“Wait a minute!” some have said. “This whole ‘building a relationship’ business seems too elaborate, too complex. I mean, maybe God just wants to save us. And what about the thief on the cross? He didn’t have time to ‘build a relationship!'”
The answer to the first point is: Of course, God wants to save us. But we must cooperate. And the stages of relationship describe how that process takes place. It matches well with the legal model (justification/sanctification/glorification), the Engel scale and other useful models of how we come to Christ.
And the thief on the cross not only demonstrates the validity of our relationship model, it explains some other things we know about when and how people become receptive to the gospel.
In the relational model we have been exploring, salvation begins at Level 5: Vulnerability, where we confess our faults to the other person. The thief on the cross skips straight to Level 5. Both of those being crucified with Jesus know Facts and Reports (Level 3) about Jesus, as Luke informs us (ch. 23, v. 39-42).
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 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.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
They both know about Jesus, but only one trusts in Jesus. The first thief speaks out of doubt: “Save yourself,” he says sarcastically. But the second thief does indeed move on to vulnerability, confessing his wrong: “we are receiving what we deserve.” And then he expresses his faith and trust: “remember me when [not if!] You come into Your kingdom.”
You see, the thief on the cross knew he was about to die. He recognized his vulnerability, and expressed it to Jesus. This explains something widely known among evangelists: people in transition are open to the gospel. Here, for example is Rick Warren on the subject:
When people are going through changes, good or bad, it makes them more open to the gospel. People in transition and those under tension are the most receptive.
Understanding salvation as a relationship, this makes perfect sense. People in transition and people under tension–like the thief of the cross–recognize that they are vulnerable. This awareness increases their willingness to admit their vulnerability, their faults, their need for help, for a savior. A person moving to a new community or a new job recognizes their need for help; a person on a long journey recognizes their need for guidance and direction; a person who is gravely ill needs care. All of these people are vulnerable, so it makes it easier for them to acknowledge that vulnerability. We have all heard, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” A foxhole is an attempt at providing minimal safety in an otherwise highly dangerous environment. People in foxholes recognize they are vulnerable; that’s why they are in the foxhole.
And so we see that salvation as a relationship accurately describes the process we experience, and what we see depicted in scripture. Salvation, justification–which is what the thief experienced–is the work of an instant. In the film Luther (2003), von Staupitz tells a tortured Luther to pray to Christ, “I am yours, save me.” That’s all it takes, a moment of vulnerability, an instant of openness, to initiate the process. If we want to grow, we move onto intimacy. But vulnerability is enough.