One of the first arguments that people bring up when they object to the necessity of water baptism is the thief on the cross. Let’s recall the events of Jesus while on the cross. Jesus was placed between two criminals (Mark 15:27). These thieves were insulting Jesus while they were hanging on their own cross (Matthew 27:44). However, Luke records the change of heart that one of these thieves had. One of the thieves rebuked the other thief, saying, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” (Luke 23:40). As death drew near, he began to feel remorse and the need to ready himself to answer to God. He then asks Jesus to remember him as the Lord entered the kingdom. Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43). The promise of redemption and salvation for this man who was affixed to a cross.
Opponents to the necessity of baptism to receive the forgiveness of sins appeal to this incident because they assume it proves that you do not have to be baptized to receive the forgiveness of one’s sins. As the argument goes, since the thief did not have to be baptized, then you do not have to be baptized to become a Christian.
Let’s consider a few things:
1. They were under the old covenant. The new covenant which Christ enacted had not been activated yet. “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,” (Hebrews 9:16-17). Jesus had not yet died, so any command concerning baptism we find under the new covenant. So the thief on the cross CANNOT be an exception to Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, or Acts 2:38.
2. The thief on the cross does not invalidate what Jesus would say later. Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned,” (Mark 16:16). Christ’s apostles continued to preach the message of baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). So whatever lessons we may learn from the thief on the cross, they cannot contradict what Jesus plainly stated.
3. People assume the thief had never been baptized. This thief, a Jew, may have received the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John baptized many people, as well as the disciples of Jesus (John 4:1-2). He may have resorted back to a life of sin. The entire argument rests upon an assumption that thief was never baptized.
Let’s believe the words of Christ and submit to what He has told us—believe and be baptized and be saved (Mark 16:16).
by Sean P. Cavender