Conversion: Thief on the Cross & Discerning Memes

About a month ago, there was a quote meme flying around my social media circle attributed to Phillip Yancey:

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The meme got my attention because on the surface, it sounds encouraging and Christiany, but a closer look reveals a misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of the account of the thief on the cross, and therefore perpetuates incorrect theology.  This meme is a perfect example of why believers need to use discernment, and practice like the Bereans who searched the scriptures to see if it were so (Acts 17:11).  

Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather, it is the difference between right and almost right.”  C.H. Spurgeon

The first issue I have with the quote is the first sentence.  It comes across as if Mr. Yancey sees the thief’s fear as a negative, or wrong motivation for conversion.  As if it somehow cheapens the transaction.  That simply cannot be supported by scripture.  The bible is clear that fleeing the wrath to come is a valid and logical reason to believe the gospel.  Matthew 10:28 comes to mind, where Jesus himself says “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” If people do not recognize that they are sinners, and sinners will be punished, then how is the good news, good news?  It is good news that we can avoid going to the hell we most assuredly deserve!  This is what makes grace so amazing, amen?

The second issue I have with the quote, is the listing of “doing”, seemingly meant to undermine or oversimplify the thief’s conversion.  This misses the point completely.  All of the essential elements of conversion are present:

  • The thief *recognized* that he was a sinner who deserved just punishment, and that Jesus was not a sinner and was completely innocent
  • The thief submitted to Jesus’ Lordship in that he recognized His authority over a kingdom
  • The thief placed his faith in Jesus to remember him in His kingdom (eternity)

These facets of conversion are evidence that the thief bore fruit in keeping with salvation, even in a very limited amount of earthly time.  What amazing grace!  The account of the thief is not so much about last minute conversions, as it is about glorifying God in showing that He is the one who opens and regenerates hearts, even in seemingly impossible situations!

I agree with Mr. Yancey’s statement that we are saved by what Jesus has done for us, not what we do (as in trying to earn salvation through works) for Him.  I hope this has been a helpful and instructive exercise for you, in how we need to closely evaluate all things in light of scripture.  It is the more sure Word. (2 Peter 1:19)

Soli Deo Gloria!

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