Jesus doesn’t give us many clues about how to become a Christian.
He only says what happens when we believe in Him – ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;‘ – Jn 3:36. How does this happen?
And that is the point at which I will hand over to Harvey, the writer of the blog ‘The Evangelical Liberal‘, with his article ‘The Penitent Thief – a Good Friday Reflection’:
The Penitent Thief – a Good Friday reflection
A friend recently asked me who is the one person other than Jesus who we know to be in heaven, if we believe the gospel record. There may be other possible answers, but perhaps the clearest is the Penitent thief, or the Thief on the Cross – the one to whom Jesus says ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.
This story is one of the only obvious moments of light, hope and redemption within the unremitting horrors and darkness of the Good Friday narrative.
The Penitent thief is only featured in one gospel account (Luke’s). In Matthew’s and Mark’s versions both criminals crucified alongside Jesus hurl insults at him. Make of that what you will, but it’s still I think a very important vignette.
It’s surely the most dramatic (and perhaps the only) story of 11th-hour conversion in the pages of Scripture; very much a ‘deathbed’ repentance. Not the ideal way we might want someone to come to faith, perhaps, nor the ideal setting, but one that can give hope and encouragement to pretty much anyone. Few of us can be in a worse place than that crucified thief, yet he is given the cast-iron guarantee of salvation that few others can boast.
Tradition calls him the ‘penitent’ thief, but we do not actually see him repenting in the way that most Christians would understand the term. There is a form of confession but no apology, no ‘sinner’s prayer’. All he does is acknowledge that he has committed a crime and therefore deserves the punishment he’s receiving; and he then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom. That’s all – and it appears to be enough.
It’s wonderful how simple and uncomplicated it all is. The man does not do anything, nor need to do anything, except simply recognise Jesus at least partly for who he is – the true King, of the true Kingdom – and ask Jesus simply to ‘remember’ him. (Not ‘save’ him, but simply keep him in mind, be aware of him, not forget about him.) There’s no begging or bargaining; it’s just a very simple and humble request.
If we take this story seriously, it radically simplifies the requirements of Christianity – at least the entry requirements. We don’t have to be baptised to be saved. We don’t have to go to church, understand difficult theological doctrines, memorise scripture, speak in tongues or go on mission trips to be able to call ourselves Christians. We just need to turn to Jesus. All these others can be good and helpful things, and if we lead long Christian lives we may well end up doing many of them. But they are not required in order for us to be part of the Kingdom, for us to be remembered by Jesus and be with him in Paradise.
Thanks, Harvey 🙂
So, Jesus doesn’t say you need to believe in the Bible. (There weren’t any Bibles at the time of the early church anyway (like in the Acts of the Apostles, one of the books of the Bible) because the Bible hadn’t been written yet. And in any case most people couldn’t read…and yet there were thousands of believers.)
He doesn’t say you need to believe in Hell
He doesn’t say you have to not be gay
He doesn’t say you have to Repent!! to believe in Him.
He doesn’t say you have to believe in sin, in judgement, in Communion, in the Pope, in anything like that.
He doesn’t even say you need to believe in God.
All of these things, with the possible exception of the last one (and only then because a belief in Jesus implies a belief in the One Who sent Him – God) are things that you can consider, you can think about, you can adopt as doctrine if you really must. but they are not essential, according to the story we have looked at.
Amongst believers, there is a phrase ‘coming to Christ’. You simply come to Him, just as you are, without having to worry about fear of rejection (Jn 6:37 ESV). Just as the Penitent Thief came to Christ and just simply asked Him to ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’, that’s all there is to it. All you need to do is to come to Him. Even if you don’t yet feel that you ‘believe’, don’t worry; that can follow later. The first step is simply to come to Him.
Jesus will meet you exactly where you’re ‘at’. It’s different for everyone because everyone’s point of need is different, and everyone’s experience is different. You don’t have to pray a set, special prayer. You don’t have to follow a formula. There is no set list of things you have to do or say or be. You can do any of these things if you want to*, but either way the most important thing is simply to come to Jesus.
You might feel that nothing has happened. That was how I felt. Or you might get a huge flood of joy, tears, relief, love, whatever. You will receive exactly what you need. Don’t be afraid of it being a ‘counterfeit experience’. You have come to Jesus. You might have asked Him to make Himself real to you. You might have asked Him to come into your life. Whatever approach you have used, don’t let anyone convince you that it’s not real – not even your own feelings. You will begin to see and feel in your own time. As Jesus says in Luke 11:11-13, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So, if you have come to Jesus, He will do what He promised. He will give you everything you need to live for Him, all the resources of Heaven, and He will come and live in your life by His Holy Spirit.
*Personally, I remember the day I prayed and asked Jesus to come in to my life, and for me, that prayer was important as it marked a definite time where I had made the decision to follow Him. But you don’t have to do that.