The Theology of a Thief
Let's talk about theology. Now there's a heavy word for you. But every one of us has one, you know. Sometimes we shy away from the subject because we think it's difficult or we just don't understand it. Or we don't think it's important. So, let me start by sharing with you Cooper's definition. Theology is basically what we believe about God. And what we believe about man and what we believe about relationships between God and man. It's a simple definition. Yet it comprehends all the intricate and complex facets that theologians have constructed over the centuries. Put simply, all the formal "branches" of theology can fit into this definition and amplify its meaning.
With this in mind, let me introduce you to a conversation in which a convicted thief expresses a simple theology. When Jesus died on the cross, His biographers tell us that two thieves died with Him. At first, they both joined with the crowd around the crosses in reviling, mocking, and cursing Jesus. "The robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him" (Matthew 27.44). Then something happened - we are not told just what - that changed the heart of one of them. While "one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him..., the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!'" (Luke 23.39-42).
In less than fifty words, this thief expressed a whole realm of theology. Not a collection of theories or abstract ideas, but a vital expression of faith in the living God, who was dying with him and dying for him only a few feet away. In these few words, we can find ten or twelve facets of theology. Let's look at two or three.
The first recorded words from the thief reveal that he believes in God: "Do you not even fear God...?" While he may not have understood it fully, he knew the man on the center cross was God. And in that man Jesus, he saw at least a few attributes of the infinite God. Just in mentioning the name of God, he touches the eternal (Psalm 90.2). From what he said to Jesus, he indicates he expected Him to last beyond His final breath into eternity. Furthermore, God is sovereign (Revelation 19.6) and omnipotent (Isaiah 44.24). The penitent thief believed Jesus had the power to come down from the cross as well as the power to summon legions of angels to destroy His enemies if He chose to. This insightful thief seemed, however, to know there was something more important at the moment than any visible display of power. He believed Jesus knew what He was doing, and trusted Him to handle the circumstances. Looking at his present situation, the penitent thief inferred God is just (cp. Acts 17.31). "We indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...."
Evaluating his deeds in this way, the penitent thief also saw himself as a sinner, worthy of condemnation. His relationship with God was obviously impaired. Sin does that. It began as rebellion against God, and God continues to decribe sinners as rebels (cp. 1 Timothy 1.9). Sin is a violation of God's law, disobedience of the divine will, moral failure. "Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3.4). Just a few paragraphs further, John adds, "All unrighteousness is sin...." (1 John 5.17). Sin is missing the mark of God's standard. Lewis Sperry Chafer once wrote, "Sin is any want of conformity to the character of God, whether it be in act, disposition, or state." The ultimate revelation of sin is faithlessness, refusing to believe God, refusing to trust Him to do what He says. "Whatever is not from faith," Paul said, "is sin." (Romans 14.23) The thief agreed, because he said, "we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...."
But... This thief also believed he could be saved. The one thief railed on Jesus to deliver them all from the condemnation of crucifixion. The other thief saw beyond the cross to the eternal Kingdom of God and believed Jesus would take him there. "Salvation is of the Lord," the Bible says (Jonah 2.9). God Himself takes the initiative in providing salvation. Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, declared, "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, For He has visited and accomplished redemption for His people, And He has raised up a horn of salvation for us...." (Luke 1.68-69)
In the early days of the American frontier, an Indian chief heard the gospel and was saved. Later, another chief visited him and asked him about this Jesus. Who was He? What did He do? The first chief made a circle of wood chips on the ground and put a worm in the center. Then he set the chips on fire. The worm vainly tried to escape the ring of fire. Then the chief suddenly reached in and lifted the worm out of the ring, out of danger. Then he turned to the second chief and said, "Me that worm." The penitent thief saw God's horn of salvation on the center cross, saw himself as the "worm" in danger on his own cross, and cried out, "Jesus, remember me!" And Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23.43). Simple but vital theology.