Whenever Protestants argue with Roman Catholics or Orthodox, the repentant thief always gets thrown into the conversation. “Well, he had faith alone and that saved him!” In response to this contention, I have heard bad counter arguments all over the place ranging from the thief being justified by his works (with mental gymnastics as to how his words were works of some sort) to truly tragic assertions that the thief went to Purgatory.
When I pray before communing, perhaps the most repeated prayer is: “Like the thief I will confess Thee, Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.” What is the significance of the repentant thief in Orthodox Christianity and how should we respond to the Protestant interpretations of his words?
A Reflection on the Thief. The other day I was watching Passion of the Christ and was especially touched by the scene with the repentant thief:
What I found particularly poignant was the delivery by the actor. It seems to me that the meaning of line was that the thief was so distraught over his own sinfulness and convinced of God’s justice, that he had no doubt over his punishment. He was merely content to literally be remembered by Jesus Christ in Heaven–not to be in Heaven itself (Luke 23:42).
To be a fond memory was sufficient in the repentant thief’s mind. He deserved his punishment and sought no escape, contrary to the other thief who mocked Jesus with the crowd asking that he be freed from his cross (Matt 27:44).
We all know how the story ends–instant Heaven for the thief. He approached God with the empty hands of faith. The thief desired not even forgiveness. He was content to be with the Savior in any capacity, even if he was merely a memory in the Man-God’s mind.
The extraordinary nature of the thief’s faith seems so much different than what I normally hear called “faith.”
If you would have asked me a couple years ago (to be honest, even if you ask me now), whether or not I think I am going to Heaven or Hell, my feeling is a certainty: Heaven. To me, it is a logical deduction. I love Christ, I trust in Him, and Heaven is where He promises such people will be.
Calvinists would share this sort of confidence. Faith alone saves, not any sort of work, and so we can have full confidence that we will stand righteous before God, because God clothes us with the righteousness of Christ. They point to the thief as their Exhibit A.
However, upon deeper reflection, I find this profoundly inconsistent with the example of the repentant thief. The thief does not go home justified because he is clothed with “alien righteousness.” Rather, he goes home justified because of the distinct character of his faith.
Clearly, the thief is not even looking to even be saved. Rather, he believes in Christ and is so convinced of His righteousness that he accepts His judgement. Nevertheless, he loves Christ so much that he wants to be with Christ eternally somehow, someway. It is this type of faith that saves, whether or not it has time to manifest itself in works.
Ramifications of the Preceding. What a Calvinist (and even some Roman Catholics that are merit-obsessed do not understand) is that the thief did not need merit or “earn his way into heaven.” He did not need to be clothed with an “alien righteousness,” or have the righteousness of Christ with the saints and his own works credited to him in some sort of righteousness accounting trick.
No. The thief was righteous because the character of His faith was profoundly Christlike. It was sacrificial, just, humble, unconditional in its love–what ascetics work for years in prayers, obediences, and self-denial by the grace of God the repentant thief had in a moment in time.
The thief was truly righteous, because He possessed “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Not a mere belief, but an intrinsic part of his character and very being. Our eternity is being “transformed into the image of God,” what we call in Orthodoxy Theosis (2 Cor 3:18). The thief, through faith, had exhibited this transformation as his faith had made him Christlike.
Christlikeness is what saves. One cannot earn Christlikeness. One must follow the teachings of the Scriptures–continual repentance, desiring God before all things, unconditional love, and complete reliance upon the grace of God.
As Saint John Chrysostom writes:
For to abstain from stealing and murdering is trifling sort of acquirement, but to believe that it is possible for God to do things impossible requires a soul of no mean stature, and earnestly affected towards Him; for this is a sign of sincere love. For he indeed honors God, who fulfils the commandments, but he does so in a much greater degree who thus follows wisdom by his faith. The former obeys Him, but the latter receives that opinion of Him which is fitting, and glorifies Him, and feels wonder at Him more than that evinced by works (Comments Rom 4:3).
Clearly, the thief had “a soul of no mean stature and earnestly affected towards Him.” His faith worked through love (Gal 5:6) and this faith saves. We believe by grace (Eph 2:8) and repent by grace (Phil 1:27). All we contribute is a willingness to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), though this will too is from God (Phil 2:13).
Some Remarks on Saint John Chrysostom’s Interpretation of Luke 23:42. Saint John Chrysostom gives us a very important interpretation of the passage:
Here then might one see the Savior between the thieves weighing in the scales of justice faith, and unbelief. The devil cast Adam out of Paradise. Christ brought the thief into Paradise before the whole world, before the Apostles. By a mere word and by faith alone he entered into Paradise, that no one after his sins might despair of entrance. Mark the rapid change, from the cross to heaven, from condemnation to Paradise, that you may know that the Lord did it all, not with regard to the thief’s good intention, but His own mercy.
Is the preceding the same as the Protestant position? No. We have to understand the words “faith alone” consistently with how Chrysostom defined faith.
Suffice it to say (and we can even infer the same from his comments on Rom 4:3), Chrysostom is emphatic that faith is not mere intellectual-assent. He writes elsewhere, “For although Jesus says, ‘This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God,’ we must not think that merely uttering the words is enough to save us.”
We have to understand what the “faith alone” that Saint Chrysostom is. It is ultimately a character-trait–it is part of who we are. We need this character trait to be saved.
This is why Saint Paul can write about by being saved “through faith…and not of works” and yet absolutely requires specific kinds of repentance (sexual morality, hard work, taking care of parents, and numerous other examples.) Doing the right thing (i.e. good works) is not diametrically opposed to faith, or an addition to faith, but it is part of faith.
In short, Chrysostom is saying that it is through faith alone, a profound trust in and desire for Christ that permeates our very being, that saves.
What Does That Mean For Us? We do not die soon after having faith in Christ. Most of us work our whole lives and beg God for the grace to increasingly have this faith, a closeness and love for God. This is the efficacy of fastings, right living, and continual repentance. They husband our faith and help it deepen within us. Further, these good works are awards in of themselves, as partaking in Christlikeness without hypocrisy is our eternal reward.
Yet, the saintly thief did this all in a moment. His great love and great faith saved him instantly. It was not a credited legal righteousness that saved him. It was Christ in Him through faith. This is why he is remembered as a great saint.
Click here to read Saint John Maximovich on the same subject.
Scripture says we are saved by grace (Titus 3:7) through faith (Eph 2:8) and through sanctification (2 Thes 2:13). It does not say we are saved through faith alone. The thief on the cross who repented did not undergo sanctification – we can say he was saved through faith, but not through faith alone. Faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 4:3,5 etc) but it does not say Abraham was declared righteous as the Reformers taught.
There is a sense he was saved by “faith alone” if we follow what the rationale of Saint John Chrysostom. I was trying to offer what that rationale was.
I believe that the RC system of merits needs to be re-evaluated by some (because I believe some RCs to be Orthodox in this and the catechism to be Orthodox in soteriology) that a merit is not something earned. It is simply a reward for goodness. Period. So, we don’t “merit heaven” as in “earn heaven” but rather are “rewarded heaven.” The reward of heaven is Christlikeness. Clearly, the thief had this when he confessed and he enjoyed eternally what he had already obtained in this world by grace.
What you wrote about merit is what the Church teaches. Just read Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2006 to 2009 and I did explain that to you sometime back. CCC 2009 says “The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness” and “our merits are God’s gifts”.
I am aware of that, which is why I don’t know why you disagree with the article 🙂
I did not disagree with what you wrote. What you wrote you is against the concept of imputed righteousness of Christ on the repented thief based on faith alone – and that is what the Reformers taught.
that is true. it is worth saying faith alone is salvific apart from any concept of imputed righteousness.
Good article, Craig. One detail it looks to me you missed to address is Christ’s response to the thief. It looks like Christ gives at least to say comfort to the good thief for his sorrow.
Something I find particularly interesting because if you’d ask Orthodox ascetics, or see movies about them (like Ostrov, i.e. the Islander) it looks like many ascetics affirm that they contentiously are in the ‘spiritual battle’, yet none would talk about comfort.
What do you think? God Bless!
When I saw the Island I was greatly disturbed by how saintly the man was and how he was hoping God would have mercy on him before he died. (Another movie, about a priest who evangelized during WW2 and then was sent to the Gulag takes a more hopeful view of death https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9E8BMZDFN0).
I think we need to emphasize both fear and comfort. We have examples of saints that die and are confident of their salvation. We also have examples of saints who die begging for mercy. THe thief was the latter (amongst others obviously), and so the latter is okay even if Protestants tend to find this faithless, as if faith is a confidence game.
In my own personal spirituality, for better or for worse, I am the former. Perhaps I am not taking seriously enough my own sin and I should be more humble. So, in short, we should see moves like “the Island” and see their “spiritual battle” as a sign of humility and not necessarily of a lack of confidence in God’s grace.
Very well written Craig,
The Council of Trent teaches as follows:
“In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously.
And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.”
Consequently, having this faith – and being baptised under normal circumstances – we are purified of our sins, and were we to die at that point, we would, like the good thief, go directly to heaven. However, with time and because of our human nature, our weakness, we fall into sin again and are in need of further repentance, and God puts for us the good works that he has prepared for us to do, and doing them further strenghens us in our faith and gives us perseverance to continue on the right road.
We are not with the man Jesus for Him to grant us salvation by faith alone even though the thief acknowledged Jesus as a King with a Kingdom. Romans 10:8-10 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: that 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. For with your heart you believe and are justified, and with your mouth you confess and are saved.
You are indeed saved, for now, but you must persevere till the end if you are to inherit the kingdom.
This is a good article. It goes with Jesus’ continual refrain “your faith has saved you.” If you look at each episode in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says this, the person with faith has shown determination to be with Jesus, to love and thank Him.
“The Protestant view.” Hmm. That’s like trying to find the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack. Oh, how I wish for the day that there was “a” Protestant view. Well, actually, no. All the various meanderings let the truth stand out like a bas-relief painting.
Anyway, very good post! Though the salvific nature of “faith alone” is not the easiest dynamic to nail down, St. John Chrysostom hit the nail on the head (though, St Paul did too for that matter). So, though I do ascribe to salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-10) – even faith alone (I mean, can we really (re)commend ourselves to the perfectly holy God we love and serve?) – I find the transformation into Christlikeness that that faith produces (either by the Spirit – Romans 8:13; or the seed of God planted deep within us – 1 John 3:9 … most likely both) is the key to this whole thing, and it is truly quite miraculous and divinely gracious.
Craig: I was wondering about my next blog piece. I believe the Lord has led me to it. I’ll undoubtedly be citing you. Take care, brother!
What you have just articulated, is the Reformed doctrine of Sola Fide. It’s clear that you hate to admit it, which is why you slander the protestants and reformers in saying our version of Sola Fide is mere intellectual ascent (which is absolutely not true and I’m going to be charitable and assume you don’t know what you’re talking about) in an effort to pretend like you or the East Orthodox Church have a different doctrine of faith “alone” to explain the thief on the cross when in fact it’s not different at all. The righteousness of the thief (being an alien one or not) is a topic over a different doctrine, but whatever righteousness it is, you admit it’s triggered by faith alone (the kind of genuine life-changing faith that you just talked about) which was the doctrine that Luther said was the article upon which the church stands or falls. Welcome to the Reformation.
Not really The righteousness here is not forensic!
Just want to throw out some comments. Both Catholic and Orthodox have a place for the idea of “faith alone.” Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, and Aquinas have that language in some places. The problem is that they believe faith has a quality and is not merely an empty hand and instrument through which a righteous status is counted to us. In the New Testament, both Paul and James taught that initial faith must be completed in good works by the Spirit in order to be finally saving.
The thief was the very first to believe that Jesus was king, not just “the Son of God”.
Paul and Silas told the jailer who asked “What must I do to be saved?” replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…”
Isn’t the same to proclaim Him ‘Lord’ as it was for the thief to refer to His Kingdom? Jesus was mocked and tortured and called “the King of the Jews”, but the thief believed that He was, and was saved.