The Thief on the Cross & Purging Purgatory


An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory. Ludovico Carracci, c. 1610

By Eric Davis. Reposted, with permission, from The Cripplegate.

For the most part, the problem which moved Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 had to do with indulgences. Much could be said about that issue. But the doctrine of indulgences is inextricably linked to the doctrine of purgatory. The word “purgatory” comes from the Latin word, “purgare,” which has the idea of “make clean,” “purify,” or “purge.” The doctrine refers to the purging of remaining guilt and unrighteousness after death.

Purgatory is not hell, but the place of conditioning and preparation for heaven. It is unsure exactly what purgatory is like or how much time people spend there. It could be thousands upon thousands of years, perhaps.

We could go many places in Scripture to address the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory. But one of my favorites is the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).

When the justice of God thundered upon his Son at the cross, two criminals happened to share a spot on Golgotha. Matthew’s account uses a word to speak of the criminals as more than your average petty thief who stole bread. These guys were notorious lawbreakers (Matt. 27:44).

The whole scene is amazing. Here you have two criminals enduring one of the most painful, torturous forms of execution. To take just one breath while crucified required pushing up on the spikes so as to expand the lungs. And repeat and repeat. Though it would’ve been excruciatingly painful to take a breath, both criminals muster up enough energy to mock Christ (Matt. 27:44). It’s their final moments on earth, and they spend it committing a far greater crime than that which put them on the cross; blaspheming their God and Creator, Jesus Christ.

They’ve flagrantly violated God’s commands in order to arrive on a cross. But it’s not enough: they double-down while on the cross. Even in their dying breath, they high-handedly break the greatest commandment. They are the worst of society; unashamed notorious sinners.

In Luke 23:39-43, we are escorted in for a closer look. There is something incredible that God wants us to see from that day.

Verse 39 reads, “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” The audacity.

But something has changed. It only says, “One of the criminals…” Earlier, both of them were railing on Christ. One of the voices has gone silent. What happened?

But 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 are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (NASB, Luke 23:40-41)

This one thief has gone from blaspheming God to fearing God, from demanding that he be taken off the cross to admitting he deserves it.

His overwhelming concern now is the fear of God. As the hours wore on, he was pierced in heart. He understood that he was heading for something far worse than crucifixion. Rome and its crosses were far less of an issue. He is no longer commanding Christ to take him off of the cross. There is a much greater threat to reckon with. He has broken God’s laws. He is minutes from passing from this life and standing before God, where he will be judged for every sin; in thought, word, and deed. The cross will be nothing compared to the righteous, holy justice of God. He knows that. And he fears God.

For a time, both thieves assumed that they should be let off the cross. But how things have changed. He knows that he deserves the cross.

He knows that he has nothing to offer God, but a life of sin. He only declares that he deserves what he’s getting. So what does he do?

“And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). With no merit or righteousness to present before God, he throws himself completely on the Person of Christ.

He believes Jesus will not stay dead, notwithstanding the impossibility of surviving crucifixion. He knows that he, too, will not stay dead. There will be a resurrection. He understands that Jesus has the authority to put him in right standing with God. He’s not asking Jesus to remember his merit, for he had none. It was a plea for mercy. And even more, he believes that Jesus is a King with a kingdom. Finally, the thief understands that no one gets to heaven by their moral or religious deeds. He has none to offer. He’s dying. He has no time to go to the Temple to offer sacrifices or apologize for what he’s done. His number is up.

The only move in response to his utter unrighteousness is to cast himself upon the mercy of Christ alone.

So, how will Christ respond to his plea?

And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Amazing. “Today you shall be with Me.” Today.

In a few moments, they would all be lifeless, beaten bodies hanging dead on their own crosses. But, today they would be together. And their conditions are about as far from paradise-like as one could imagine.

Jesus says, in effect, “Thief, the instant you die, in a few moments, your soul will leave your wrecked body, and instantly be with Me in heaven.”

Jesus does not say, “Well, there is still remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for yourself that needs to be dealt with, just as the other souls in Purgatory. So, eventually you will be with me, maybe. But not quite today.”

The immediacy of it is striking: this flagrantly immoral felon possesses the righteousness sufficient to instantly stand before Almighty God with no fear of being cast out. How can this be?

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1).

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)

But, how does Rome handle the justification of the thief on the cross?

Roman Catholic doctrine refers to him as, “The Good Thief.” But this bad thief poses serious problems for the doctrine of purgatory, among other doctrines. For one, he can’t get baptized. That’s a problem because, for Rome, baptism is a sacrament that is efficacious in salvation.

Canon 5 on the Decree Concerning the Sacraments from the Council of Trent reads: “If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema.”

So, Rome has two options. First, they might assert that the thief spent an enormous amount of time in purgatory to be purged of his remaining unrighteousness, merit sufficient righteousness, so as to make it to heaven. But, the word “today” makes that impossible.

The other option is to declare the thief a Roman Catholic saint. In Romanism the saints are those said to have full assurance of salvation and enter heaven. But, if the thief is declared a saint, that poses serious problems. A very elaborate process exists for an individual to be canonized a saint. It begins with evaluating their life to ensure they possessed orthodox doctrine and heroic virtue. The thief had neither. Then, the nominee is beatified, on the condition that a miracle occurred after the individual’s death and consequent of petition to that individual. According to Rome, this ensures that the saint-candidate is both in heaven and able to intercede for those who pray to them. But, they have to have performed a second miracle. typically only the saints are said to be in heaven for certain.

The thief lived as a believer for several minutes, maybe. How does Rome get around this?


Though he has never been formally canonized by the Church, he is believed to be a saint by virtue of Christ’s words, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” His feast day is March 25. (Catholic Answers)

Thus, the thief on the cross, “St. Dismas,” is the patron saint of prisoners, funeral directors, and repentant thieves. A prayer to St. Dismas goes as follows: “Glorious St. Dismas, you alone of all the great penitent saints were directly canonized by Christ himself.”

Convenient. But, this will not do.

The thief was a wretched throw-away of society with zero merit. Aware of this, he tossed himself at Christ, not on the basis of his works, but purely God’s mercy. Christ confirms that he was justified by faith alone in his remarkable words of assurance recorded in v. 43. “Today.” Never did that word today contain such rich theology.

Consider a few wonderful implications of that word, “today.”

1. Human works are not efficacious for right standing with God and entrance into heaven.

This event and passage explodes any idea that a person can get to heaven by their works. The thief had maybe a few minutes remaining in his life. He had no time to observe the sacraments.

Neither does Jesus say, “Well, not today, but in 20 years, you can join me in Paradise…that is, if you satisfactorily adhere to the sacraments and receive sufficient indulgences.”

Instead, the thief, as all repentant sinners, would be instantly admitted to the presence of God by faith alone in Person and death of Christ alone.

2. Christ alone performed all of the work necessary for salvation and right standing with God.

Jesus said, “Today you will be with me,” to a notorious sinner. It is an outrageous claim. How can he be in heaven that very day? He has done nothing for God. He has been a thief and mocked God up until a few minutes before he died. That’s his moral resume.

So, how could someone like him go to heaven that very day? There must be some incredibly sufficient and valuable payment which can pay for great sins.

Motivated by his own love, God the Father provided that sufficient, valuable payment in the Person and death of his Son, Christ. God the Son stepped out of heaven, became a man, lived the perfect life, all so that he could offer himself as a substitute.

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:5-6).

God’s righteous wrath for every one of the thief’s sins came crashing down on Christ. And for all who throw themselves in faith on Christ, God will count every one of their sins to be punished in the body of Christ (1 Pet. 3:18). That is simply fantastic news. Christ, the righteous, served the sentence for us, the unrighteous, so that we would stand perfectly righteous before God, not on the basis of our works, but faith in Christ.

3. Salvation is by faith alone in the Person and finished work of Christ.

So, the only thing that made sense to the thief was to cast himself in faith on Christ. Turning from any and all reliance upon his own righteousness, he placed all of his confidence in Christ’s righteousness to instantly present him justified before God that day. Because he trusted in Christ alone, he was enthusiastically affirmed (Luke 23:43).

4. On the basis of Christ’s work alone, all who put faith in him alone will immediately be welcomed into heaven upon death without experiencing Purgatory.

Christ’s death is so sufficient; so sin-destroying, that upon death, big sinners like the thief are instantly welcomed into heaven.

No waiting.

No taking a number.

Christ’s work really is that sufficient.

It’s almost as if God saved a guy like the thief and put this passage here on purpose to anticipate and explode errors like purgatory.

Christ alone did all of the purging; all of the penalty serving; all of the dying and suffering. That’s why he cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)


This one was just a joy to read.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

[Aaron Blumer]

This one was just a joy to read.

Absolutely. Btw, Eastern Orthodox also reject purgatory, though they hedge about calling it a “heresy.” There are currents within them that still want to cozy up to Rome.

I love to preach this passage. It is, without question, one that brings both comfort and conviction.