Radio Sermons of H. Robert Williams
The Thief on the Cross- Radio Sermon #26
Ladies and Gentlemen, we should like to begin our study today by reading the three statements of the Great Commission as they are recorded in the New Testament. First, in Matthew 28:18-20, we read, "Jesus said, all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth, go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo I am with you always even unto the end of the world. Amen." In Mark 16:15-16, Jesus is quoted as saying, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, he that believeth not shall be damned. In Luke 24, verses 46, 47, again we read, "Thus is behooved the Christ to suffer and to arise from the dead the third day that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
After the death of Christ upon the cross there was no exception to his requirement that folks obey the gospel. The Bible teaches us plainly that we are saved by the blood of Christ. Faith is not our Savior. Jesus Christ is our Savior, but we must have faith in order to be saved (Heb. 16:6). Repentance is not our Savior. Jesus Christ is our Savior but we must repent or perish (Luke 13:5). Baptism is not our Savior. Jesus Christ is our Savior but he has made baptism a condition of salvation (Mark. 16:16). These conditions of salvation are fully demonstrated in the stories related in the Book of Acts. This book, commonly spoken of as the book of conversion, illustrates and demonstrates the principles involved.
In the 16th chapter of Acts we read the story of the Philippian jailor to whom Paul addressed this language, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved an thy house" (Acts 16:31). The jailor was told to believe inasmuch as he was before an unbeliever. In the second chapter of Acts we read that the Pentecostians who already believed were told to repent and be baptized. In Acts the 22nd chapter we read the story of Saul of Tarsus who was a penitent believer. Ananias, a gospel preacher, found him in an attitude of prayer and said, "Now, why tarriest thou, arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Christ is the head of the church. He is the King of the Kingdom and salvation is promised to all who obey Him. The foregoing acts of obedience are charged to us by our Lord. "Then as many as gladly received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41).
The mind of man often rebels against one or more of them. Most folks who make any pretense at religion at all say they are glad to believe, they are willing to repent, but when it comes to the ordinance of baptism, they find all sorts of excuses to make the sacred ordinance unnecessary. But why should we rebel here? Why should not anyone desire to be baptized since our Savior requires it: Some have made fun of the ordinance. But surely it is because they haven't understood the import of the text. For example, consider Colossians 2:12, "Buried with him by baptism wherein also ye are risen with him through faith in the operation of God who hath raised him from the dead." Consider Romans 6:4-6, "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection." When we are led to understand that baptism into the name of Jesus Christ is for, or in order to, the remission of sins and that it is a picturing of the death, the burial and the resurrection of Christ it is no longer a matter of jest. Finding it among the commandments of our Lord, our minds should be forever settled on the matter.
Nevertheless, despite these facts, some seek to avoid the ordinance of baptism and when we insist upon the necessity of obedience to all the commands of the Lord, someone is ready to inquire, but what about the thief on the cross? Well, what about the thief on the cross? That sounds like a good question. Let's turn to the 23rd chapter of Luke and read a verse or two. Verse 32 says, "And there were also two other malefactors led with him to be put to death." In verse 39 and following, "And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him saying, if thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we received the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."
Now here is the argument that is commonly drawn from the 23rd chapter of Luke. Three points are usually made:
1. The thief on the cross was saved.
2. The thief on the cross had not been baptized.
3. Therefore, I can be saved without baptism.
If nothing else should be said, that's certainly going a long way around to avoid a simple command of the Lord. A careful look at the argument will reveal that it is a complete failure as neither the major nor the minor premise can be substantiated. The conclusion, therefore, is baseless. It would not require an extended argument to prove that Paradise is not heaven, but for the sake of getting the matter before you, let us grant that the thief was saved. Even then the second point fails, for no man living can prove that he had not been baptized. It is an assumption that is absolutely unwarranted by the evidence at hand.
In this connection some interesting observations may be made upon the ministry of John the Baptist. In Matthew 3, we are told that there "went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea and all the region round about Jordan and were baptized of him in Jordan confessing their sins. Thousands were baptized -- who can say that this man was not among them?
Both propositions one and two are without force for no man can prove that they are true. Nevertheless for the purpose of furthering the discussion we shall grant them and move on to the principle point.
Here is the argument: Since the thief was saved without baptism, I can be saved without baptism. In the very center of everything which pertains to the christian system stands the Cross of Calvary. Everything before points forward to that event and everything since that day gains its significance from what happened there. We cannot ignore the meaning and purpose of the Cross. It was there that the law of Moses ended and was taken out of the way to make room for the new covenant. The Hebrew letter says that he taketh away the first that he may establish the second (Heb. 10:9). Here then is the transition from one system to another. Now let us discover if possible under which dispensation the thief lived. We wonder that folks want to be saved like an old corrupt thief when they could be saved like decent folks anyway. Nevertheless, we shall leave every man to his own taste. Please bear these principles in mind and we shall have occasion to return to them in the course of this discussion.
According to Hebrews 10:9 it is absolutely impossible for two laws to be in force at one and the same time. Hear it again, "He taketh away the first (that is, the old covenant) that he may establish the second (new covenant) by the which will we are sanctified." We are sanctified now by the new will through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all and the old covenant has no significance in our lives whatsoever. We repeat, we are not sanctified by the law which God gave to Moses on the frowning brow of Mt. Sinai. We are not sanctified by the Old Testament offerings, the burning of incense and the prayers and the sacrifices which they offered, we are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ upon the Cross of Calvary.
Now let us read the sixth verse of the 7th chapter of the Roman letter, "But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held, we should serve in newness of spirit and not in oldness of the letter." That should explain to us the very questions over which we are concerned. But read it again in 2 Corinthians 3:6, "Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter but of the spirit, for the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life."
Let us consider the new law or covenant as a will. Legally there are seven elements involved:
1. There must be a testator - someone desiring to make a will - that's Christ.
2. There must be something to give - in this case it is salvation.
3. There are, or may be, conditions - in this instance "Obedience to the Gospel".
4. The death of the testator must occur before the will becomes effective - this was fulfilled at the Cross.
5. Every will must be probated - Christ's will was approved and stamped for execution when He ascended to heaven.
6. Executors must be qualified - the Apostles were made eligible and approved by the descent of the spirit on Pentecost.
7. In every instance there are heirs - the gift of Christ is for whosoever will.
Before the death of Jesus upon the Cross he forgave sins upon condition, or no condition as it pleased him, but after the day of Pentecost there was no forgiveness of sins short of obedience to the commands of the gospel or submission to the conditions of the will.
But what about the thief on the cross? That question recurs again and again. We have already noticed that Christ forgave sins while he moved among men. For example, to the sinful woman who dare to anoint his feet he said, "Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee" (Luke 7:4). To Zacchaeus, the publican, he made the wonderful statement, "Today is salvation come to this house" (Luke 19:9). But neither of these instances could be cited as examples of salvation under the gospel plan. We need only to ask again, was that before or after the death of Christ? Was his will in effect or was he merely doing that which he had the right and power to do as the Son of God? The answer is obvious.
But the thief we are told was saved and that without baptism. That may or may not be so. Whether he was or wasn't has nothing to do with it. Answer this question. Was Jesus still living when the thief receive the promise of paradise? Of course, you reply, Jesus was yet alive. But said Paul, "A testament is of force after men are dead, otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. That's the answer to the question. The thief was not a subject of gospel address for the facts composting the gospel were not yet established. Why do folks always pick the thief as an example of salvation? I've never heard of one yet who wanted to be saved like the rich young ruler. Do you remember the story?
He came running to Jesus and stated that he had kept the law perfectly from his youth. Jesus saw that he lacked something and said, "Go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor and come and follow me. But he went away sorrowful for he had great possessions." No, we don't want to be saved like that. I would be too expensive. Nor will honest, informed, persons sight the case of the thief as an example of salvation under the gospel.
In the words of the New Testament we inquire again, "How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?"(Heb. 2:4). Since we have been comparing the law of Moses with the law of Christ this scriptural warning seems in order. "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the spirit of Grace?" (Heb. 10:28-29). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. In considering the Bible story of the thief on the cross as to whether he was saved or not saved, at to whether we could be saved like he was, let us make these final observations in closing. The scriptures reveal that actually Christ did not go to heaven during the three days his body was in the tomb. John 20:17 quotes Jesus after his resurrection as saying ot Mary, "Touch me not for I have not yet ascended." That's pretty conclusive. The facts are that Jesus actually went into Hades, into Paradise, the place of the dead, before the resurrection, the final judgment and eternal reward. The thief who had died on the cross was with Jesus in Hades, or Paradise, the unseen place of the dead, and after three days Jesus came forth but the thief remained there and shall remain there until the general resurrection of the dead. In that day he will be judged according to his works along with the teeming millions of the earth.
Before the cross the law of Moses was in force and it was under that law that the thief lived and died. The last will and testament of Jesus was not in force until after his will was probated on the day of Pentecost. That he could not have been baptized in the name of Jesus is obvious for, although John baptized in order to the remission of sins, he did not baptize in the name of Jesus for Jesus was not yet the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, nor yet could he say, "All power is given unto me." That the thief on the cross does not furnish an example for anyone in obedience unto salvation, is evidenced from these facts. No one save Christ has ever come from the dead and ascended into heaven. Read 1 Corinthians 15:23. The judgment marks the end of time, Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus had power while on earth to forgive sins and to pronounce rich blessings on those with whom he spoke and no lover of truth can doubt it, but since the death of the testator all must come to him through the precious will, or new testament, sealed by his blood on the Cross of Calvary. It is not for us to decide whether the thief on the cross will be saved in the end. It is for the judge of all the earth to decide. We are glad to rest the case with him. But we are required to submit to his terms of pardon as provided in his last will and testament and to serve him faithfully and devotedly in all things which he has required.
Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he charged "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). If you want to go to heaven you will obey this command.