Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved
- Sts. Paul and Silas (Acts 16:31a)
A classmate and I have been meeting with a group of unchurched kids from San Bernardino for Bible studies for almost two years now. It has been a challenging and rewarding ministry. Recently we discussed a passage from the Gospel of Luke which gives me much joy and hope. It is a passage that speaks strongly against those religious people who would add in various works or rituals or ceremonies as prerequisites for salvation in Jesus Christ.
The passage we talked about was Luke 23:39-43. This passage recounts the crucifixion of our Lord and it is here in Luke's gospel that we get some added details about Christ's interactions with those who were also crucified near Him.
As we've done this Bible study with these kids it has been our goal to preach the gospel every time we meet. We aren't trying to give them some kind of Sunday school style moralism where we just tell them they should obey their parents because the Bible says so or something like that. Of course we encourage them to be good people and to do the right thing but we also try constantly to convey the truth that we can never live up to God's standards and that we are all guilty sinners, deserving of hell, before His perfect holiness.
This is where we tried to start when we discussed this passage from Luke. We actually started in Isaiah, with the prophet's vision of God in Isaiah chapter 6. We read Isaiah 6:1-5 and tried to convey a sense of God's greatness and holiness. We were on a large hill, overlooking Loma Linda, Redlands and San Bernardino when we did our study so we asked these kids to imagine looking out at an enormous throne of God, larger than the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, with angels encircling it, shielding their faces from His glory. After talking about Isaiah's fear before the throne of God where he said, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)," we asked them to imagine standing alone before God's throne, being judged. We pointed out that Isaiah, who said, "Woe is me!," was a "good guy" when compared to most people. He was a prophet of God. He wrote a book of the Bible. We asked them, "if Isaiah (a "good" guy) was fearful before God's throne, what hope would a man who had been a criminal his whole life have before the throne of God?" I don't remember their answers but it was at this point that we had one of them read the passage from Luke 23.
After reading the passage, ending with verses 42 and 43, "And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And he said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise,'" we asked them, at this point what did the thief have to do to get to heaven? The obvious answer to this question was "nothing." We then asked, after this thief died and he was standing before God's throne, what would have been his hope of salvation? We asked specifically whether some good deed he had done in life would be his hope for salvation when he stood before God's throne. Their answer was that Jesus said he would be in paradise that day and because we have taught them that Jesus is God, obviously His word is trustworthy, therefore Christ's decree would be the thief's hope. We next asked whether the thief had to pay for his sins or be punished by God for his sins. It is true that he was being crucified for his crimes but I think they realized that if this thief was going to be in paradise that day then he was not going to pay for his sins or be punished by God. We then asked if someone else payed for the thief's sins or if someone else suffered in his place. I think no other place in Scripture illustrates more vividly the substitutionary atonement, "and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him (Isaiah 53:6b and 10a)." At this point we again shared the gospel with them.
In our study we did not forget that "we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10)." I used our taking time weekly to lead a Bible study as an example of obedience to God. But I said that this obedience to God was only out of gratitude for the cross and His grace and had nothing to do with any hope of earning or contributing to my salvation. And I think the same is true for that thief on the cross who was saved by grace alone through faith alone. Had he somehow been taken off of that cross prior to his death but after putting his faith in Christ, I certainly believe he would have been baptized, he would have participated in the Lord's Supper and he would have led a life characterized by repentance. But it would have been clear that none of these works had earned his salvation. They would have been things done in love for God in response to his salvation and because he was a new creation in Christ.
The fact that some who claim to follow Christ debate about whether we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone versus being saved by our works or some contribution of our works amazes me on the one hand but doesn't surprise me on the other. It amazes me because I think this truth, of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone is essential to the gospel and is expressed so clearly by the apostle Paul, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9)." It doesn't surprise me though, that this would be controversial, because the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone runs so contrary to the natural way of thinking according to our sin nature. I think this is evident in the fact that every other world religion, as far as I know, is some form of works-righteousness and this heart of the gospel is under constant attack even within Christendom and has been since Pentecost. This heart of the gospel which is, "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes," that salvation is by God's grace alone through faith in Christ alone and purchased for us by His atoning death, has even been mostly lost at times in the history of the Church. This was the case prior to the Reformation, that great outpouring of God's grace which we celebrate today. And I think that today even in so-called Evangelicalism most churches assume that everyone already believes the gospel and consequently the true gospel is rarely preached. But I also think the simple heart of the gospel is such a tremendous and glorious truth which we are so prone to forget or underestimate that it is something we can never get past and must constantly hear preached.
When I first started thinking about this text from Luke as a defense of salvation by grace alone through faith alone I wanted to make sure that other Christians had seen the same thing in this passage. So it was a great joy to read commentaries on this passage by two men of God, both of whom I respect greatly. The first I read was by John Calvin. Calvin wrote:
And this confirms more fully what I formerly suggested, that if any man disdain to abide by the footsteps of the robber, and to follow his path, he deserves everlasting destruction, because by wicked pride he shuts against himself the gate of heaven. And, certainly, as Christ has given to all of us, in the person of the robber, a general pledge of obtaining forgiveness, so, on the other hand, he has bestowed on this wretched man such distinguished honor, in order that, laying aside our own glory, we may glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone.
Calvin calls us all to follow in the path of the robber and glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone. Calvin has many other wonderful things to say about this passage in his commentary and, Lord willing, I will quote some more of what he wrote in the coming week. The second commentator I ran into, which in some ways brought me even more joy than Calvin's writing, is a great Patristic voice, John Chrysostom who lived between 349 and 407 A.D. Chrysostom was the Archbishop of Constantinople and writes with great clarity on the subject of salvation through faith alone. Chrysostom in his Sermon 7 on Genesis writes:
Let us see, however, whether the brigand gave evidence of effort and upright deeds and a good yield. Far from his being able to claim even this, he made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone...
I'll also post a longer and more complete quote from Chrysostom in the coming week.
Happy Reformation Day!