What About the Thief on the Cross?
A few years ago, I was engaged in a discussion over what one must do to be saved. The person I was discussing this topic with was an advocate of the salvation by faith alone doctrine and he insisted that one could be saved without being baptized. One of the things he offered as proof of his position was that the thief on the cross was saved by faith alone without baptism. Those who teach the doctrine of salvation by faith only frequently point to the thief on the cross that appealed to Jesus in his last moments. They claim that the thief was saved by faith without the need of being baptized or of any other work of righteousness. They go on to contend that since the thief on the cross was never baptized and that since he was promised a place in paradise that New Testament Christians likewise can be saved by faith alone. The purpose of this lesson is to examine in detail and see if the scriptures teach whether or not the thief on the cross was really saved by faith alone. we are also going to examine the differences between being saved before Jesus died on the cross and afterwards.
Was The Thief on the Cross Saved by Faith Only?
In Luke 23:40 the thief openly rebuked his counterpart saying “Dost not thou fear God”? This man knew who God was and knew he was to be feared more than dying on that cross. That is a demonstration of faith in God. So we see that the thief indeed had faith. But was that enough to save him?
One must ask, would he have been saved if he had never made his appeal to Jesus? Would faith alone in his heart have been enough without anything else? In Luke 23:42 the thief on the cross made an appeal directly to Jesus addressing him as “Lord.” In Luke 12:8 we see Jesus saying “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God”. This man knew who Jesus was and addressed him as Lord before everyone present including the other thief. So we see here that the thief demonstrated faith in Jesus and confessed that faith when he addressed Jesus Christ as Lord before men. If the thief were really saved by faith alone, then he could have been saved without addressing Jesus as Lord.
Concerning the thief we read in Matthew 27:38-44 “Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.“
Both the thieves crucified alongside Jesus started out mocking and reviling Him just like everybody else. But in Luke’s account we have recorded for us a change in one of them later on. Luke 23:39, “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation. And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds“.
Repentance is defined as a change in behavior resulting from sorrow over wrongdoing. If one does not have sorrow, one has not repented. Likewise if one does not change their behavior, they have not repented. 2 Corinthians 7:10 reads “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation…”
Did the thief exhibited a change in his behavior? Of course he did. Was he sorry? He was dieing on a cross for his wrongdoing and he confessed in front of everybody present that he was being justly punished. Of course he was sorry. He knew he was guilty, he had sorrow and he changed his behavior from what it had earlier been. He started out reviling Jesus but now he had changed his behavior and was appealing to Him. There can be no doubt that the thief repented. Now one must ask the question, if the thief had not of repented, would Jesus have saved him? If salvation were really by faith alone, and if the thief on the cross is a valid example of someone being saved by faith alone, then that thief could have been saved without ever opening his mouth to Jesus Christ. If anything more than faith in one’s heart is necessary for salvation, then one cannot be saved by faith alone. The thief was not saved by faith alone, therefore one cannot use him as an example for salvation by faith alone.
Was the thief baptized?
It is often the case that the subject of the thief on the cross comes up when the subject of baptism is being discussed. The thief on the cross is used as an example of someone who was saved without being baptized. First of all, there is not one single shred of scripture anywhere in all of the Bible which says this thief was not baptized. When people argue salvation without baptism by using the example of the thief on the cross, they are making an assumption that he was never baptized. They are assuming that since he was a condemned thief and that he was being executed that he had never received any prior instruction on Jesus Christ and had never been baptized. The truth is, we don’t know for sure whether or not he was baptized because the Bible doesn’t say one way or another.
So what we are going to do now, is to examine the evidence we have from scripture and we are going to look at which way it leads. The evidence against him being baptized is purely an assumption that a condemned thief is automatically unbaptized. That’s all we have to support this belief. Now what about evidence in favor of his having been baptized?
Let’s read Luke 23:38-43 again and then make some observations:
“And there was also a superscription over him, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And one of the malefactors that were hanged railed on him, saying, Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us. But the other answered, and rebuking him said, Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom. And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
Several important facts come to light by a careful analysis of this paragraph.
(1) By comparing Luke’s record with that of Matthew and Mark, it is obvious that there was a change in the man’s view regarding Jesus. Instead of reviling the Lord, he glorified him and petitioned the Savior; and Jesus graciously responded to him.
(2) The penitent thief had a good deal of information concerning Christ; exactly when he learned these facts is not specified. But there are two possibilities. Either he learned about Christ, and became convinced of his royalty, during the six hours of crucifixion, or, else he knew about the Savior from teachings before his crucifixion.
It is not impossible that this man had learned of Christ earlier in his life, had been impressed by it, and, later, had regressed into a life of crime. He certainly wouldn’t be the only one who ever did that. Let’s consider some things about this man’s beliefs.
(3) He acknowledged the existence of God. He believed in a standard of right and wrong, he confessed that he and his companion had transgressed divine law, and he admitted they were being punished “justly.”
(4) The thief acknowledged the innocence of Christ. He knew and declared that Jesus had done “nothing amiss.” And let’s remember, Jesus was being crucified for his affirmation of being the “Son of the Blessed One” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God was the excuse the Jewish leaders used to crucify Him. When the thief declared Jesus’ innocence he acknowledged that he knew Jesus’ claim to be the son of God was the truth. The robber’s statement, therefore, is basically an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.
(5) The penitent thief believed that Christ was a “king,” and that his crucifixion would not be the end of Jesus’ life. Let’s recall his words, “Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom”. This man knew they were going to physically die, yet he asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom. The thief therefore had to believe in the resurrection of the dead. One must ask how this man would know of these things without being taught.
(6) He was confident that Jesus would be able to bless him when he arrived in His kingdom. At the very least, these expressions indicate that the thief believed it was possible to have association with the Lord after both of them were dead. This man knew that even though he and Jesus were going to die, there was something beyond the cross for both of them.
This man hanging beside our Lord had a lot of information. It is highly unlikely that this man received this amount of instruction while hanging on the cross. It is entirely possible and even probable, that this man had been exposed to some earlier teaching concerning Jesus Christ.
Let’s consider this scenario. Is it not possible that this man could have been a disciple of John the Baptist, or of Jesus Christ Himself, or of one of Christ’s disciples as they went forth teaching (Matthew 10:5; Luke 10:1)? If such were the case, the man might well have been baptized for the forgiveness of his sins on some past occasion (Mark 1:4; John 4:1-2). While we can never be certain this side of eternity, there is sufficient evidence to draw the conclusion that it is possible. At the very least, given the amount of information this man possessed concerning Christ, no one can rightfully make the dogmatic statement: “The thief had never been baptized.” That is an unknown factor. He might well have been an “erring child of God” at this point.
The Bible never tells us for sure whether or not the thief was baptized. The Bible never says the thief was baptized. It also never says he wasn’t. Anyone using the thief on the cross to support the doctrine of salvation by faith alone is basing their beliefs on something that 1) does not in any way support their position and 2) is improvable. What we need to take from this is that if someone is going to make a decision that is going to have eternal consequences, then they need to make those decisions based on facts and not on assumptions. We need to make decisions that effect our eternal souls on fact and not on guesses or feelings.
As a side note before we move along, let’s just suppose for arguments sake that the thief was not baptized? Does that make any difference to us today? A careful Bible student must understand that there are different periods of history with different religious requirements. Abraham was never commanded to be baptized or to observe the Lord’s supper. Cain and Abel were not required to be circumcised. In today’s era of religious history, we are not obligated to observe the Passover, or to offer animal sacrifices. God has given different requirements in different periods of history.
During his personal ministry, Jesus possessed the authority to forgive men’s sins personally and directly. For example, once while in the city of Capernaum, Jesus encountered a man who was paralyzed. The unfortunate man had been carried to where Christ was by four of his friends. When Jesus saw “their faith,” he said to the Palsied man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Then after Christ established his “authority” in the matter of personally forgiving sins “on earth” (2:10), He afterwards healed the man of his Palsy.
While Jesus was alive on earth he had the authority to forgive sins. At the time of his death, however, his authority to forgive sins was transferred to His testamentary “will” (Hebrews 9:15-17). And the terms of that covenant specify baptism as a condition for the forgiveness of sin (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.). What that means is that While Jesus was alive on earth, He had the authority to forgive sins directly. Jesus is not alive on earth anymore. He has been resurrected and now lives in heaven. What He left behind was His new Testament or new Covenant. This new covenant specifies how sin is to be forgiven. The thief had his sins forgiven before Christ died on the cross. It is not possible today for anyone to be forgiven of their sins by Jesus Christ before He died on the cross. Whether or not the thief was baptized or not really makes no difference to us at all. He was forgiven under a covenant that is no longer in force today.
Hebrews 9:15-17, “And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.” The New Testament came into force at the death of Christ. We are living 2000 years or so after the death of Christ. The thief was forgiven before Christ died on the cross. No one today can be saved 2000 years ago. No one today can be saved before the death of Christ. We live under the new covenant now and it says we must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.
The thief on the cross believed. He had faith. He repented and confessed Jesus as Lord before men. He had sorrow over his guilt and he changed his mind. He asked Jesus for help and he got it. Only the most careless and irresponsible Bible student could try and say that the thief would have been saved by Jesus if he had not made the response he did on that cross. If salvation were obtainable by faith alone, then that thief could have been saved without saying or doing anything because it is glaringly obvious from the appeal he made to Jesus that he already had faith.
Jesus died on that cross. He shed His blood for us that day and he died. When He died, he left a testament in force which tells us today what we have to do to be saved. We have to do what we know the thief did. Like the thief on the cross, we have to believe and have faith: Hebrews 11:6, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him“.
Like the thief on the cross we have to confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God before men: Romans 10:9-10, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.“
Like the thief on the cross we have to Repent, we have to be sorry for our sin and turn away from it. We have to change our way of thinking and our behavior: Luke 13:3, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”.
We must be baptized: Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned”. Concerning being baptized Jesus told Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Baptism in not an option. Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and Colossians 2:13 teach us that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin and nobody can be saved if their sins are not forgiven.
And after faith, repentance, confession and baptism comes faithful living for the rest of our lives. Living, serving and obeying God in accordance with His will. This is called “walking in the light” and concerning this John wrote in 1John 1:7-9, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We continue to walk in the light, confessing our sins when we fall short, picking ourselves up when we fall and keep on keeping on for life.
Instead of using the thief on the cross incorrectly to support the false doctrine of salvation by faith alone, we need to use his story to see how quickly, how easily and how readily Christ wants to forgive us. The thief had been reviling Jesus just a few hours before. He was hung on a cross and breathing out his last few breaths on earth. His time was up, he was lost and he knew it. In his last moments on this earth he turned to the only person on this earth who could help him and instead of finding someone bitter and angry, he found a savior who was ready willing and able to accept him and offer him life. The savior that thief turned to is the same savior we have today. He is just as eager, willing and ready to save as he was when he was dieing on that cross. There is no reason whatsoever anybody should leave today without the same hope that thief had. Two thieves died on a cross that day with Jesus Christ. As far as we know, one of them died lost and we know for sure the other one went to paradise with Jesus. Where do you want to go when you die?