Two gospel thieves

Gospel Centered“Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves,” so the gospel “is ever crucified between two opposite errors” (Tertullian, early church father).

“If our gospel message even slightly resembles ‘you must believe and live right to be saved’ or ‘God loves and accepts everyone just as they are,’ we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping, transformative work…” of the gospel.  (Tim Keller, Center Church).

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NKJV).

I designed the above graph with the cross of Christ at the center to illustrate the way the gospel challenges both sides of the coin of human religion (this was inspired by Tim Keller’s graph in Center Church). I describe it is as one coin with two sides because although both approaches seem radically different, they both have in common their avoidance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and their desire to retain control of their lives. These two sides of the coin are like gospel “thieves” as Tertullian described them, misrepresenting and robbing the gospel of its appropriate focus on the person and work of Christ.

On one side is the legalistic/religious approach that takes the idea of truth and holiness to the extreme. It says that one must obey the truth and keep the rules/laws of God in order to be saved. On the other side is the relativistic/irreligious approach that takes the idea of love and grace too far. Believing that all are accepted by a loving God (if there is a God), they say that everyone has the right to follow their own sense of right and wrong.

The first approach emphasizes truth without grace. The second, grace without truth. But truth without grace is not really truth, and grace without truth is not really grace. However, the gospel is neither religion nor irreligion. The gospel is about a relationship to Jesus Christ who is “full of grace and truth.”

The gospel is good news that Jesus has already accomplished our salvation reconciling us to God and satisfying both His holiness and mercy. The true gospel hangs between the two gospel “thieves” offering two striking corrections:

  • “I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.” (vs. legalism)
  • “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe.” (vs. relativism)

By believing and receiving the Person of Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord, who is full of grace and truth, we rightly respond to the gospel and put away the two gospel “thieves.”

3 comments on “Two gospel thieves

  1. Shad Watters

    This is great! I’m actually beginning a series on Galatians this Sunday. This has helped clarify some of my thoughts. Blessings to you!

    1. Gary Combs

      Thank you James! Good to hear from you. I know your Galatians series will be profitable. Blessings!

      1. Shad Watters

        I’m looking forward to it! Galatians and Romans are my favorites.
        Here’s my summary:
        You cannot walk in real truth without grace, because we cannot live up to the truth without grace.
        You cannot walk in real grace without truth, because truth reveals that we need grace.



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