What was it that made the repentant thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus worthy of salvation—even if it was at the very last minute of his life? The same thing that makes you and me worthy of our salvation: Absolutely nothing. The thief had no time for a single good deed nor time to make right his long list of wrongs. All he could do was recognize his own guilt, believe in the redemptive righteousness of Jesus, and entrust his eternity to the mercy and grace of God. By the way, that is all anyone can do to be saved.
The Journey: Luke 23:42-43
Then the thief said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Two thieves hung on the cross, with Jesus between them. One of them joined the mocking crowd in hurling insults at the Lord, but the other hurled himself upon the mercy of God. And, according to Jesus’ own words, he was thoroughly saved that day, even if it was just barely.
The penitent thief had done no good works, had no track record of righteousness, had no opportunity to make right all the wrongs he had done. Yet Jesus assured him that within hours, he would be at the Lord’s side in eternity.
So what was it that made him worthy of salvation—even if it was at the very last minute of his life? The same thing that makes you and me worthy of our salvation: Absolutely nothing.
All the man could do was recognize his own guilt (“Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes…”), believe in the redemptive righteousness of Jesus (“but this man hasn’t done anything wrong….”), and entrust his eternity to the mercy and grace of God (“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”)
By the way, that is all anyone can do to be saved. As the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Furthermore, he added in Titus 23:4-7, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Not by works—it is a gift of grace to unworthy sinners. Our salvation is because of God’s kindness, not our righteous acts. Period.
The thief was thoroughly saved that day; as saved as you, me, or those who have faithfully served the Lord their entire lives. And that is the whole basis for the Gospel. That is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion: Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Every other religious effort to attain eternal life is based on what we do. But what we do, no matter how much we do and how well we do it, can never be enough to satisfy a perfect and holy God.
Christianity is based on what Jesus did for us on the cross. Only by acknowledging our sinfulness, believing in his atoning work, and receiving him by faith can we appropriate God’s free gift of grace that thoroughly saves us for all eternity.
And that’s the Good News.