The thief on the cross was elected, believe it or not. When he saw the day of his punishment by death on the cross, it turned out to be election day too. It happened in the space of only a couple of moments, but it did happen. On what basis was he elected? By no merit of his own. Even he said as much (Lk 23:41). His life, his position, his good works–none of this things contributed an iota to his election. His whole life was littered with sin, and, now, he was dying for that sin (Rom 6:23). Indeed, his life is proof that the wages of sin is death. He simply did not merit saving, but he was saved. Jesus saved him. All the irreverence, the blaspheming, the evil working of his entire life–in a moment–were wrapped up like an old garment, and he was given a new garment. A garment he didn’t deserve.
Knowing that his election to eternal life by Christ Jesus was not based upon his own merit, how then was it accomplished? The scriptures say that election is by grace, which is the opposite of “work” (Rom 11:5-6). In the same breath, we must also say that grace is received by faith (Rom 4:16). If grace is the opposite of “work” and comes to us by faith, then faith cannot be work. Here’s a formulation of the argument I’ve just made:
Grace is not work Rom 11:5-6
Grace is by faith Rom 4:16
Therefore, faith is not work Eph 2:8
Put yet another way, the election is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). Thus, the thief’s election was like anyone else’s: the election of the thief was by grace through faith in the Son of God, Jesus.
What does this all mean? The thief’s election was, in fact, truly unconditional. Unconditional election is demonstrated so clearly in the life of the thief that he is quite literally the poster-child of what you might call the “elect without merit,” aka, us. There are really two principle consequences of this doctrine of unconditional election. First, you simply cannot add in any meaningful way to your salvation. When you came to faith, you weren’t most of the way there with just a little waysto go. When you were saved by faith in Christ, you were so far from Him that nothing short of God’s intervention could bring you home again. That is what we have in Christ: He came down, searched you out, and sat you down at his feet in your right mind. He clothed you, gave you bread to eat and water to drink. And then He said,”[r]eturn to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee” (Lk 8:39). Now that you’re saved, there is never going to be a time when you contribute meaningfully to your own salvation–this is simply impossible for man. Secondly, the very fact that the thief’s election was unconditional has great meaning for all those who are seeking God. If God doesn’t favor men based on their own personal merits–not where they’re from or what they have done–then all are equally footed before God in a state of sin. The result of this is that all can be saved. The fact that none are favored means that all can come to faith in Christ and be saved. Thus, the doctrine of Unlimited Atonement is actually a natural consequence of Unconditional Election.
If God doesn’t favor anyone based on their merit, then anyone can be saved.
Therefore, Unlimited Atonement.
If you hold an unconditional election, you must, as a natural consequence, hold to be equally valid an unlimited atonement. If Christ doesn’t save by favoring men with merit, then His blood was intended to save any one who would believe in His name (Jn 3:16). A calvinist formulation like TULIP that holds to Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement in the same breath is actually a non sequitur–these principles do not work together in concert. Unconditional election emphasizes that Christ indeed tasted death for every man, even the thief on the cross (Heb 2:9).