LUKE 23:39-43: “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” NKJV
OBSERVATION: What do the sinner’s prayer and the thief on the cross have to do with each other? One is found in the Bible and the other is not. Both have been debated regarding their proper interpretation and use. One always leads to an authentic conversion experience while the other can give one a false sense of spiritual and eternal security.
In reading this short introduction you already have strong feelings regarding your position on these two subjects. The real question revolves around the age-old debate of salvation by grace through faith alone versus trying to be saved by one’s good works.
OR – DOES IT?
Recently, I was challenged by a fellow pastor regarding this very subject. I love and respect this pastor but we were on different sides of the fence regarding this subject. In our short dialogue on Facebook (which is probably the worst way to debate such a subject), we finally came to an impasse.
WHAT DID WE AGREE ON?
We agreed that we are saved by grace through faith alone and not through our own good works. What did we disagree on? We disagreed that someone is saved simply by reciting the sinner’s prayer. This debate was in response to a short video that challenged the very existence of the sinner’s prayer in the New Testament. What was my fellow pastor’s justification for his view?
IT WAS THE THIEF ON THE CROSS!
Many have cited the thief on the cross as a proof that nothing needs to be done in order to be saved. It is fully by grace through faith. The thief never was baptized, never went to church, never taught a Sunday School class. He simply cried out to Jesus and he was saved.
First, I agree with most of this. Yet, there is something that is missing from this equation. You cannot form a doctrine based on the absence of something. While it is true that the thief on the cross did none of these things, it is obvious why he could not. He was dying. There was no option to be baptized, to become a part of the church, or to serve God.
THIS WAS IT FOR THIS DYING MAN!
Second, the thief on the cross did not pray the sinner’s prayer. Most sinner’s prayers focus on repentance from sin and asking Jesus to come into one’s heart as Savior. A familiar Scripture that is used for this prayer is Revelation 3:20 where Jesus is knocking at the door. I too have used this analogy. However, the true context of this Scripture is Jesus knocking at the door of the church.
So what is the distinction between what the thief on the cross did and the sinner’s prayer? Why is the sinner’s prayer generally deficient in a Biblical understanding of conversion? To answer these questions all we need to do is read the words of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans.
- “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart ”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Romans 10:8-10
We also need to read Peter’s response to those who heard his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. It is notable that Peter did not give an invitation (an altar call) or lead them in a sinner’s prayer. He only responded to the cry of those who heard him.
- “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what are we to do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Acts 2:36-39
So let’s put these two important Scriptures together. What are the essential elements of Biblical conversion.
- REPENTANCE: We need to turn from our sins and toward God.
- FAITH: We need to believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead.
- SURRENDER: We need to confess Jesus as Lord. (Note: Repentance, faith, and surrender are shown in the physical act of baptism and confirmed by the infilling of the Holy Spirit)
Paul and Peter are in complete agreement. Repentance turns us from our sins toward God. Faith trusts solely in Jesus’ death on the cross as the full payment for our sins and believes in the promise of eternal life through His resurrection. Surrender commits our life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and is followed by a life of discipleship and obedience. And, as noted, all of these actions of the heart are proclaimed in the act of water baptism and confirmed by the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
SO, WHAT ABOUT THE THIEF ON THE CROSS?
Did he do all of these things? We already have covered that he could not follow Jesus in water baptism because of his situation. Yet, did he come to sincere faith and absolute surrender as he hung on the cross?
Listen to his words for the answer.
- REPENTANCE: “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.”
- FAITH: “…but this Man has done nothing wrong.”
- SURRENDER: “Then he said to Jesus, “LORD, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
The thief on the cross may not have done anything after he believed, for indeed he could not. Yet, he did not simply throw up a simple prayer of desperation. He sincerely repented. He placed his faith fully in the life and person of Jesus Christ. And, most importantly,
HE CONFESSED JESUS AS LORD!
This is why Jesus, without hesitation replied, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.
Repentance leads to faith. Faith leads to surrender. This is why Paul proclaims –
- “…If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
And, Peter proclaimed,
- “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The weakness of the sinner’s prayer is that it can lead to a false sense of security for someone who has not repented and truly surrendered. The rich young ruler was not willing to surrender and Jesus let him go. We are not saved by merely asking Jesus to come into our hearts. We are saved when we turn from sin in sincere repentance, trust only in the completed work of Christ, and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
THIS IS ALL A WORK OF GOD’S GRACE IN OUR LIVES!
We bring nothing to the cross but our broken lives. Yet, like the thief on the cross, we must be willing to leave everything at the cross and follow Jesus! When the 3000 Jews who heard Peter’s sermon were baptized – this is exactly what they did. They turned their backs on their past, their tradition, and their good works, and followed Jesus as Lord and Savior! Throughout the book of Acts, you will not find someone being converted without repentance, faith, and surrender. The danger of the common day sinner’s prayer is that it can lead to a false sense of repentance and faith that is devoid of surrender.
To CONFESS JESUS AS LORD is the supreme confession of our heart!
This confession proclaims our repentance, faith, and willingness to follow Jesus. It does not require our good works to complete. All it calls for is a fully surrendered life. However, the result of repentance, faith, and surrender, is a life that bears the fruit of God’s work in our lives.
We are not saved by good works but those who are truly saved WILL WALK IN THEM!
- “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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10
THE THIEF ON THE CROSS DID NOT PRAY THE SINNER’S PRAYER.
THE THIEF ON THE CROSS SURRENDERED EVERYTHING TO THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS CHRIST!
Heavenly Father, thank you for your free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ my Lord. Grant me the grace to walk in an attitude of repentance, in the full assurance of faith, and with a heart and life surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Work in me so that I can walk in the good works which You have prepared in advance for me to do.
In Jesus’ Name!
I did agree with you before I read your post. Nevertheless, you have done a sufficient expose and clarification of this important teaching. This should lay to rest that error. Well done.