The Thief on the Cross

Why the Thief on the Cross Doesn’t Negate Baptism

by Jack Wilkie

As is commonly the case when baptism is mentioned as part of God’s plan of salvation, some pointed to the thief on the cross as a reason why baptism is not essential. The thief, mentioned in Luke 23:39-43, was promised by Jesus that He would be with Jesus in paradise after their deaths that same day.

Here we see a person clearly being promised salvation by Jesus simply for a confession of Jesus’ innocence and a request to be remembered. Many go on to interpret that to say that the thief was saved in a similar manner to what we read about in Romans 10:9-10, and therefore baptism wasn’t required of him. And if baptism wasn’t required of him, the thinking goes, it isn’t required of us today.

Some answer this by pointing out that the thief may very well have been baptized by John, but that’s a rather poor defense. It’s dangerous to build a doctrine on an assumption, and we have no idea whether the thief had been baptized.

Additionally, John’s baptism was not the same as the baptism we see in the church (see Acts 19).

On the other hand, those who point to the thief to negate baptism are making just as critical of an error. It’s dangerous to build a doctrine on an assumption, but it’s also dangerous to build a doctrine on an exception. We see precisely one person experiencing the thief’s type of salvation experience in the Bible, and yet we see many others being baptized when coming to Jesus for salvation.

Additionally, baptism isn’t the only thing missing from his conversion. There is no declaration of repentance or confession of Jesus as the Son of God as they are typically seen in most churches today, and yet I’ve never seen someone say that repentance is unnecessary because of the thief on the cross. The truth is that we all know his was an extraordinary exception and was never meant to be the basis for our doctrine.

But not only is it wrong to build a belief on an exception – it’s always wrong to fight Scripture with Scripture. Claiming that every verse that commands baptism is canceled out by Luke 23:39-43 is to say that the Bible contradicts itself. Instead we have to see the different texts as a whole to gain a fuller picture, and that’s how we understand how the thief could be saved in a different manner than we are today.

In order to look at the matter as a whole, it’s important to understand what baptism signifies. Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12 tell us that baptism is how we are united with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The thief could not possibly have been baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ before any of those things happened. The new covenant was instituted at the death of Christ (Hebrews 9:15-17) and therefore we only see baptism as the prescribed method of conversion after that point. The thief was not alive for Jesus’ inclusion of baptism in the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) or Peter’s sermon which commanded repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38) or any of Paul’s writings on the matter (such as Galatians 3:27). To excuse ourselves from baptism because he didn’t comply with any of the verses commanding it – which didn’t exist at that time and couldn’t have until after he was in the grave – is incredibly illogical.

The Holy Spirit could not have made it any more clear that baptism is intended to be part of our salvation and the thief on the cross does nothing to take away all of the verses that show us God’s emphasis on the act. At a certain point a person either accepts that fact or denies God’s plainly stated commandments. 

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