Thief on the cross, thief on the cross!
My best friend in high school was Robert Pelfrey. He was a committed Christian, and one of the coolest people I have ever known.
Robert was six feet, six inches+ tall. He had long hair. He played lead guitar in a heavy metal band. He did not have a driver’s license, but drove around town in a giant gas guzzler with a broken speedometer. He was brilliantly smart, though I can’t say he always applied himself fully to his school work. And while he was physically imposing, he was one of the kindest, most gentle men I would ever meet.
Growing up in Texas Panhandle, I was surrounded by conservative Protestants. As you might imagine, some of these folks tended towards legalism. There were all sorts of things you needed to do in order to be acceptable to them. You needed to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” you needed to go to church, you needed to tithe, you needed to go to youth group, you needed to read your Bible, you needed to refrain from the “major high school sins” (sex, drugs, drinking and smoking), etc. It was easy for these folks to cross the line from “you need to do this to be a good Christian” to “you need to do this so you will go to heaven when you die.”
Robert loved to argue with his fellow Christians, especially of the legalist variety. We would be sitting in the band hall, or the theater, or a classroom, and this conversation would begin.
Legalist Kid: “You’ve got to recognize that you are a sinner, and you need to repent of your sins, and say you are sorry, and promise never to do them again. And you need to confess that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and ask for Christ’s blood to cover you.”
Robert: “Do you really have to say all that?”
Legalist Kid: “Absolutely, because you won’t go to heaven if you don’t. And you have to get baptized and join the church, of course. And you have to believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, and everyone else is going to hell.”
Robert: “What about the thief on the cross?
Legalist Kid: “What do you mean?”
Robert: “The thief on the cross. He didn’t do any of that stuff.”
Legalist Kid: “So?”
Robert: “So all he did was ask Jesus to ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ No repentance, no prayers, no baptism, no profession of faith. And Jesus said “you will be with me in Paradise.” What about him?
Legalist Kid: “To go to heaven you have to repent, and ask Jesus into your heart.
Robert: “Thief on the cross.”
Legalist Kid: “You have to plead the blood of Jesus, and say you are sorry, and believe in your heart that Jesus is the only way, and that he is the Son of God. . .”
Robert: “Thief on the cross, thief on the cross.”
It would basically go on like this until the Legalist Kid is red faced and telling Robert that he’s going to burn in Hell while Robert keeps yelling back “thief on the cross, thief on the cross.”
Robert had a great point, and one that we would all do well to heed. Jesus offers no formula for salvation. He lays out no four step process, no seven simple acts to get to heaven. Even within Jesus’ own words, he mixes things up. For every “repent, and believe the Good News” there is also a “be perfect, as you Father in heaven is perfect.”
Everything that Jesus taught, including our entrance into eternal life, came down to our trust in him. Sinners prayers, baptism, repentance, right theology, right action, loving our neighbors--all of these things are good and godly and right. But more than anything else, Jesus is looking for hearts that trust him. And when we don’t trust him, he loves us so much that he gives us the trust we need. That is what the theologians call “grace.” I need that grace, and I ask for it every day of my life.