By Donald P Ames
So many times when we are trying to teach people the importance of doing all that God has commanded relative to salvation, we encounter the objection that they desire to be saved “like the thief on the cross.” It does not matter how plain to them such passages as Acts 2:38; 22:16 or I Pet. 3:21 may point out that baptism is essential to our salvation, they are determined that if the thief on the cross was saved, then they can be saved just like he was.
We are, not interested in debating whether or not he had been baptized (either by John’s baptism, per Matt. 3:5-6; or by Christ’s baptism, per In. 4:1-2), although indeed he may have been. The fact remains, that if Jesus was willing to forgive him of his sins at this point, all that preceded is immaterial. Nor are we debating whether or not he was saved at this point. I believe a study of the passage and similar related passages would indeed imply that Jesus’ statement, “today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) means He was forgiving the man’s sins and assuring him that He would save him. Nor are we interested in how much he had been exposed to the teachings of Christ, although his comment regarding the kingdom (Lk. 23:42) implies he had a better understanding of the spiritual nature of the kingdom than did many of his time.
There is one particular point about this case that does interest me though, and that is why this particular case seems to be the favorite one used by those objecting to the necessity of being baptized in order to have remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). During the life time of Christ, he forgave many of their sins, as illustrated by the thief on the cross (Lk. 23:39-43), the people who were crucifying Him (Lk. 23:34), the woman taken in adultery (In. 8:3-11), the man who was paralyzed (Matt. 9:2-8), and the sinful woman who annointed His feet (Lk. 7:36-50). Why do some people feel that the thief on the cross is somehow different from any others, forgiven by Christ during His life time? Why not be saved like any one of the others as well?
The truth of the matter is that we cannot be saved like any of them, any more than we can be saved like those who lived under the Law of Moses. God had specific requirements for those under the Law of Moses, and He has specific requirements of us as well. During the life time of Christ, He had the authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6), and did. The thief was forgiven of his sins by Jesus while He was still alive, just as the others mentioned here were. But that does not make this a pattern for us today, any more than it did for those under the Law of Moses. It was an exception to the rule, and not the rule itself. In Heb. 9:15-17, we find that Christ is the mediator of the New Testament, which is the governing means of our salvation today. The writer goes on to point out, “For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.” Jesus forgave the thief while He was still living, hence it was before His new covenant (the New Testament) went into effect.
What those who appeal to the thief on the cross need to find is where anyone after the death of Christ on the cross was given salvation without baptism. Paul prayed and fasted a total of three days, yet was commanded, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16); Cornelius received the baptism of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter that the Gentiles were indeed to be accepted, yet was commanded to be baptized (Acts 10:47); the eunuch teamed from Philip, yet sought to be baptized when they came upon some water (Acts 8:36); and on and on we could go. The thief was not, and cannot be an example for us today! Why not just accept the will of God, and be saved the way He desires-it’s the only way.