The Gospel Between Two Thieves

I am astonished that you are…turning to a different gospel. Galatians 1:6

Tertullian (155-240 AD), a Church father from Carthage in North Africa, is reputed to have said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between two errors.”  To understand what he meant by the two errors, it’s helpful to remember what the gospel is.

Bad News

Knowing the bad news helps us understand the good news.

Like Adam and Eve before us, we are a fallen people alienated from God (Genesis 3). The consequences are devastating: read the headlines and we see the obvious truth of Romans 1:29-30 — people are willfully and continually evil. The root cause of all the misery in the world is humans’ fallen nature and a broken relationship with God. Being perfectly holy, God cannot stand sin. In fact, God’s wrath towards sin is the greatest problem in the world, and there’s absolutely nothing incurably sinful people can do about it.

Good News!

God Himself solved the problem of fallen human nature through Jesus Christ who exchanged His holiness for human sin, and completely restores the believer’s relationship with God. Through the new birth, the Holy Spirit miraculously regenerates the believer who is given a new nature, becoming a new creation who is immediately and fully placed in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The believer has passed from death to life. (1 John 3:14). This is an immediate and permanent change: believers have been switched from ‘off’ to ‘on’. There are no in-between states: you are either in Christ or you are not; you are either forgiven and accepted forever or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. The new believer may be astonished, humbled and overwhelmed by Christ’s embrace given how utterly sinful and undeserving he is, for there is absolutely nothing he could have done to earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift available to all who accept it — and that’s very good news!

Two Errors

But there are two errors that destroy the beauty of the gospel and rob it of its life-transforming power; and it is to these errors that Tertullian refers. These two errors are Legalism (or moralism) and License[1] (or relativism). Simply put, Legalism says we have to be good to be saved; License says because we’re saved we don’t have to be good. 

These two errors are human corruptions of Biblical truth that steal from the gospel. In its authentic form given by God in the Bible, the gospel has a wonderfully miraculous, life-changing impact. However the Holy Spirit cannot be expected to anoint a gospel message with life changing power if it’s been corrupted by either of these two errors.

Warning Against Legalism

Jesus pointed out that legalists of His day shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (Matthew 23:13). Later, using some of the strongest language in the Bible, Paul castigated the Galatians for drifting away from the gospel towards legalism:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting…the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel… But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:6-8)…You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal 5:4).

Warning Against License

Jesus called His followers to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). So Paul is aghast at the tendency to think that because we’re saved we’re free to sin:

Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! [You] have become slaves of… righteousness leading to sanctification…[You] have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15-23)

It’s clear here that spiritual regeneration is a free gift that puts a new believer on a trajectory of sanctification.

What do Legalism and License look like today?

A legalistic attitude says that to be saved we must stop drinking and smoking, go to church, read the Bible, join a small group and obey the Ten Commandments. No! None of this earns salvation. Scripture makes it clear that there is nothing we can do to be saved. God has done the work of salvation through Christ. Salvation is a free gift.

An attitude of license says that since you’re saved, you don’t have to bother with church or reading the Bible or obedience to Christ. No! Scripture makes it clear that being saved changes your life — the authentic gospel does not leave people wallowing in sin: it changes lives.

The Gospel-Transformed Life

Through the gift of new birth, believers are given a new nature. He or she is a new creation as evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit taking root in the life of the believer. To regenerated believers, Christ is precious: they love Christ, love to grow in Christ, and long to see Christ’s kingdom flourish. They love to study the Scriptures because it is the Word of Jesus; they love to pray because it is communion with Jesus; they desire purity because Jesus is pure; they love people because Jesus loves people; they share the Good News because it is the good news of Jesus! Lives changed by the gospel are attractive — they organically draw others to Christ. “Follow Me,” said Jesus, “And I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

By contrast, neither legalism nor license can change lives or draw people to Christ. James makes it clear that faith without works is dead, useless and fit for demons. (James 2:17 – 20, 26). License leaves a man in hell; legalism makes him a child of hell (Matthew 23:15).

So as we move into 2020, let’s tip our hats to Tertullian from Carthage, and take care not to rob the gospel by drifting towards either legalism or license. Let’s appreciate the Good News just as God gave it, and take delight in the Good News Maker!

Jesus, thank You for being our Good Shepherd who guides us along paths of truth and grace to springs of living water. Protect us from spiritual drift — whether towards the coldness of legalism or the irrelevance of license. Instead, keep us firmly rooted in gospel truth as You embody it. It is through Your great love in the gospel that we have everything we need for life and godliness. Thank you, Jesus, Amen.


  1. Greear, J.D. Gospel. B&H, 2011.
  2. Keller, T. Gospel Theology. Zondervan, Undated.
  3. Murray, I.H. Revival and Revivalism. Versa, 2017.

Written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, VSB.

[1] Another word for license is Antinomianism  –  a belief that one is released by grace from the obligation to live morally. The word licentious is derived from the word license. License includes reading the Bible any way you like; and it encompasses relativism or pragmatism — doing what works for you, even if it contradicts Biblical truth.

The Gospel Between Two Thieves

“Why are So Many Christians Biblically Illiterate?”


At Village Schools of the Bible we exist to help the local church grow biblical literate believers.  What follows is an excellent article by Jeremiah J. Johnston, “is president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves at Associate Professor of Early Christianity. Johnston is the author of “Unanswered: Lasting Truth for Trending Questions” (Whitaker House,November 3, 2015) and accompanying Bible Study.

Pray for Village Schools of the Bible as we fulfill our mission: teaching God’s word and transforming lives. Warren Coe

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Emblematic of the Bible’s declining influence is what Harper Lee penned in her 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which the character Miss Maudie says, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].”

Most Christians know enough about the Bible to be dangerous.

The Bible in America is a massive industry ($2.5 billion) yet it is the best seller few read and fewer understand.

The Bible has become a moving target. One can strip it down, twist it, misread it, add to it, supplement it, and even overrule it, and, unfortunately, 95 percent of the congregation will not realize it.

Why? Because Americans no longer know the Bible. The evidence is overpowering that contemporary Christianity is Bible-ish, at best, and at worst, in some cases, Bible-less.

The American Bible Society releases an annual State of the Bible report and their research is persuasive in understanding the declining influence of the Bible in America.

Everyone has an opinion about the Bible. Politicians attempt to use the Bible, Grammy-award winners quote it and Hollywood has portrayed it on the big screen.

Yet one problem remains: most are oblivious to the Bible’s basic content, meaning, and message.

Across the pond, the results are even more dramatic: one-third of British parents thought Harry Potter was a thematic plot-line derived from the Bible.

The Bible is not held in the esteem it once was. Over the last 150 years, America has drifted from its Biblical focus. In an election season, it is remarkable to recall that, though he was not a member of any church, the Bible was valued as an authority in America so much so that Abraham Lincoln quoted from it four strategic times in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. President Lincoln used words ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 18:7 and – using the Bible — pronounced God’s judgment on our nation for her moral bankruptcy of slavery.

The unwillingness of many Americans to dig deeper into the Scriptures is not related to a lack of options. The Gideons give away a Bible every second. One publisher sells more than sixty different editions of the Bible.

Clearly, the challenge of biblical illiteracy in America is not because of a shortage of Bibles, but rather knowledge and appreciation of the Bible’s message.

The Bible is a diverse love story. Actually, it is the greatest break-up-and-get-back together story the world has ever known.

The message of the Bible is that even though we are not what we should be, God loves us, redeems us, and has a purpose for our lives.

A tremendously exciting new initiative is underway to re-introduce the world to the Bible.

In 2017 the six-floor 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible will open only two blocks from the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Museum of the Bible invites all people – those with faith and those without – to engage with the Bible in an immersive experience with its unique history, narrative and influence.

Once one encounters the story of the Bible’s history and preservation, the cost that was involved — and it was a terrible cost — one can never again open the Scriptures with the same detached, careless attitude.

The story of how the Bible has come to us is a tale of heroism, courage, persecution, betrayal and towering faith in a God who raises the dead, mixed through the centuries with the blood of martyrs. If 80 percent of Americans believe the Bible is “God’s word,” shouldn’t we show the Bible some respect by knowing more about it?

“Why are So Many Christians Biblically Illiterate?”

What Students are Saying about Cover-to-Cover Bible Survey

Our fall discipleship classes begin soon.  I want to tempt you to consider joining this amazing journey through God’s Word.  It will change your life.  Read what our students are saying about Cover-to-Cover Bible Survey.


  • The teacher’s love and passion for Scripture was so contagious. | The passion of the instructor. He loved God’s Word so much it was infectious | Good teachers, on fire for the Lord. | The encouragement we received from the instructor.

 The classes

  • How straightforward the class was. The material, expectations and goals for each class (as well as the course overall) were clearly stated and the course met every expectation.| The discussions were great because people asked all different questions. | The fellowship with other students. | This is a MEATY class. Busiest time of my life and it was so worth it. | I made friends for life!

 Value of writing papers

  • I liked having to do the essay papers. I was able to research and go deep into other sources to learn more about the book, the author and more of God’s will for His people.| Encountering God’s truth in a very personal manner. VSB’s requirement to write papers is the best approach for this type of class. | The 5-10-page homework write-up where I had to pray and seek the Holy Spirit for guidance and then dig deep into Scripture to uncover details I’d not known before. It was the best journey of a lifetime. | The benefit of the papers…In no other Bible study have I had to really work through my own thoughts on Scripture. That’s what stayed with me and what I treasured most.
  • Engaging with the Word directly with confidence that God would speak through it changed my life. | I wondered if could handle the time commitment of writing a paper each week and the intensive study, and found it was compelling and never anything I wanted to avoid. | One of the most important features was the assignments…the permanent lessons for life and for sharing our testimonies with others. I have attended Bible survey classes before and didn’t think I really needed to enroll, but I will be grateful for the rest of my life that I did! | Writing the papers made me really think about application to my life.| Researching and writing the papers along with the VSB feedback, the camaraderie of the class, the good teaching…| My life stopped for 9 months!  No newspaper, no TV, just God’s Word. It was wonderful! I loved the every-week assignment and feedback! Life-changing! | The discipline of reading, contemplating and writing about each book of the Bible in a compact period of time.  Highlighted the integral nature of Scripture for me, which I had never grasped before taking the course. | The results of the discipline it took to following through with this study. Worth every bit of time and effort. | Studying Scripture and writing a paper prior to the lecture, digging into the reading and gaining a deeper understanding. The focused study of the Word gave me something that no other study has given me: an understanding the arc of the story! AMEN!

Appreciation for the Bible

  • The joy of being in the Word | The Bible is absolutely true. I don’t think anyone can read and study it in this way and not see that. | A significantly greater understanding of and appreciation for God’s Word | A greater passion for God’s Word | How the Old and New Testaments fir together | Having an appreciation and real love of the Bible, knowing what it says about me and everyone for how we are loved. | Much more respect and awe for the Scripture. There were many times I fought passages of the Bible and doubted their truth, then after further study I had to agree that the problem was with me, not with the Bible. I became certain the Bible is inspired by God. The course has kept me reading the Bible regularly as part of my spiritual life. | How amazingly wonderful the Scriptures are. An incredible experience, so meaningful and life-changing. It was the first time I saw the Bible as one book, one story, all pointing to Jesus Christ. | Stitched all the meanings, time-lines, important events together for me. Prior, I had a lot of pieces of the Bible, but had little knowledge of how it fit together. | The amazing thread of Christ that runs from beginning to end. | The progressive revelation of the gospel in the books of the Old Testament. | Learning how to connect the Old and New Testaments in ways I had not discovered before | Reading the entire Bible – learning how it all flows together | It created a hunger within me to search the Scriptures even more. | Studying obscure passages of the Bible that aren’t often preached on or taught in Sunday School, and seeing how every part of God’s Word is important to the whole. | Amazed at how God orchestrated the writing of His Word. My faith just grew when I saw how the plan to save us began in the Garden, and that God continued to bring about His plan of salvation at just the right time of history, and that wasn’t the end.

 Relationship with God

  • Knowing God better. | Personal transformation through encountering God’s truth in a deep way. | How well the Scripture complements itself and interweaves proving that it is truly from God. | How much God loves me | Feeling loved by my Savior | Intimacy with the Father and the Word! | That the quality of my relationship with God is directly related to the amount of time I spend in the Word. | Experiencing God in my life through spending time int he WORD! | My life has built on this class that I took years ago. This class has propelled me onto a greater experience with God. | Made my relationship with Christ stronger… I am better able to give an answer for my joy.

Personal Impact – spiritual growth

  • Widened my knowledge of expository preaching and the importance of using hermeneutics to fully understand what God said, and how it is to be applied in my daily life. | Better habits of reading the Bible and thinking about God’s Word almost constantly. | The Scarlet Thread of redemption running from Genesis to Revelation…The first time this was presented to me and it makes such an impact | Opened the floodgates of enormous blessings from a comprehensive study. So many layers of wisdom brought to light and exciting to see how the entirety of God’s Word fits together so perfectly.

 Discipling Impact

  • Great opportunity to discuss with spouse and grow in relationship with Jesus. | Equipped me to pass this along to family, kids, friends. | Much better ability to advise and counsel others.

 Outreach Impact

  • I know what I believe and why — was a conversation starter at work. | I feel more confident about sharing the Word. | Gave me more understanding of the Scriptures and more ability to share it with others. | I love digging the Word into my life. I love sharing the things I discover with people in my family, workplace and church, to encourage and uplift them. | Increased my faith and confidence in what I believe, which increases my desire to share. | Helped me immensely in building relationships with those who know the Lord and those who don’t. | It gave me confidence of the Holy Spirit in my life. It gives me a much better understanding to discuss Christian topics with believers and unbelievers, where I can base my discussion on authoritative Word and not just logical discussions.

 Leadership Impact

  • Used what I have learned in an adult Bible Study class that I am leading. | After taking the course I was able to step into a Bible study as a facilitator, and have continued in that role in different groups and Bible studies ever since.| It was part of my training to become an ordained minister / jail chaplain. | The course equipped me very well for further Biblical studies and for conveying my understanding of Biblical concepts in other ways, such as writing devotionals & leading small groups.


  • People really need to realize how little they know about God, how much they need Jesus, and how to have the Holy Spirit help them grow with discernment and maturity in the Lord. | How could one pick a “best”? My experience was great “Thank you for teaching me the Bible this past year.  It is an experience I will never forget.”  Patrick Reckinger

For class schedule please check our website.

We look forward to seeing you at one of our campuses this fall.

Pastor Warren Coe

What Students are Saying about Cover-to-Cover Bible Survey