The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers and expressed a fear he had for them. “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2 Corinth 11:3) The fundamental core meaning of simplicity is understood by the following words: plain, easy to understand, not involved or complicated, unmixed or uncompounded. One particular definition of simplicity is of great value when it comes to the salvation God has given to man: consisting of one element or part only; not combined or complex. Why would a God, whose desire is to save fallen man, fashion a salvation that was complicated, confusing, convoluted, elaborate, multifarious or circuitous? He wouldn’t but Satan would in order to destroy man; hence Paul’s fear of Satan beguiling the Corinthians from the simplicity of Christ.
The saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words. Christ’s death upon the cross amongst two criminals is a poignant yet explicit picture of the fate that awaits all mankind. It is the elemental disclosure of salvation found and rejected in a most vivid yet simplistic depiction.
“Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.” Matthew 27:39
“And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.” Mark 15:27-28
“And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” Luke 23:33
“And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” John 19:17-18
The four gospel writers underscore that Christ was crucified between the two thieves, one on his right hand and one on the left. All of mankind and their eternal state are represented by these two rebels. If the above gospel descriptions were all we had concerning the deaths of these two then we might conclude, perhaps with an uneasy hesitancy, that the thief on the right side of Christ did somehow obtain eternal salvation based upon Matthew 25:31-33. “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” It would be a circumstantial inference at best. However, the Lord did not leave us to a state of conjecture. He purposely elucidated salvation and its true simplicity.
Matthew relates that certain priests mocked Christ about trusting God and saving himself as he hung from the cross (27:41-43). But then Matthew adds this additional note: “The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” (verse 44) Both thieves scorned Christ and rail upon him. This is a picture of the scripture truth stated by Paul in Romans 3:9-18. “We have already stated the charge: both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin. As it is written, ‘There is no righteous person, not even one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who looks for God. They all turned away. They have become worthless together. There is no one who shows kindness. There is not even one. Their throat is a grave that has been opened. They are deceitful with their tongues, and the poison of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are quick to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and they don’t know the way of peace. There is no fear of God in their view of the world.’” At this point both these criminals were enemies of Christ and lost. Understanding this spiritual condition as applicable to all mankind is critical to receiving salvation.
Jesus gave a very important principle in John 3 about the Holy Spirit and salvation, that is, being born again. Verse 8 reads: “The wind blows (breathes) where it wills; and though you hear its sound, yet you neither know where it comes from nor where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” How and when the Holy Spirit does his work upon a heart is unknown and hidden from the sight and understanding of human beings. This truth is emphasized by the wind blowing where it wills and no one knowing where it comes from or is going. But the howl of the wind or the rustling of the leaves is the manifestation of the wind’s movement. Even so the change in a person’s life is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s work upon the heart of man. Sometimes the change can be instant and dramatic. Such was the change that overcame one of the two thieves crucified with Christ. Let us now turn to the detailed account in the gospel of Luke to understand how one of these thieves received salvation and thus, eternal life.
“And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
We know from Matthew that both malefactors started out railing against Jesus. But one of them suddenly came to his senses and realized his eternal fate would soon be a reality before the day ended. I believe this realization was the hidden work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of one of those thieves. This passage has been used to teach deathbed repentance and that is fine. BUT THIS PASSAGE IS NOT ABOUT DEATHBED REPENTANCE BUT THE SIMPLICITY OF SALVATION.
Consider the words of the repentant thief. The Holy Spirit works this understanding into every heart he is preparing for salvation and eternal life. First the repentant thief acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his execution. He confessed no sins nor offered excuses for his sinful life. Every person must understand and acknowledge their sinful state and the just condemnation of spiritual death they are under, which is eternal separation from the presence of God. In the Epistle of Jude it is said Christ will return to execute judgment on all sinners. Verse 15 adds “to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” Every soul must come to this understanding of its spiritual state and acknowledge it before Christ. The word ‘convince’ means to move by argument or evidence to belief, agreement, consent, or a course of action. It can also be translated ‘convict’ which can mean to impress with a sense of guilt. Those who experience salvation, the new birth, will be fully convinced of their sinful state in this life. Those who go into eternal death and separation from God will also be fully convinced of their sinful state but that will happen at the judgment seat of Christ. It will then be too late for salvation.
Secondly, the thief acknowledged the innocence of Christ and the injustice of his execution upon the cross. This thief did not understand the spiritual ramifications of Christ’s cross and death. No one did because the Holy Spirit had not yet been given. But the fact that he declared Christ crucifixion and death undeserved and unjust is God’s way of demonstrating and revealing to us that sinful man must look to Christ and acknowledge him if there be any hope of salvation.
Lastly, the thief understood that he was completely powerless to save himself so he looked to Jesus and asked to be remembered when Christ came into his kingdom. It is obvious that the thief was thinking of a kingdom beyond this earthly life. Salvation pertains to the realm of the spirit, the kingdom of God within, and life to come. It does not pertain to the circumstances of this present earthly life. Consider the other thief and what he requested of Christ, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” He was concerned only about his earthly life. And to him Christ was just a means for deliverance from his desperate circumstance. What is chilling and should be much considered was Christ’s response to that second thief. There wasn’t any! Jesus completely ignored him, even with not so much as a glance his way.
Christ is often portrayed as the deliverer from all the problems and difficulties of this present life. But true salvation is not about the circumstances and their mitigation in this temporal life but the eternal state of sinful man. Consider what John wrote of Christ. “Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Many people believed in him because they saw the miraculous signs he did. But Jesus did not trust them, because he knew how all people think. He did not need anyone to tell him what a person was like. He already knew.” (John 2:23-25) How is that possible? How could Christ turn away from those who believed in him? He did so because those who believed were only interested in this temporal life and what Christ miracles could provide for them here on earth. They were not interested in eternal matters. Thus Christ would not commit to them just as he would not commit to the thief who only wanted deliverance from his current circumstance.
Christ response to the repentant thief’s request was simply a promise made. “And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” He did not require the thief to keep commands, be baptized, join a church, stay out of sin, witness to anyone or love God with his whole heart. Why? Because salvation is not about man making promises to God and performing them but God making promises to man and performing them. This thief’s only hope for eternal life was to wholly depend on the promise made by Christ and trust him to perform it. Christ’s promise was plain, easy to understand, not involved or complicated. It was one element or part only. Hence the simplicity of Christ is the simplicity of salvation. It is about God doing for man, not man doing for God.
But here-in is the rub. What God has made simple man tries to complicate and enlarge. And the chief instigater behind man's efforts is Satan. Consider the prayer of Jesus upon the return of those who he sent out to preach that the Kingdom of God was near. “At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.’” (Luke 10:21) Why does God reveal salvation to babes but hide it from the wise and intelligent? Babes come to the table with no agenda. They are a blank sheet. They come with nothing but their need. Just like the repentant thief on the cross. On the other hand the wise and intelligent bring their thoughts, opinions, experience, the need to add on or improve, the need to be admired as wise and intelligent. Thus the more complicated and diverse they can make salvation the more the masses will be dependent upon them. They pollute salvation and make it difficult and works based. It started right after Christ ascension with those in the Body of Christ demanding circumcision in addition to Christ for salvation. And it has gone from bad to worse throughout the ages.
The simplicity of Christ is the simplicity of salvation. Man must acknowledge his sinful state and the inability to deliver himself from such a condition. He must look to Christ only and trust in the Lord’s promise to receive all who come unto him. “All whom My Father gives (entrusts) to Me will come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will most certainly not cast out [I will never, no never, reject one of them who comes to Me].” (John 6:37) Man must depend entirely upon Christ and his promises for eternal salvation. He must never look to, trust in or depend upon himself. May the Holy Spirit reveal this truth to the hearts of babes and grant them eternal life through Christ, the simplicity of our salvation.