person to eternal Hell. Such teachings were accepted because they were clearly written in Scripture (James 2:10-12; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 5:18-19; Deut. 27:26; Josh. 1:7-8). However, at the beginning of the 16th century, theologians began to embrace new ideas of salvation. Martin Luther, who openly challenged the Catholic church in 1517 with his 95 Theses, popularized the teaching that would be called “faith only” salvation. He taught that faith would save a person despite the individual being a sinful human being.
Since the Reformation, the idea that Faith Only will save a person despite the lack of action toward repentance has taken hold in the Christian world regardless of the numerous teachings against the idea in the Bible (James 1:22; 2:14-26; Rom. 2:13; Matt. 7:21-23; Luke 11:28). As such, people seek out examples of Christ’s behavior that would advocate for a lenient judgment for believers who have not repented. The image of Christ on the cross speaking to the pleading thief is one of the more widely used.
The image of Christ as one that rewards the penitent and sorrowful in spite of their evil deeds and lack of obedience is often portrayed by the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). A great majority of people who imagine Christ hold the Messiah’s words to the malefactor as an advocation for mercy and tolerance for those people who want to be in favor with the Lord but live in sin. “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42,43). Many use the thief on the cross to justify not being baptized or not complying with all that is commanded in scripture. The theory of this image expresses that because the thief on the cross was not baptized and obviously did not comply with all the will of God to do right and was told by Christ that he would be in paradise, then a person has no reason to hold such a strict interpretation of God’s law. Is the image of a Christ who pardons sins to those who believe in Him but have not followed all that God has commanded accurate to scripture?
The image of Christ on the cross next to the believing thief remains one of compassion and love, but does Christ excuse the sins of those who call him Lord and who request that Christ remember them when they appear before the Judgement of God? Christ states to this exact situation, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23). Just because a person believes in Christ and thinks himself to be a good person does not mean that Christ will save him in Judgment. Christ, likewise, states in His Sermon on the Mount, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet] or one tittle [an accent mark over Hebrew words] shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). Christ demands that His followers keep and obey the Law of God down to the smallest word and accent mark. Obviously, Jesus calls for an exact and detailed obedience just as His father had always demanded before the earthly ministry of Christ (Deut. 4:2; 32:46). The apostles and disciples of Christ continue to echo the words and mind of Christ on strict obedience after His ascension, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). For believers to be saved, they must keep all the law of Christ, not just some of it.
Practically speaking, what motivation does a believer have to attend the worship service, pray, help others in need, contribute to the financial responsibilities of the church, evangelize, and many other commands in scripture made by God in the Law of Christ if just believing and maybe keeping a positive attitude of nicety is all that a person needs to do in order to go to heaven? Why would God inspire disciples to write down and preserve these commands if it doesn’t matter one way or another if people keep them? If the commands are not important to salvation, then why command them in the first place? Why say a follower must keep all of them, if they don’t? If not all commands have to be followed, then which ones are excusable? Who gets to decide which commands are essential and which are not? Such questions should be in the mind of every individual who hears the teachings of “faith only” salvation. Such questions should lead the honest and sincere seeker of truth to the biblical understanding that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
As to why Christ pardoned the thief on the cross, there are clearly circumstances, and information not mentioned that might have offered insight. Was the thief baptized or not? The passage does not say. How did the thief learn about the kingdom (Luke 23:42)? Why did the thief call Jesus, “Lord” (vs. 42)? How did the thief know that Christ had “done nothing amiss” (vs. 41)? Was the thief pardoned because of his penitent attitude and belief in Christ? Probably, but there are factors that contributed to his pardon that readers do not know. Believers should never hang their salvation on a guess! The authority of salvation derives from what is said, rather than what is not said (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 4:6). The image of Christ as one who saves people just because they believe on Him while not obeying ALL the commands of God is one not supported by scripture!