Salvation and the Thief on the Cross

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“I want to be saved like the thief on the cross.”

This is a statement that most of us have probably heard at some point, or maybe some of you have even made this claim.  Typically this statement is made during a discussion of baptism and whether or not it is a requirement for salvation.  A common argument from those that claim that baptism in water is not a requirement for the remission of sins is to claim that Jesus saved the thief on the cross while the thief was never baptized.

Just in case you are not familiar with what I’m talking about, let’s set the stage.  One of the more common passages used to show that baptism is a prerequisite to salvation is Acts 2:38:

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

(There are many other passages also used, but since that’s not the point of this discussion, we’ll just use that one.)

Then comes the “Thief on the Cross” argument.  This is a reference to the interaction that Jesus had with one of the two thieves next to him on the cross.  The thieves were also being crucified at the same time as Jesus.  The thieves are mentioned four times in the New Testament: Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:39-43, and John 19:18.  The passages in Matthew, Mark, and John simply acknowledge that the thieves were also crucified, but they give absolutely no details about the interaction with Jesus.  So, let’s take a closer look at the passage in Luke.

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”  But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

At this point, the naysayers will typically proclaim, “See…the thief was saved without baptism.  So you can’t tell me that I have to be baptized to be saved.  I want to be saved like the thief on the cross!”

Let’s look at some things we know about this thief, as well as some things that we don’t know.

  1. Was the thief saved?  From the passage in Luke, indications are that the thief was saved eternally.  I have no argument against this.
  2. Was the thief baptized? I always thought this was very interesting.  The thief obviously didn’t come down from the cross to get baptized.  Jesus also didn’t say, “Today you will be with me in paradise so long as you have been properly baptized.”  From what we read, it appears that Jesus put no conditions around His statement.  However, we know absolutely nothing about this man outside the passage in Luke.  So, in total, we know everything that happened during about 2 minutes of his life.  There is one conclusion that I don’t think anyone can argue against because the evidence in the passage of Luke is too strong: the thief knew exactly who Jesus was.  He knew this Man was truly the Son of God.  He understood that Jesus did nothing to deserve the crucifixion.  How did he come to know this?  Maybe he lived in or frequented the areas where Jesus taught and performed miracles.  Maybe he had just overheard rumors of Christ.  Is it possible that this thief was at one time a devoted follower and disciple of Christ that made some bad decisions, got mixed up with the wrong people, and fell into a life of crime, ultimately resulting in his crucifixion?  Sure that’s possible.  It’s possible he had already been baptized before his crucifixion, but it’s also just as possible that he had not.  We have no idea.  The Bible simply does not give us any details, so we cannot definitively state whether or not the thief was ever baptized.

If you have ever been presented with the “Thief on the Cross” argument for why baptism is not necessary, you may have heard or even given the following response: “Well, the thief was still under the Old Law because Christ had not actually died yet, so baptism was not yet a requirement.”  While this statement is true (Hebrews 9:16), I would caution you from using this response to try and prove your point.  By making this statement, you are basically giving the argument that the thief was saved using the standards of the Old Testament law, but that doesn’t appear to be true.  The method by which the thief seems to be saved (i.e. asking to be saved and that request being granted) is not taught anywhere in the Old Testament either.  Now, is it possible that the thief did offer sacrifices and follow the Old Law prior to his crucifixion?  It’s possible, but just like the idea of him being previously baptized, there is no evidence to support that claim.

So, which is it?  Can we use the thief on the cross as a pattern by which to obtain our salvation today?  No we cannot, and here’s why.  This is best explained by looking in Mark 2 at the interaction that Jesus had with a paralytic man.  We’ve all heard this story in our Bible Classes as children.  A man wanted to see Jesus, but he was paralyzed.  His four friends carried him, but when they got to the place where Jesus was, the crowd was too big and they couldn’t get in the door.  Then his friends had a genius idea: they lowered him down through the roof.  When Jesus saw this, he made a statement that only a member of the Godhead could truthfully make:

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” [Mark 2:5]

Well, isn’t that interesting.  Jesus forgave this man’s sins, but it doesn’t appear that the man even asked for his sins to be forgiven.  So why did Jesus forgive them?  It says in that passage that Jesus forgave the man’s sins because he saw “their” faith.  Whose faith?  It couldn’t have only been referring to the paralytic’s faith, because then it would have said “his” faith.  It appears that the faith of the four friends played a role in this man having his sins forgiven.  But it doesn’t end there.  Of course the scribes present thought Jesus was speaking blasphemies.  In response, Jesus also healed the man physically, but listen to the reason He healed him.

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sin…” [Mark 2:10]

Let that soak in for a second, because that’s a very important statement that Jesus just made, and it explains the interaction with the thief on the cross.  Jesus said that He had the power while on earth to forgive someone’s sins.

Believe it or not, the thief on the cross and the paralytic man are not the only times that Jesus forgave someone’s sins.  In Luke 7:36-50, we are told of a woman who washed the feet of Jesus using her tears and her hair, all while kissing His feet and anointing them with fragrant oil.  In verse 48 of that passage, Jesus tells the woman that her sins are forgiven.  Then he tells her two verses later that her faith has saved her.

So, here’s the question I have.  When someone wants to claim that baptism is not necessary for salvation, why is the thief on the cross always the example that is used?  I believe it’s because the indication is that the thief simply made the request and the request was granted.  There was no “work” that had to be performed on his part, and that’s what many want to say is possible today by simply asking Jesus into you heart.  However, why isn’t the paralytic man used as an example to claim that I can be saved by proxy because my friends have faith?  Or why isn’t the woman used as an example to claim that I can be saved if I wash someone’s feet?

The answer is that none of these three situations can be used as an example or pattern for our own salvation today.  There is one very simple, yet obvious difference between those three individuals and us.  They each had a very personal, face-to-face interaction with Jesus while He walked on this earth, and Jesus stated very clearly that He had the power on earth to forgive sins.  It’s not possible for us to follow their examples today because Jesus is no longer living as a man on this earth.  It’s not possible for us to have a face-to-face interaction with Jesus in the same way that they did.

The fact that the thief on the cross did not come down to get baptized does not change the Bible’s teaching on baptism.  Nor does the fact that the paralytic man had his sins forgiven partly due to the faith of someone else.  Nor does the fact that the woman’s sins were forgiven because she washed the feet of Jesus.

The Bible does teach that baptism is necessary for salvation (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-6; I Peter 3:21), which is a discussion for another post.  Whether you believe that or not, the “Thief on the Cross” argument is not a valid denial of the necessity of baptism for salvation.