I ask you to read the following narrative and consider, how one of the thieves hanging on a cross beside Jesus was saved (e.g. delivered to everlasting life – Paradise).
Luke 23:32-42 (HCSB)
32 Two others – criminals – were also led away to be executed with Him.
33 When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided His clothes and cast lots.
35 The people stood watching, and even the leaders kept scoffing: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One!”
36 The soldiers also mocked Him. They came offering Him sour wine
37 and said, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
38 An inscription was above Him: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”
40 But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment?
41 We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”
First of all, let’s debunk a myth that the place called the Skull aka Calvary (Golgotha in Hebrew) was a hill. While traditional, this doesn’t have any scriptural or archaeological evidence to support it. My family and I were there in Jerusalem in 2015. All we know from scripture was that the place was a public place, that it was outside the original Jerusalem walls, and that it was in a place where would people would pass by (Matt 27:39).
So, what did the thief on the cross do to be saved?
While the thief did not confess all his sins so he could be saved, he did acknowledge his guilt. He acknowledged that he deserved the punishment that the two thieves were receiving. In this, he demonstrated humility (God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble). He certainly didn’t lead a life that was worthy of being saved to everlasting life.
More importantly, he didn’t follow a prescribed formula for salvation.
I know a woman who demonstrates solid Christian character and was saved by Jesus appearing to her in a dream. Jesus introduced himself to the dreamer, she believed and was saved. I also have heard of hundreds of encounters through dreams of Jesus in Muslim nations around the world.
I would suggest that the thief’s salvation came by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
I would also suggest that the two thieves are a picture of the separation of the sheep from the goats. One enters in (on the right) due to their faith, the other is shut out (on the left) because of their unbelief and rejection of a substitute.
I would offer that the thief demonstrated two things by his words.
1) He acknowledged that Jesus was Lord. Those who were mocking him (blasphemeo in the Greek), did not fear God. This man asked the other criminal, “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment?” The thief, in saying “this man has done nothing wrong,” recognized the innocence of Jesus. Did he know that Jesus was to be an innocent offering for his sin, we wonder? Whether he knew this by the spirit or not, he recognized that this King of the Jews was going to come into His kingdom, and therefore be Lord (which means ruler or master by the way).
2) He had faith in His resurrection. Recall that the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” In this statement, the thief is acknowledging that Jesus will be resurrected. The thief knew that no one survives an execution on a Roman cross, especially one that had been brutally beaten and scourged. In the request to remember him, the thief was taking a risk and exercising some faith which is pleasing to God.
I believe this thief was saved because of his faith in the resurrection and Jesus as Master of a coming Kingdom along with the gift (grace) of God.
I would suggest that Paul writes about a similar pattern for salvation in Romans 10:8-13:
Romans 10:8-13 (HCSB)
8 On the contrary, what does it say? The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. This is the message of faith that we proclaim:
9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
10 One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.
11 Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,
12 for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.
13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
In verse 9, we see that faith in Jesus’ resurrection and acknowledgement of Jesus as being God are what saves a soul from separation from God. The Greek word for Lord in the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is ‘kyrios’ for Master or recognizing that one greater than you has the power and authority to decide. Trusting that Jesus as being Master brings honor to God the Father (John 5:24). The Greek word for Jesus is transliterated ‘Isousâ’ and comes from the Hebrew name ‘Yeshua’ meaning to save and deliver.
In sharing all this, my intention is not to come up with another formula, but rather something I found interesting to reflect on. We are saved by the grace that is a gift of God, and the faith in the resurrection and acknowledgement of Jesus as Master of our lives.
God demonstrates through scripture that He is better and bigger than the formulas and boxes we constrain him to. What formulas and boxes need to be undone for you?