Was the Thief on the Cross Saved Under the Old Covenant or New?

You may look at this question and wonder, “why would anyone even consider this important?”

I agree. This is not one of those questions that I find even remotely vital to the Christian walk. However, because I’ve heard it asked a few times (most recently in a Sunday School class), and it apparently matters to some, I’d like to address it.

“But, why would anyone care?” you may insist.  Well, you see, the salvation of the “thief on the cross” (as he is commonly called today) represents a unique and interesting salvation moment. The implications of that moment have become a matter of controversy among some Christians.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified between two thieves (Matt 27:38).  Matthew’s account tells us that the thieves had been ridiculing Jesus (Matt 27:44).  However, Luke suggests that one of the thieves apparently had a change of heart (Luke 23:39-41).  Perhaps impressed with Jesus’ poise, this unnamed criminal made a simple plea – he asked that when Jesus came into His kingdom that he be remembered (Luke 23:42).  In spite of all that Jesus was being assailed of, He was moved by the man’s cry for mercy and promised that on that very day the thief would be with Him “in Paradise.”

What makes this salvation account so interesting is that the thief was promised salvation while on death’s doorstep.  Because he was literally nailed to a cross he had no opportunity to do any of the things that we commonly associate with a repentant believer.  For example, he didn’t go to church, he didn’t study the Bible, he didn’t do any good works, he didn’t get water baptized, and he didn’t publically confess his faith.  Because so many of these “key elements” were absent from his short saved life, some Christians struggle to understand his salvation. They feel that since one or more of these elements are so vitally important to the Christian experience that he simply couldn’t have been saved in the Christian era.  They argue that his salvation must have occurred within the boundaries of the Old Covenant.  And, they believe that the Bible is on their side on this matter.

Before I go any further, let me point out that I have nothing at stake in this issue.  I don’t care if the thief was saved within the confines of the Old Testament or New.  Nothing that I believe in rests upon this topic.  The only thing that I do care about is understanding the Bible correctly.  So, let’s take a look at what the Scriptures say about this topic.

The chronological order of events surrounding the thief’s conversion seem indisputable.  First, Jesus offered salvation to the man.  Next, Jesus died.  A short while later the thief died also.

Now that we have the sequence of events, we must look to the Scripture for any data that will give us information regarding which Covenant was in force at the time of thief’s salvation.

The only passage of scripture that I know of which would shed light on this topic is Hebrews 9:16.  In this passage we read that for a testament to go into affect, the one who made the testament (the testator) must die.  This passage brings great comfort to those who hold the view that the thief died in the Old Testament era. They would point out that the thief was saved before Jesus died. As a result, the New Testament was not in effect yet.   Therefore, the thief had to have been saved during the Old Covenant, not the New.

This seems logical.  However, the problem with the argument is the rest of the passage from Hebrews 9.  In verses 18-22, the writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about the first Testament, which was also ratified by the shedding of blood.  However, the reader should take careful note of whose blood was shed.  In verse 19, we find that the Old Testament was ratified by the blood of “calves and goats.”

Now we have a problem.

In one breath the writer of Hebrews tells us that for a testament to be ratified, the testator must die.  In the next breath he reminds us that the Old Testament was ratified when calves and goats died.  Do you see the problem?  The testator of the Old Testament is God. But, God didn’t die to ratify the Old Testament – calves and goats did.

The only way I can see to harmonize this problem would be to assume one of three possible positions:

  1. The Old Covenant was made between Israel and calves and goats.
  2. The Old Covenant was never ratified.
  3. The writer of Hebrews does not intend to be taken literally when he says that the testator must die for a testament to go in effect

Quite obviously, I hope, we cannot assume position #1 is correct. Israel’s covenant was made between them and God.

Position #2 would be unfounded as well.  If the covenant was never ratified, then God would have had no reason to punish Israel for breaking the covenant. Yet, we can see throughout the Old Testament that God complained over and over again of Israel violating their end of the covenant. They could only have done so if the covenant had been in force.

This leaves us with position #3: that there is another way of understanding what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that the testator must die for a testament to go in effect  I believe that this can be the only correct position to take.

In Exodus 19, God offered a covenant with Israel. In chapter 24, Israel accepted the offer and Moses responded by sprinkling the blood on the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words” (vs. 8).

From that point until the time of the New Covenant, the Old one was in effect.  The introduction of the New one made the Old one obsolete (Heb. 8:13). So, when did the New one come into effect?

In Luke 22, Jesus was in the Upper Room with His disciples.  While sharing in the Passover meal, Jesus took a cup of wine, offered it to His disciples, and said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (vs. 20).  Note the striking similarities between Jesus’ words and the words of Moses when the Old Covenant was ratified.  Just as His Father had symbolically offered blood to ratify the Old Covenant, Jesus offered symbolic blood to ratify the New. Just as the Old was ratified when the symbolic blood was offered and accepted, we should acknowledge that the New was ratified when Jesus offered and His disciples accepted the symbolic blood offered.

It seems clear, then, that the New Covenant came into effect in Luke 22; hours before He and the thief had their conversation.  Therefore, the thief was saved during the era of the New Testament, not the Old.  The thief’s lack of good works, water baptism, or any other element, must be dealt with by other means.

It might be convenient to insist that the thief was saved within the Old Covenant, but it is not correct.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.



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