Defining Authority Part 2: The Thief Can’t Save You

If there is a more famous thief than the criminal in Luke 23 it must only be Robin Hood. But surely the hero of Sherwood Forest never saved so many as the thief on the cross and the pattern of salvation that he provided.


If you talk with enough people about the Bible eventually you’re going to encounter it. The question that in the minds of so many ends all debate over whether or not a man must obey the pattern we see in scripture for salvation. “What about the thief on the cross?”


Small point of order here, the text in Luke 23 calls him a criminal and the most accurate translations use the term robber for Matthew and Mark’s account, which is a somewhat more violent crime than petty thievery, and likely why he was on the cross to begin with. Of course we know that this really is begging the question of what does the scripture really say about salvation, and ultimately leads to a line of thinking that if accepted brings the Bible into contradiction with itself.


Still, it’s not as if we can learn nothing from the story of the thief. It shows us that Jesus had compassion, teaches the value of turning to Christ, and ultimately shows that Jesus had the power while on Earth to forgive sins (something that still troubles the sensibilities of some of our own brethren today). But the one thing the thief does not do is provide a God approved means of salvation.


While we could certainly benefit from taking a look at what the scripture has to say about those things that pertain to salvation, that’s really a discussion for another time. You see Instead of asking what about the thief; perhaps the question that we should be asking is do we really trust the scripture?


At the heart of “The Thief Paradox,” as some see it, is whether or not any one portion of scripture trumps another. Incidentally this is the same problem that many today have with red letter Bibles. The story of the cross-crucified criminal is not somehow more important because it is part of the story of Jesus. Nor are the messages of faith, repentance, and baptism somehow less important because Paul or some other epistle author penned them.


Do we believe that scripture is inspired?


All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:16-17 NASB)


Paul would go on to remind Timothy about the urgency of his evangelistic efforts because the day was coming when men would not bear with or have a tolerance for sound doctrine. When we say that the words of Paul, or James, or Peter are not as authoritative as the words of Jesus we deny the inspiration of the scripture. Was it Paul, a mere man, that wrote those words, or was Paul appealing to and being guided by a higher authority? Is not the same true for Peter in 1st Peter 3:21 and James in the 2nd chapter of his epistle?


When we assemble a doctrine based on a single example or by cobbling verses together to form a framework of belief, it is not the scripture that speaks but our own understanding. By ignoring or making passages less (or more) important than others we speak not of God’s intentions but of our desires. And when we attempt to wrap them in convenient explanations we build theologies and not an understanding of truth. We are to be followers of truth and not arbiters of those things that have been commended to us as true by the Spirit.


How sad, and yet typical of mankind, is it that a single example of Christ’s mercy, even as He was in the throes of death, would be contorted into a belief that is contrary to the very obedience that brought Him to the cross. Sometimes I wonder if we really understand this point at all. What was the purpose of the Gethsemane prayer? Was it not to show that Jesus was obedient and humble in all things? Is this not the same humble obedience of which Paul speaks in Philippians 2? It is humble obedience that he calls on us not only to imitate but also to adopt into our way of thinking. Is that not the pressing that he refers to in the next chapter?


Obedience From The Heart


What of those other passages that “seem” to contradict one another passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:14-26. Any contradiction in scripture has been introduced by the doctrines of men, or to say it another way man does not uncover contradictory passages by coming to truth; he creates them by adopting error.


It would be easy to turn our gaze toward exposing denominational error, but the hard work does not begin until we turn the lens on ourselves. When we ignore what the scripture says or brush it away as if unimportant, then we commit the very same heresy as others. We place error over truth.


When we do not hold our brothers and sisters in proper regard are we any less an apostate than the one who denies the importance of baptism? When we are neglectful of our spiritual duties in the word of God, are we really so different than the one who believes in doctrines that purport the preservation of the saints.


When the truth is reduced merely to outward manifestations of righteousness, and only then as we choose them, we are no less neglectful of our salvation than the one who finds his hope in the crucified thief. In short we are pinning our hope to the wrong cross. If we are to be His disciples then we must understand that we are to follow in belief and in deed. We are to keep His ways and not our own ideas on authority. Only then do we truly understand what it means to take up our cross and follow Him.