Jesus was crucified between two criminals. While one blasphemed him, the other made a surprising confession that led to Jesus’ startling response (Luke 23:32-43). This brief conversation between two men on crosses raises major problems for the LDS system of salvation.
One Infamous Criminal
The thief on the cross had quite the criminal record. Most likely, he was a partner of Barabbas, a notorious thief, murderer, and political revolutionary (Mark 15:7; John 18:40). Whatever his specific crimes, the fact that he was crucified shows the severity of his charge. Crucifixion was so cruel that it was illegal for Roman citizens to be crucified, and it was reserved for the worst criminals.
However, this infamous criminal is with God in heaven today. Why? As Alistair Begg puts it, “Because the man on the middle cross said he could.”1 The thief on the cross is a powerful example that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
One Brief Conversation
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). That was this sinner’s prayer. If we heard someone pray that today, we’d probably assume they didn’t understand enough of the gospel to be saved. But how did Jesus respond?
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
First, note what this man and Jesus did not do or mention:
- Church membership
- The temple
- Theological knowledge
- An emotional experience
- Confession to a priest or bishop
- Any sort of work done by him while alive or for him after death
This man cried out to Jesus in faith, and Jesus promised that he would be in the kingdom of God. The word “paradise” that Jesus used referred to a king’s personal pleasure garden, like the Versailles palace gardens.2 In the New Testament, it refers to heaven, being in God’s presence where he dwells in his personal pleasure garden (2 Cor. 4:7; Rev. 2:7). This is especially evident since Jesus says he will be there with the thief.
“But Jesus knew someone would be baptized for the thief after he was dead, or that he would hear and accept the gospel in the afterlife,” an LDS person might object. Evidently not. Jesus said they would be in paradise together “today.” They would both die in a few hours. There was no time to be baptized or sealed in marriage for this criminal. When the thief and Jesus died together, they immediately went to paradise together, too.
How? Because Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior, and this man had faith in him. The thief on the cross knew he deserved to die for his sins (Luke 23:40-41). He also knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the God-man that the Old Testament promised would establish God’s kingdom (Luke 23:42). And this thief had faith that Jesus would still establish that kingdom somehow, even though the King himself had been betrayed by his subjects and was dying on a cross. So he asked to be a part of that kingdom, and Jesus graciously said, “Yes.”
One Sufficient Hero
The thief on the cross is a marvelous testimony that faith in Christ is all you need to be saved from sin and live with God forever. But he isn’t the hero of the story. The greatest thing about the thief on the cross is that he points us to Jesus as the all-sufficient Savior.
In literature, foils are characters with different traits who highlight each other’s differences. Think of brilliant Sherlock Holmes paired with clueless John Watson. Foils work in literature because God uses foils in real life, and that’s the case here.
The thief on the cross was a guilty criminal; Jesus was the sinless Savior. The thief was justly executed; Jesus was unjustly murdered. The thief was helpless to save himself; Jesus was mighty to save.
The story of one man on a cross ultimately highlights the Man on the cross. Jesus is the true hero of the story. May he be the hero of our lives as well as we share the good news that Jesus and his grace are fully sufficient to save us as we trust in him.