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Monday, April 14, 2014

Revisit: The Good Thief

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,     
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

 “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus” --Pope Francis  (Evangelii Gaudium, #120)

During this Holy Week we will of course be hearing about our Lord's Passion and Death, culminating the the act upon which all of our faith lies--the Resurrection.  That is, if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain, as St. Paul so succinctly proposes in 1 Corinthians.

An apologetics question that often arises in discussions with Protestants cites an occurrence on Calvary--where Jesus tells the Good Thief (known as St. Dismas in Catholic tradition (tradition with a small "t", meaning, not part of the Deposit of Faith as proposed by SacredTradition), "Today you will be with me in paradise"--Luke 23:43.

Many Protestants will use this verse to demonstrate their belief in Sola Fide, that is "We are saved by our Faith Alone".  They will posit, "You see that Jesus told the Thief on the Cross that he was saved.  The Thief did not need to be baptized.  He did not need any sacraments.  He did not need anything except to have Faith and Believe!  So the Catholic Church imposes too many rules and regulations upon our salvation.  Just like the Good Thief, we just need to declare with our mouths that Jesus is Lord!  There is no need for works.  Faith Alone is what saves us!"

How should a Catholic respond?  

Here is a good apologia (defense) from Catholic apologist John Martignoni
 Luke 23:39–43.  The “good thief” is mentioned in these verses.  He defends Jesus when He is verbally assaulted by the other thief.  Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  “See, the good thief did no works, yet he is going to be with Jesus in paradise.  The thief did no works, he wasn’t baptized , or anything else of that nature.  This is a perfect example of salvation by faith alone.”  

Two things to remember: 1) The Old Covenant was still in effect, which means Baptism was not yet necessary for the Jew to be in covenant with God.  Circumcision, however, which was the Old Testament shadow of Baptism, was necessary.  This thief  undoubtedly being a Jew, he was undoubtedly circumcised. 

2) What the good thief did on the cross was indeed a work – an extraordinary work!  In excruciating pain; having to push himself up on feet that had a nail running through them in order to take a breath; his lungs filling with fluid; yet he defends Christ against the other thief.  What would have happened if he had kept silent?  Would he still have been saved?  Faith alone?  Not here.
Some other thoughts:  we don't know whether the Good Thief was baptized or not--the Bible doesn't say.  So it's not exactly correct to profess that this verse declares the baptism isn't necessary.  

Incidentally, Catholics do not believe that our works get us into heaven.  That is the heresy of Pelagianism, and was rejected by the early Church Fathers in the 5th century.   Our works "save us" only in that we are saved by grace through faith working in love. 

In fact, our Catholic faith take the Word of God in its entirety to declare how we are saved.  We do not take one event, one verse, one incident, and glean from that a theology of salvation.

Here's how Catholics profess we are saved:

By believing in Christ (Jn 3:16; Acts 16:31)

By repentance (Acts 2:38; 2 Pet 3:9)

By baptism (Jn 3:5; 1 Pet 3:21; Titus 3:5)

By eating his flesh and drinking his blood (Jn 6)

By the work of the Spirit (Jn 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6)

By declaring with our mouths (Lk 12:8; Rom 10:9)

By coming to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4; Heb 10:26)

By works (Rom 2:6-7; James 2:24)

By grace (Acts 15:11; Eph 2:8)

By his blood (Rom 5:9; Heb 9:22)

By his righteousness (Rom 5:17; 2 Pet 1:1)
By keeping the commandments (Matt 19:17)
By our words (Matt 12:37)

Also, some critics of Catholic teaching on Purgatory will cite the Good Thief as evidence that Purgatory doesn't exist.  They profess that since Jesus said that the Good Thief would be in paradise with Him "today", that he (St. Dismas) went straight to heaven.  

I'm not sure how that means that Purgatory doesn't exist.  It's possible that St. Dismas did not need to be cleansed or "purged" prior to being present before the Eternal Godhead.  That doesn't mean that all of us also fit into that category of being entirely pure when we die.  Also, perhaps Purgatory occurs in the "twinkling of an eye"--1 Corinthians and St. Dismas experienced Purgatory immediately before entering paradise.  Finally, we know that Jesus did not go to paradise on Good Friday--he ascended to heaven at the Ascension, after the Resurrection, so we know that Jesus did not mean a literal "today" when he pronounced St. Dismas saved.

I think that the above questions regarding the Good Thief illustrate the importance of having a magisterium, or teaching authority, to discern for the faithful what implications a particular verse/event in Scripture have for our faith.  We need a magisterium to speak definitively for the Word of God, so that we are not left with a multitude of interpretations of verses--and "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes."--Ephesians 4:14

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15   

1 comment:

  1. St. Dismas met all the Catholic requirements for salvation.

    1. He admonished the sinner. Do you remember that he reproved and rebuked the other criminal in defense of Jesus Christ?

    2. He gave good witness. He openly confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, asking Him for salvation.
    3. His words have, through the centuries, converted many to faith in Christ. Do you know what happens to those who convert others to Christ?

    James 5:
    20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

    So, not only did He express His faith, but His faith was working by the spiritual works which he set in motion from the cross. But there is something else. He suffered WITH Christ, in a manner unparalleled by any other person except the Mother of Christ, who was spiritually on the Cross with her Son:

    Romans 8:17
    And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

    >>>So then did that thief not end up in paradise as Jesus said he would? If not then that would have meant Jesus lied to Him and since that isn’t possible for Jesus to lie… Well i draw my own conclusions.<<<

    EVEN IF St. Dismas had not performed the works which he performed from his cross. He would still go to heaven because of another Catholic Doctrine. The Doctrine which recognizes God's total authority. It is God, in the person of Jesus Christ, who told him that he would be saved. Therefore, St. Dismas would have been saved had he done nothing else.

    The Council of Trent says:

    No one, moreover, so long as he lives this mortal life, ought in regard to the sacred mystery of divine predestination, so far presume as to state with absolute certainty that he is among the number of the predestined,[74] as if it were true that the one justified either cannot sin any more, or, if he does sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance.

    For except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God has chosen to Himself.

    When Jesus said to St. Dismas, "today, you shall be with me in paradise". That is recognized as a special revelation directly from God. However, St. Dismas fulfilled all the requirements. He expressed his faith in good works and He was informed by God that he was saved.


    De Maria