Luke 23:39-43 - Jesus was crucified between two criminals (thieves). As the three of them were suspended, one thief ridiculed Jesus, but the other defended Him. Jesus promised this one would be in Paradise that day.
This saying of Jesus has become a center of controversy. Many believe Jesus saves people on the basis of "faith alone," so baptism is not essential to receive forgiveness of sins. When the subject is discussed, people commonly bring up the thief as someone who was saved without baptism. They conclude that if Jesus would save this man without baptism, He would also save us without baptism.
Let us consider further. What does this case teach us about the terms of forgiveness under the gospel?
This point is not as significant as others we will consider. Obviously the thief was not baptized on the cross, but does that prove he had never been baptized beforehand?
Jesus wasn't baptized on the cross either, but does that prove He had never been baptized? No, He was baptized by John the Baptist.
Matthew 3:5,6 - People from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region round about were baptized by John.
John 4:1,2 - Later, Jesus' disciples began baptizing people to make them Jesus' disciples. In fact, Jesus baptized more disciples than John did.
True, some people were not baptized by John or by Jesus' disciples. But if the thief had been among those who were baptized and then later fell into sin, then he would have been an erring child of God not in need of baptism.
Someone may ask, "Can you prove the thief was baptized?" But, remember, I'm not using the thief to prove baptism one way or the other. We will see that the importance of baptism is proved by many other passages. But if people want to use the thief to prove baptism is not necessary, then to be fair, don't they first have to know that he was never baptized? If there is a reasonable chance that he may have been baptized, then have they really proved their point?
Someone may point out that the thief could not have received the baptism of the gospel like we must receive today, but we will see that the thief also did not have the same kind of faith we must have today. The reason the thief could not receive the same baptism we do is that the terms of salvation under the gospel were not yet in effect when the thief was crucified. So the example of the thief actually teaches nothing about the specific steps that we must take to be saved today.
The reason people try to use the thief to prove that people can be saved without baptism is that they believe in salvation by faith alone. But did the thief have the kind of faith we must have to be saved under the gospel?
Romans 10:9 - If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. So, to have the faith required by the gospel, we must believe that God "has raised" Jesus from the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:1-4 - Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection are the fundamental facts of the gospel that we must receive, believe, and hold fast in order to be saved. The thief on the cross could not possibly believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, because He had not yet died, let alone been buried and raised.
So, if it is true that the thief could not have received the baptism of the gospel, then it is also true that he could not have possessed the same faith that the gospel requires of us today. The gospel requires us to believe that Jesus has died, been buried, and been raised. The thief could not have believed this, because it had not happened. All that he could have believed would be to look forward to these events, even as John's baptism looked forward to them (Acts 19:1-5).
The thief was no more saved by the faith of the gospel than he was saved by the baptism of the gospel. Would it be proper for people to try to use the thief to prove that people can be saved today without believing that Jesus has been raised from the dead? No, and likewise it is not proper to use the thief to prove people today can be saved without baptism.
The point is that the thief was saved before the terms of the gospel came into effect. So we cannot use his case to prove one way or the other what people must do today to be saved.
In order to understand what salvation requires today, we must study the terms of the gospel itself. Many passages state that, in addition to faith, repentance, and confession, the gospel requires people to be baptized to be saved.
Mark 16:16,15 - The gospel teaches that he who believes and is baptized will be saved.
Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.
Acts 22:16 - Be baptized and wash away your sins.
Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:26,27 - We are baptized into Christ, into His death. We have newness of life after we have been baptized (John 3:3,5).
1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism now saves us.
Note carefully that all these passages state terms of salvation under the gospel - not the terms of salvation for people before the gospel came into effect.
The gospel clearly teaches that baptism is essential to receive remission. God's word does not contradict itself. The case of the thief could not possibly prove that people are saved without baptism, because that would contradict other gospel passages.
The truth is that the thief was not saved under the same law and dispensation that we are under. He was still under the Old Testament, not the gospel. That is why he was not required to believed what we must believe nor to receive the same baptism that we must receive. The terms of his forgiveness teach us nothing about what we must do to be saved.
Galatians 4:4 - Jesus Himself was born and lived under the Old Testament law till He died. That is why He taught people, in His lifetime, to obey the Old Law, including circumcision, the Sabbath, animal sacrifices, etc. (Luke 4:16; 2:21; 2:22-24; Matt. 8:4; Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22ff; cf. Lev. 14:1-32; etc.). Must we do these things today to be saved?
Matthew 5:17,18 - He said not one jot or tittle would pass from the law till He had fulfilled it all. But He had not fulfilled it all till He died and rose from the dead.
Colossians 2:14 - Jesus removed the first ordinances nailing them to His cross. So the Jews remained subject to the Old Testament until Jesus died.
Ephesians 2:13-16 - He abolished the Old Law through His blood on the cross (vv 13,16).
Hebrews 10:9,10; 9:16,17 - Jesus removed the first testament and replaced it with His new covenant, the gospel. It is under this New Testament that we are saved by Jesus' death. But Jesus had to die to bring this about. [Cf. Gal. 3:13; Rom. 7:4.]
So, the Old Law was in effect until Jesus died. But the thief was forgiven before Jesus died, while the first covenant was still in effect. The conditions he had to meet to be forgiven prove nothing about the conditions under which we are forgiven under the gospel.
The case of the thief proves no more about how we should be saved than do David, Moses, Noah, or Abraham. Why not use these examples to try to show that baptism is not necessary today? Because these people lived under a different covenant. But the same is true of the thief. None of these people were required to believe what we do, nor were they required to be baptized like we are, because they did not live under the same covenant as we do.
For further discussion of the Old Testament law, see our article on that subject on our Bible Instruction web site at www.gospelway.com/instruct (See the section about the Bible to find this article.)
Mark 16:15,16; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46,47 - Only after He died and was raised did Jesus teach His disciples to take the message of salvation under the gospel to all mankind. That message was first preached as being in effect on Pentecost in Acts 2. This is the message that requires gospel faith and gospel baptism.
1 Corinthians 15:1-7 - Salvation under the gospel is based on Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, so it could not have been preached as being in effect before those events occurred.
Romans 6:3,4; Colossians 2:12, 13 - In fact, the gospel teaches us to be baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. So no one could have received the baptism of the gospel before Jesus' resurrection. The thief did not receive gospel baptism for the simple reason that it was not in effect when he was forgiven, just as the other terms of the gospel were not yet in effect.
Mark 2:5-12; Luke 7:48,49; cf. John 8:1-11 - Before His death Jesus directly granted forgiveness to several people. Apparently the thief is another such case. But He did not forgive any of these people under the terms of the gospel, since the gospel was not yet in effect.
Hebrews 9:16,17 - Jesus' death not only removed the Old Law, but it was necessary to institute the terms of the New Testament (see also the verses above). As with any will or testament, Jesus had to die to bring His testament into force.
During his lifetime, a man may distribute his possessions to anyone he wishes in any way he wishes. But after the man's death, no one has any right to receive any of his possessions except according to the terms of his will or testament. The will does not come into effect till He dies.
In the same way, Jesus directly forgave people during His lifetime (apparently based on His ability to read their hearts and observe their lives). His New Testament, the gospel, came into effect after He died and arose. People today receive forgiveness only by complying with the terms of Jesus' will. Those terms require baptism, as well as faith, as shown in the verses already listed.
Copyright 1999, David E. Pratte
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.