Baptism: What about the Thief on the Cross?
In continuing this series of articles on baptism and what God’s Word says about it, we’ve seen that baptism is necessary for sins to be forgiven and thus necessary for salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; Mark 16:16). However, many questions still arise about whether baptism is a scriptural necessity for salvation. Despite all that is revealed about the purpose of baptism in the New Testament, one of the most popular questions which object to the necessity baptism pertains to the thief of the cross (Luke 23:39-43). Here was a man whom Jesus undoubtedly saved, and yet we fail to read that he was baptized. Thus, the understandable conclusion is made that baptism is in fact NOT essential to salvation.
In examining the validity of this objection, we must remember that we are commanded to “rightly divide” or accurately handle God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15), which means that we must take into account the entirety of what Scripture says about any given subject in order to arrive to the whole truth about it (Ps. 119:160). With this in mind, might there be something in Scripture overlooked by those who cite the thief on the cross as proof that baptism is not needed for salvation? Something that renders the salvation of the thief irrelevant to the issue?
There is no doubt that the thief was saved. Jesus had the power to save him because Christ had the authority while on earth to forgive sins, something which he did on several occasions (Luke 5:18-26; 7:36-50). While on the cross, Jesus clearly offered the thief salvation when he promised him he would be with Jesus in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:42-43). Yet, the question still remains as to whether the salvation of the thief is relevant to the issue of whether baptism is needed for salvation today.
Something not realized by many is that Christ saved the thief BEFORE he commanded baptism. The “one baptism” commanded under the new covenant of Christ (Eph. 4:5) was commanded after Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). This baptism, according to Paul, is a baptism into Jesus’ death (Rom. 6:3-4). It goes without saying that the thief could not have been baptized into Jesus’ death when Jesus had not yet died when he promised the thief salvation. Thus, the thief was never subject to the baptism commanded by Christ and his apostles because they first gave this command after he had died. In this way, the thief joins the ranks of saved individuals such as Noah, Moses, David, and the like, none of whom had been baptized and yet all had lived before the death of Jesus and, like the thief, had never received the command to be baptized.
Granted, the thief had been alive when Jesus’ cousin, John, had been baptizing people (Mark 1:4-5). However, the baptism of John was to prepare people for the coming of Christ and was designed to be replaced by baptism into Christ and his death (Acts 19:4-5). So one might use the thief on the cross to say that John’s baptism was not necessary for one to be saved and become a Christian, but the argument can’t be made regarding the baptism which Christ later commanded. It is clear that the thief died before Jesus commanded baptism in his name. Since we live after Christ gave that commandment, how can we use the example of the thief to say baptism is not necessary?
In like manner, we must also recognize that the thief was saved before the old covenant was taken out of the way and replaced by the new covenant. The Bible teaches that there are two different covenants. There was first the covenant between God and Israel which governed all Old Testament Israelites such as Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, and the thief on the cross, a covenant which never commanded people to be baptized and, even more significantly, came to an end when Jesus died on the cross (Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:14). It was replaced by the new covenant which is now in force (Heb. 8:6-7), the new covenant of which Jesus spoke when he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:28) and which came into force only after he died (Heb. 9:15-17). We now live under that new covenant, and therefore we must submit to Christ’s authority as expressed after his death, an authority delegated to his apostles (Matt. 28:18-20; John 13:20). With that in mind, notice again that both Christ and his apostles clearly commanded baptism (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 10:48; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:11-12; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Therefore, we cannot appeal to the example of the thief, who lived and died before the new covenant came into effect, just as we cannot appeal to the example of David and Isaiah as what one must do in order to be saved. Rather, we must heed what Jesus and his apostles taught after the new covenant began. Yes, the thief was saved without baptism, something for which we should be thankful and praise God for his wonderful grace. However, the thief’s example is irrelevant to the issue of baptism because he died under the old covenant, before the new covenant which commands baptism for salvation came into effect. We live under that new covenant, and the command to be baptized has been given to us. Salvation is given only to those who obey (Heb. 5:9; Matt. 7:21-27).