What About the Thief on the Cross?
“Why do you insist that baptism is essential for salvation? While hanging on the cross, Jesus pardoned the thief who was crucified with him. And that forgiveness was granted without baptism (Luke 23:43). Surely this is a clear example of salvation by faith, not by baptism.”
To argue that the example of the thief on the cross is a pattern of salvation today involves: first, an unwarranted assumption; and second, a faulty view of biblical chronology.
Here are the basic facts of the case.
When the Lord was crucified, he was positioned between two robbers, both of whom, at some point during the six hours of agony, reproached him (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). The Greek grammar suggests a repeated verbal assault. However, as the ordeal proceeded, a change occurred in one of the thieves. This aspect of the case is recorded by Luke alone (23:38-43).
“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 that six-hour episode, or, else he knew about the Savior from earlier circumstances.
It is not impossible that he had been exposed significantly to information about Jesus earlier in his life, had been impressed by it, and, later, had regressed into a life of crime. Note some things about the 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 conceded they were being punished “justly.”
(4) He asserted the innocence of Christ. The Teacher had done “nothing amiss.” And remember, the Lord was being crucified for his affirmation of being the “Son of the Blessed One” (Mark 14:61,62). The robber’s statement, therefore, is basically an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus’ claim.
(5) The penitent thief believed that Christ was a “king,” and that this act of murder would not terminate the Savior’s life; rather, the Lord would “come in [his] kingdom.”
(6) He was confident that Jesus would be able to bless him in that regime. 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.
While it is not impossible, it does seem improbable, that this man could have accumulated this much theological information, with such clear implications, and under such excruciating conditions, in such a short period of time. It is entirely feasible, then, that this criminal had absorbed some earlier teaching concerning the Master.
Consider this scenario. Is it not possible that this man could have been a disciple of John the Baptist, or of the Lord himself, or of one of Christ’s disciples as they went forth teaching (Matthew 10:5ff; Luke 10:1ff) — during the preceding years? If such were the case, the man might well have been immersed for the forgiveness of his sins on some past occasion (Mark 1:4; John 4:1-2).
I am not suggesting that this proposition can be proved; I am simply saying that no one can 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.
Having said that, let us now focus our attention in another direction. The careful Bible student must acknowledge that there are different periods of sacred history, in the course of which, certain religious requirements may vary. Abraham was never commanded to be baptized or to observe the Lord’s supper. In today’s era of religious history, we are not obligated to observe the Passover, or to offer animal sacrifices. Jehovah has had different requirements in different periods of history.
In view of this principle, consider the following facts.
(1) During his personal ministry, Jesus possessed the authority to forgive men’s sins personally and directly, upon whatever terms he chose. For example, once while in the city of Capernaum, the Lord encountered a man who was paralyzed. The unfortunate gentleman had been conveyed 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, in order to establish his “authority” in the matter of personally forgiving sins “on earth” (2:10), Christ healed the man of his malady. It is interesting to note that there is no mention made of the fact that the man was required to repent of his sins.
If recorded examples of events occurring during the Lord’s personal ministry function as precedent for the Christian age, shall it be concluded that no repentance is obligatory today?
(2) The fact is, while Jesus was on earth he had the authority to dispense blessings directly based upon the circumstances at hand. At the time of his death, however, his authority was made resident in his testamentary “will” (Hebrews 9:15-17). And the terms of that will specify baptism as a condition of pardon (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.).
No one has the legal right to eliminate that condition by appealing to something the Lord did while he was implementing his earthly ministry. The heavenly regime takes precedence over the former.
It becomes very apparent, therefore, that those who appeal to the case of the “thief on the cross,” as a specific example for conversion today, are mistaken in several particulars.
(a) They do not comprehend the difference between the Savior’s earthly operations and his current reign from heaven; and,
(b) They have thrust aside the plain demands of the New Covenant economy.