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.