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In Luke we read that Jesus predicted he would see one of the criminals hanging beside him in Paradise:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 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.”—Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)

Assuming being in Paradise really is equivalent with being saved, does this imply that Jesus saw religious practice as irrelevant to an individual's ulitmate fate? On the one hand, Jesus didn't place any precondition on the man, but on the other, there was precious little time for either to conduct any sort of ceremony. Should this passage be seen as an exceptional situation or merely a minimal one?

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Interesting to observe the first person to enter paradise after Christ’s death was this man, a criminal. This must say something that God wanted front-and-center in how we see the results of his death.

Going for the short answer I would say the following was not essential for salvation: being baptized, observing the Lord’s supper, going to church, witnessing, reading the Bible, having a payer life, loving ones neighbor, loving God, etc. In fact not even moving his body in any particular direction was required, let alone giving to the poor or lending a hand to a person in need. He did not even have to lift a finger, literally.

However the one thing he did do was recognize that he deserved to die and called out to Jesus in faith. One single prayer for help -- guaranteed his eternity.

This is especially powerful when we imagine this man’s life was probably just one long compilation of sins. Even during the wicked times of the Roman’s, where people watched gladiators for entertainment, he knew ‘he deserved it. Yet it did not matter.

On the other hand, in a sense we see some things seemed to change for him as soon as he confessed his faith in Jesus: He found comfort in God’s forgiveness, he happened to be at church (for Jesus was right beside him), he did not practice a life of sin after confessing his faith (even though he never got the chance), he was a witness to Christ, and he had a hope of heaven (assuming he kept believing during the next few minutes), he most likely felt love for the man Jesus, for Jesus was a kind of rescue team at the man’s darkest hour. What brave soldier is this! Comforting another man, while his own life was being sucked out of him, even while he bears the sin of the world?!

I guess that means that although nothing is required to be saved, apart form faith, anyone who does believe: wants to go to church, talk to Jesus, confess their faith, receive His comfort and have hope in heaven, etc. They will love the God that saved them.

This scene is a kind of pictorial version of this verse:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (I John 4:10)

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  • Symbolically, his feet were nailed to a cross, so he was unable to work in the flesh or in the spirit. However, he did what we are called to do: "You are my witnesses." His 'work' which validated his claim was to proclaim Christ. So when we 'work' in faith, they are not works, but acts which acknowledge God as God. – Bob Jones Jun 19 '12 at 18:31
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    I've heard before that this is a special case because the thief on the cross technically died under the old law and has no bearing on our situation when considering the new law and what we may have to do or not do in order to be saved. How does that affect your answer? – cfont Mar 24 '16 at 15:06
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This passage does not imply that Jesus saw religious practice as irrelevant to an individual's ultimate fate. This is, indeed, a minimal situation. Consider the following:


1. An individual's ultimate fate is determined according to whether or not they are righteous.

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (Joh 5:28-29)

2. God ultimately defines righteousness as faith in Himself.

And [Abram] believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; (Romans 4:22-24)

3. Faith that is genuine will manifest itself in action.

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;" notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

Yea, a man may say, "Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works."

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

4. The Scriptures reveal to us the actions that God Himself requires of us.

We call the expressed will of God requiring action on our part "the law."

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (2 Timothy 3:16)

5. The laws of God are graded according to value.

Anytime we find ourselves in a moral dilemma (a situation in which two of God's laws require us to take contradictory actions), God expects us to follow the greater law. This is complex discussion that requires a complete consideration of multiple Scriptures, but here are a few instances in which a hierarchy of value in the law is clearly exhibited.

Samuel's words to Saul, when Saul offered the sacrifice instead of waiting for the priest, God's chosen minister of the sacrifice. Sacrifices were good, and had been instituted by God, but they had been instituted in a specific manner.

And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)

Christ's justification of David when David ate the shewbread in order to save his life and the lives of the men who were with him. The ritual laws were important, but not so much as the value of human life.

And he said unto them, "Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?" (Mark 2:25-26)

For that matter, Christ's healing of people on the sabbath (the point of contention He was addressing in Mark 2:25-26), in clear violation of laws against working on the sabbath is itself a demonstration that alleviating human suffering is more important than following the law of keeping sabbath.

And he saith unto them, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?"

But they held their peace.

And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, "Stretch forth thine hand." And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. (Mark 3:4-5)

6. Jesus Christ defined for us the greatest law of all.

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, "Which is the first commandment of all?"

And Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. "And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."

And the scribe said unto him, "Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." (Mar 12:28-33)


Now, apply these given statements to the thief on the cross.

  1. He had faith in Jesus' innocence ("this man has done nothing wrong"), in Jesus' authority ("your kingdom"), and in Jesus' ability ("remember me"). It is safe to assume, from Jesus' response ("today you will be with me in Paradise") that his faith extended also to Jesus' divinity - that He was, indeed, the Son of God.

  2. His faith was demonstrated (action) by his speaking - and not just any speaking, but a vigorous form (he "rebuked" the thief who was railing).

  3. Considering the fact that the thief was confined to the cross, he was in a moral dilemma. There were many laws that called upon him to act in many ways (one of which would have been to pay restitution for whatever it was he had stolen).

If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour;

Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein:

Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found,

Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.

And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest:

And the priest shall make an atonement for him before the LORD: and it shall be forgiven him for any thing of all that he hath done in trespassing therein. (Leviticus 6:2-7)

However, he could not do any of those things because he was limited to only the actions he could take while restrained to the cross. So he was in a moral dilemma between the things he ought to do and the things he could do.

Therefore, the man was practicing religion as piously as any man who has ever been made righteous.

As to whether this is a minimal or exceptional situation: no exceptions were made for this man. He was/will be held to the same standard in the Day of Judgment as every one of us: "Did you love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength?" The situation of the thief on the cross is a minimal one because the vast majority of us have far greater opportunities to obey the many laws God has laid out for us in His Word. Not many can truly say they are in the same moral dilemma that the thief found himself.

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. This is a great first answer, but could be improved if you re-order it to work from the source passage the OP is asking about. Exegesis should move from the source passage outwards, and may use other scriptures along the way, and that helps us ensure we're reading our theology out of the text and not into it. – Steve Taylor Mar 29 '16 at 11:46
  • +1 Excellent answer. Welcome to the site! – Sola Gratia Nov 27 '18 at 23:30
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Requirements for Savation

In his testimony before Agrippa, Paul relates the commission given to him by Jesus, and then says to the king:

Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.

The following graphic summarises the requirements of salvation that Paul presented to king Agrippa:

enter image description here

A person must:

  • REPENT.
    There must be both, a recognition that somehow one's life has violated God's principles of life (commandments), and a willingness to no longer continue to do so.

  • BELIEVE the gospel. There must be an acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah, that he is the one who calls the shots, and that you are willing to submit to his rule.

  • DO WORKS befitting of your repentance.
    Repentance and belief are what you do with your heart and mind, they are internal. Works on the other hand are external, and are required to advertise the truth of what's happened within. This proof is not required by God because He already knows. It is required by yourself in the first instance, and by others in the second, to confirm that you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk also.


The Thief

Even though we have such a short account of the thief's interaction with Jesus, it is pretty obvious that all three of these conditions have been met.

  • repent -- "Dost not thou fear God ... for we receive the due reward of our deeds"

  • believe -- "... but this man hath done nothing amiss ... Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom."

  • do works befitting -- public confession that Jesus is Lord and that judgment and salvation are in his hands.

The fact that the thief knew that Jesus had done nothing amiss indicates that he must have, at some time previous, heard his teaching or been told of it by others.


Conclusion

So, yes, I believe the account does imply that Jesus saw religious practice as irrelevant to an individual's ultimate fate.

HOWEVER, if in your life's walk you have found no one else with whom to share and celebrate the joy of salvation and how it came about, and you didn't require any assistance to understand the implications of salvation for your life, then I guess you figure it'll just be you and Jesus in heaven for eternity.

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NO. Both the OP's question and the answers provided are making several presuppositions / assumptions. The picture is of a dying man on the cross next to Yehsua, and he asked Christ to remember him when He came into His kingdom. That thief recognized he was sinful and in need of forgiveness. Jesus (Yeshua) told the thief that he would be in Paradise with Jesus that day.

Many people then make the assumption when reading this scripture that as the thief asked to be remembered, and did not ask for mercy or forgiveness that Jesus made an exception and saved the thief because of his belief. Another assumption is that because the thief was dying on a cross when he asked to be remembered that there had not been time for him to be baptized / immersed.

This situation should be viewed as a logic problem. Let's put it in another context.

A condition is set for a certain group of sick people to receive an invitation to a health trial, but that only those with red tickets would be allowed to participate, and those with blue tickets were not allowed in. When the day arrived to attend the trial outside observers see one man being allowed entry and another man being turned away.

Do the observers conclude that an exception was made for the man who was allowed to enter in, or do they conclude that he had a red ticket?

This is a logic problem. Mark 16:16 set the condition for salvation.

"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (KJV)

The thief on the cross made statements that indicated his belief. Jesus told him he would be in paradise that day.

Do we conclude from this evidence that Jesus made an exception to Mark 16:16? Or, do we rightly determine that the believing thief had been baptized before he was nailed to that cross?

The other assumption is that paradise was the same as heaven. It was not. Luke 16:22-23 defines paradise as being a part of Hades called Abraham's Bosom, which was separated from the tormenting section called Tartarus, or the grave / Sheol. This was the prison area which all of the dead were held - both those that were judged righteous at their death, and those that were condemned - until Christ returned to judge the living and the dead.

Christ went to that prison of Hades to preach to those waiting the very same thing He had told His disciples / apostles - that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (1 Pet. 3:19). He wanted those souls waiting in Paradise Hades to know that it would not be long before He came to take them home.

Christ was the first fruits (1 Cor. 15:23), then those who were His at His coming. Christ told His disciples in Matt. 22 in the outline of the parable of the wedding feast that the judgment would begin after the destruction of Jerusalem. Matt. 24 & 25 provide much detail for the destruction of the temple, and the warning for the disciples to watch and flee to the mountains.

He told them that all of those things would happen in that generation (Matt. 24:34). He told them in the vernacular of the Hebrew idioms the very day the temple would be destroyed - the first of Tishri. The phrase "no man knoweth the hour" was a Hebrew saying for the Day of Trumpets. (1)

So, the judgment of Matt. 25: 41-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats happened after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. And, those sheep which had been waiting in Paradise section of Hades were taken home to heaven, and those condemned stubborn goats that had been held in torment in Tartarus were cast into outer darkness (Matt. 22:13).

Then Hades was thrown into the lake of fire / the destruction of God's judgment after the separation (Rev. 20:13-14). Christ had held the keys to the gates of Hades (Rev. 1:18) and He told them that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church (Matt. 16:18).

As His church is active and alive today, then Hades is gone. Ever since AD 70 and the destruction of that second temple in Jerusalem all those who die in the Lord ("henceforth", Rev. 14;13) are taken to heaven when we die. All those not covered by the blood of Christ's sacrifice through baptism / immersion are subjected to God's judgment and cast out (Matt. 22:13).

So, the waiting station, the holding prison of Paradise is gone. (2) (3)

Notes:

1) The Signs of the Feasts - Part II: Christ Told His Disciples When He Would Return" at ShreddingTheVeil

2) The Burning of Jerusalem & The Hadean Death at ShreddingTheVeil

3) Frequent Mistakes - Part III: The Last Day at ShreddingTheVeil

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Does the story of the thief on the cross imply that Jesus believed religious practice was unnecessary for salvation?

As the thief was not a Christian (Anointed one) he did not go to heaven as that is for the elect chosen by God to be with Jesus which started on the Day of Pentecost:-

NWT Acts 2:1-4 "Now while the day of the Festival of Pentecost was in progress, they were all together at the same place. 2 Suddenly there was a noise from heaven, just like that of a rushing, stiff breeze, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues as if of fire became visible to them and were distributed, and one came to rest on each one of them, 4 and they all became filled with holy spirit and started to speak in different languages, just as the spirit enabled them to speak."

The thief was dead and in his grave when the above happened thus not chosen to go to heaven. The Jews only believed in living forever on an earthly "paradise":-

NWT Psalm 37:29 "The righteous will possess the earth, And they will live forever on it."

&

NWT Psalm 37:9 "For evil men will be done away with, But those hoping in Jehovah will possess the earth."

&

NWt Proverbs 2:21 "For only the upright will reside in the earth, And the blameless will remain in it."

&

NWT Psalm 37:11 "But the meek will possess the earth, And they will find exquisite delight in the abundance of peace."

Which Jesus spoke of at:-

NWT Matthew 5:5 "Happy are the mild-tempered, since they will inherit the earth."

This is the "Paradise" the thief spoke of to Jesus and he will be there via the resurresction of the dead and then be taught by Jesus:-

NWT Acts 24:15 "And I have hope toward God, which hope these men also look forward to, that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous."

The "thief" will be among the "unrighteous" (Luke 23:41) to be taught God's ways on a "paradise" earth.

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