According to Emanuel Swedenborg, faith without works does not save a person
(Note: This section can be skipped by those who are interested only in the Swedenborgian interpretation of Luke 23:39-43. The purpose of this section is to establish that Swedenborg, and Swedenborgians, reject justification by faith alone, and believe that good works are also necessary for salvation.)
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) utterly rejected Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone, commonly known as salvation by faith alone.
For example, Swedenborg says:
People who suppose that salvation lies in faith alone, and not at the same time in the life of faith, that is, in the life of charity, believe that anyone can enter heaven and come to the Lord, irrespective of the life he has led. They do not know what the life of man is; and not knowing what this is they imagine that the life is of no importance at all. Consequently if they are asked whether a bad person is able to be among the good, they say that by God's mercy he can be, since it is the work of an almighty power. Indeed if they are asked whether the devil is able to become an angel of heaven, they say Yes, provided that he wishes to receive faith. Nor are they in any doubt about his ability to receive it. But if they are told that evil is not able to be turned into good, nor thus hell into heaven with a person, and that such a conversion is impossible because it is contrary to order, therefore contrary to God's truth, and so contrary to God Himself who is order, they reply that such ideas are false reasonings about salvation that do not interest them. All these and countless other considerations go to show how great a blindness regarding salvation and eternal life is caused by teachings about faith alone. (Arcana Coelestia #8765:2)
And even more pointedly:
It is due solely to the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone that, in accordance with the above prediction, there is at this day such thick darkness in the Christian Churches that there is no light from the sun by day nor from the moon and stars by night. For this doctrine teaches that the only means of salvation is faith; the influx, progress, indwelling, operation and efficacy of which no one has hitherto seen any sign, and into which neither the Law of the Decalogue, nor repentance, nor concern for newness of life, nor charity, nor good works, enter; nor are they in any way connected with it. For it is asserted that these things follow spontaneously, without being of any use either for preserving faith or for procuring salvation. (Brief Exposition #79)
And relevant to the story of the thieves on the cross:
Take as another example a person who believes that faith alone saves and that the works of charity contribute nothing to salvation, a person who also believes that he can be saved even in his final hour before death, no matter what kind of life he has been leading throughout the whole course of his life. If on the basis of these ideas he leads a life devoid of any charity and is filled with contempt for others, enmity and hatred towards anyone who does not pay him respect, the desire for revenge, the craving to deprive others of their goods, lack of pity, trickery, and deceit, these evils too are evils of falsity. They are such because he convinces himself on the basis of a falsity either that they are not evils or that even if they were evils they would nevertheless be purged, provided that before he breathed his last he declared with apparent trust his belief that the Lord is the Mediator and that sins are purged through His passion on the Cross. (Arcana Coelestia #7272:2)
Here Swedenborg rejects the idea that a person can be saved by faith alone through deathbed repentance of the sort that is commonly attributed to the second thief on the cross.
There are, in fact, few traditionally Christian doctrines that Swedenborg assails more frequently and more thoroughly than he does the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Looking from the positive side of what Swedenborg does teach as the essentials of Christian faith and practice, here is his own brief summary of those essentials:
For our part, the specifics of faith are these: (1) There is one God, the divine Trinity exists within him, and he is the Lord God the Savior Jesus Christ. (2) Believing in him is a faith that saves. (3) We must not do things that are evil - they belong to the Devil and come from the Devil. (4) We must do things that are good - they belong to God and come from God. (5) We must do these things as if we ourselves were doing them, but we must believe that they come from the Lord working with us and through us.
The first two points have to do with faith, the second two have to do with goodwill; and the fifth has to do with the partnership between goodwill and faith, the partnership between the Lord and us. (True Christianity #3:2)
Accordingly, the members of the various "New Church," or Swedenborgian, denominations believe that salvation requires not only faith, but also good works done in accordance with the Lord's commandments in the Gospels and throughout the Bible. For more on this, see my articles, "Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does," and "Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach."
Swedenborgian commentary on Luke 23:39-43
Swedenborg comments on Luke 23:43 primarily in the context of arguments for the immediate resurrection into the spiritual world of people who have died, against common traditionally Christian beliefs in a future general resurrection and Last Judgment.
However, in his work Apocalypse Explained #600 he does provide a brief commentary suggesting the meaning and significance of the two thieves:
The two robbers who were crucified, one on the right, and the other on the left of the Lord, have a similar signification to the sheep and the goats; therefore it was said to the one who acknowledged the Lord, that he should be with Him in paradise (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:39-43). And in John:
Jesus said to His disciples who were fishing, "Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and were no longer able to draw it for the multitude of fishes" (John 21:6).
This brief commentary is picked up and expanded upon by the Rev. William Worcester (1859-1939), a Swedenborgian minister and Bible commentator, in his work The Sower, vol. 5, p. 386:
The thieves crucified with the Lord in a manner represent mankind whose trials and temptations the Lord shares. One thief represents those who are not humbled by temptation and do not receive the Lord's help so mercifully offered; the other thief represents those who do receive His help, and through Him find victory and peace. This is consistent with the statement in Apocalypse Explained #600, that by the two thieves crucified with the Lord the same is meant as by the sheep and goats on the King's right and left (Matthew 25:33).
So the primary Swedenborgian interpretation of Luke 23:39-43 is that the two thieves on the cross represent the two general classes of humanity:
- Those who do not accept salvation from the Lord
- Those who do accept salvation from the Lord
Further, from a Swedenborgian perspective, Luke 23:39-43, seen in its context as a conversation taking place while the three (Jesus and the two thieves) were being crucified, represents the two different ways that human beings respond to the trials, temptation, pain, and suffering of life. Specifically, the two thieves represent:
- Those who, despite much trial, pain, and suffering in life, reject God and salvation, vs:
- Those who, through the trials, pain, and suffering of life, come to repentance and an acceptance of God and salvation
So the thief who thought only of saving his own skin, and shouted derisively, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39) represents people who have no interest in repentance and spiritual rebirth, and therefore no interest in the salvation offered by the Lord.
Meanwhile, the thief who recognized that he was a sinner, witnessed to the other thief, and asked Jesus for mercy represents people who recognize that they have thought, felt, and acted wrongly and sinfully, repent of their wrongs, do good works instead, and turn to the Lord for salvation.
The second thief on the cross is not an example of faith alone
From a Swedenborgian perspective, there is a basic fallacy in thinking that the second thief on the cross is an example salvation, or justification, by faith alone. Understanding this fallacy, and what was really taking place, requires looking more deeply and realistically not only at the vignette presented in Luke 23:39-43, but at its wider context.
Jesus, as Christians universally believe, was "tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin" (Hebrews 4:15). His crucifixion was his final and greatest temptation, and even its terrible agony did not induce him to sin in any way.
The two thieves, by contrast, were quite human, and definitely sinners. Perhaps they were common thieves. Or perhaps, as some believe, they were insurrectionists against Roman rule, who committed violent crimes in the course of their rebellion. Either way, they broke the Ten Commandments and committed evil and sinful actions.
Now they were facing the punishment for their crimes.
And of course, they didn't just suddenly pop up on crosses beside Jesus. They had been caught, arrested, and tried for their crimes, and now their sentence was being carried out.
How did each thief respond to the terrible trial and temptation that he had already gone through, and was now suffering?
- One thief remained defiant to the end. Rather than repenting of his
evil actions, he derisively called on Jesus to save them, despite
the fact that he was not at all sorry for what he had done, and
would likely do it all over again given the opportunity.
- The other thief had clearly been brought to repentance by his
arrest, trial, and punishment. Yes, all we see of him is what he
said on the cross. But human psychology tells us that this did not
just happen all of a sudden. There was prior thought, and a change
of heart, involved in what he expressed to the other thief and to
The reason the second thief was saved, while the other was not, is that he, unlike the other, repented of his evil deeds. In so doing, he took his first step toward salvation, just as John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus' disciples preached many times in the Gospels and the Acts: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven (or God) has come near" (see, for example, Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17; Mark 1:14-15).
Further, the second thief not only repented, but he also acted on his repentance by witnessing to the other thief, even as he himself was enduring the agony of crucifixion:
But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." (Luke 23:40-41)
Witnessing to non-believers, even if it is done through words rather than physical actions, is a good work. It is an action of reaching out to others and offering them the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ.
So the second thief is not an example of justification, or salvation, by faith alone. Rather, he is an example of:
- Repentance: in that he recognized that he had done evil and was being justly punished for his sins,
- Good works: in that he witnessed to the other thief even in the midst of his own agony, and
- Faith: in that he turned to the Lord and asked the Lord to remember him when he came into his kingdom.
It was on the basis of his repentance, good works, and faith, and not on the basis of mere "faith" by itself—especially if this is thought of as mere intellectual belief and verbal profession—that Jesus said to the second thief, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).
So for members of the various "New Church" or Swedenborgian denominations, the story of the two thieves on the cross is a confirmation of the belief that in order to be saved, we must repent of our sins, do good works instead, and have faith in the power of Jesus Christ to save us and bring us into God's kingdom.