by Roscoe Barnes III
A young man who had just trusted Christ as Savior was eager to tell others about his experience. He read a gospel tract and noticed a “sinner’s prayer” on the back of it. “If I get people to pray this prayer, will they be saved?” he asked.
I was tempted to say, “Yes, if they truly believe it.” But fortunately, I moved in another direction, taking him to the story of the dying thieves in Luke 23:39-43. To me, it’s one of the most dramatic and heart-warming illustrations of the gospel of grace in all of Scripture.
The passage shows two criminals who were being crucified along with Christ. Both asked Him for help, but only one received it. Both “prayed” to be saved, but only one made it into Paradise.
What was the difference? Their faith. One believed in Christ and the other did not.
From a technical standpoint, it may be argued that the first thief did not actually pray. For his outburst was nothing more than mockery. While that is certainly true according to the text, his action also provides an object lesson in unbelief.
Though he urged Jesus to, “save us,” most likely, he was thinking only of temporal salvation—rescue from the crucifixion. Yet, the tone of his comment shows that he did not even trust in Christ for that.
His insults, showing his unbelief in the Christ who was dying in his presence, illustrate the attitude of many today who either pray or talk about salvation—temporal or eternal—in the context of unbelief.
At first glance, it would appear that the second thief was saved by his prayer. But a closer examination of the text reveals he was saved like everyone else—by faith alone in Christ alone. His prayer was prompted by what he believed about Christ. As such, his prayer was simply an expression of his faith. He believed on Christ as Savior and he showed it by calling out to Him for special recognition in the life to come.
That said, let’s take a closer look at what the dying thief believed about the Man who was dying next to him.
He Believed Jesus Was the Messiah
His faith in Jesus as the Messiah is seen in verse 42: “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’” While the term “Lord” can mean simply “Sir,” here it clearly refers to the Messiah who would soon rule over Israel and the entire world. The apostles lost faith in Jesus coming to rule as Messiah. The dying thief did not.
But that wasn’t all.
He Believed Jesus Was Innocent
Whether the thief believed in Jesus’ sinless perfection or perfect holiness is not clearly stated. However, such a belief may be suggested by the simple fact that the thief specifically stated that Jesus was not guilty of any crimes. Again, notice verse 41: “but this man has done nothing wrong.”
He Believed Jesus Was Dying for Our Sins
The believing thief could actually see Jesus dying on the cross. He didn’t think for a moment that the death was a hoax or that the person dying was a fake. In rebuking the other thief, he said, “…you are under the same sentence of condemnation” as Jesus. That suggests that Jesus, the Son of God, was actually dying—something He had to do to fulfill Scripture and because of His love for humanity.
Notice that the first thief wanted Jesus to come down from the cross and save Himself along with the thieves. He obviously was clueless about the supreme importance of Christ’s death. Had he known or believed the Scriptures, he would have known that Jesus came to die for our sins.
On the other hand, the second thief knew Jesus was dying but he said nothing about stopping the process. Why? He looked beyond the cross and saw something that was hidden from the first thief and even the apostles. For he obviously believed there was a purpose in Jesus’ death. “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
He Believed Jesus Would Rise Again
The term “resurrection” is not mentioned in this story, yet it is strongly implied in the prayer of the believing thief. Look at verse 42: “And he was saying, ‘Lord, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.’”
The point is, the thief believed that though Jesus was dying, His death was in no way final. Unlike the others who believed that Jesus was a failure and that it was all over, the thief believed He would rise to power and rule in His kingdom.
Think about it. Such an achievement is only possible through One who has power over death, Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life. The notes of the Life Application Bible contain a striking analysis of verses 42 and 43:
The dying criminal had more faith than the rest of Jesus’ followers put together. Although the disciples continued to love Jesus, their hopes for the Kingdom were shattered…By all appearances the Kingdom was finished. How awe-inspiring is the faith of this man (the thief) who alone saw beyond the present shame to the coming glory!1
In no uncertain terms, the dying thief believed the gospel. He believed that Christ Jesus was the Messiah, that He was dying for sinners, and would rise and come again to rule.
He Believed Jesus Rewards Those Who Serve Him
The believing thief prayed a simple prayer. He said, “Lord, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” Jesus answered: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
A common interpretation of this passage is that the thief was asking for salvation. However, since he already believed on Christ and was saved at that moment, that is not what his request was about. It is likely that he desired special blessing, in the future kingdom, in spite of the fact that his entire service for Christ lasted only a few minutes.
Jesus Christ let him know that he wouldn’t have to wait much longer. In fact, He told him the blessing was only moments away. “Today,” Christ said, “you will be with Me in Paradise.” He didn’t simply say, “Today you will be in Paradise.” He indicated closeness to Himself by adding the words “with Me.”
It is clear now that in addition to believing in Jesus for eternal life, the dying thief also believed in His power and willingness to reward those who stand up for Him, even if only on their death beds.
This story illustrates the simplicity of the gospel of grace. It shows that God’s salvation is a gift that is freely given to anyone who simply believes in Jesus. Prayer may be seen as an expression of faith. But it is faith alone in Christ alone that actually secures eternal life.
Some people, like the first thief, may ask for salvation in disbelief and even mockery. They will be disappointed. Only those who believe will be saved.
So, in response to the young man who asked about the “sinner’s prayer” on the back of a gospel tract, my answer was simple: People will not necessarily be saved because they pray a certain prayer. They will only be saved when they put their trust in Jesus as the One who guarantees eternal salvation to all who simply believe in Him. That is the lesson from a dying thief.
1. Life Application Bible, ed. Ronald A. Beers (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 225.