"What About the Thief on the Cross"?

Sometimes as the gospel's beautiful message of grace is presented that sinful humans who do not deserve salvation can be saved as a result of relying in faith upon Jesus through baptism, some people have objected because they believe that baptism is not a necessary part of salvation by faith. Perhaps the most common objection is, "doesn't the thief on the cross show that one does not have to be baptized in order to receive salvation?" Before this question can be answered, other questions must be answered. Some of these include: What purpose does the inclusion of this story in the Gospel record serve? Is the situation of the thief on the cross parallel to our situation? Can or should the thief serve as a paradigm for how we are saved by faith? Is anything required of us for salvation which was not required of him? If so, why?

As an introductory thought to this article, consider the statement that the Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us why Jesus is good news. Among other things, we learn through these Gospels that Jesus has authority to forgive sin and that he died on the cross in order that we might live. But the preaching of Christ crucified and how we are to respond to this gospel is largely unveiled after Jesus completed the story of the gospel by arising from the dead. In other words, the Gospel narratives give us reason to believe that there is good news in Jesus. Following his death, burial and resurrection, Jesus then told his disciples how they were to call others to become his disciples based on the good news of his life, death and resurrection. Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16

Jesus' Authority to Forgive Sins is Demonstrated in the Gospel Narratives

Obviously, Jesus has the authority to forgive sins and bestow life (Mark 2:10 -11; John 5:21). During Jesus' earthly ministry he did forgive the sins of certain ones and proclaim that others had entered salvation (Luke 7:48; 19:9), and while hanging on the cross one more time he forgave someone's sins. He forgave the sins of a thief who had justly been nailed on a cross to die for his guilt. Luke 23:43 Jesus is eager to forgive. This is good news. The Gospel narratives teach us that we can rely upon Jesus for salvation.

This latter statement raises the question about the purpose of those Gospel narrative accounts where Jesus forgives. Is the Gospel story teaching us how to be forgiven or that Jesus can forgive us? For example, will I be saved if my friends have faith like those who let down the paralytic through a roof? Mark 2:5 Can I expect to be forgiven of my sins after shedding tears and breaking the alabaster jar of perfume? Luke 7:38 Will the works of giving half of my possessions to the poor and repaying four times the amount of anything which I've cheated someone cause me to be saved? Luke 19:8 How about saying the words, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom?" Luke 23:42

Consider the following chart about the gospel message.

Contrasting Salvation Before and After the Resurrection

Although Abraham serves as a model that justification through the gospel is by faith (Romans 4), neither Abraham nor the thief on the cross can inform us how the gospel calls us to trust in Jesus. How a person is required to trust in any given situation is dependent upon each specific context.

Many people have gone to paradise who were never baptized AND who never even heard of Jesus. For example, consider those heroes of faith mentioned in the Old Testament such as Enoch and Noah. Hebrews 11:5-7 But all of these examples precede Jesus' death burial and resurrection. Since they were never called to respond in faith to the message of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection, none of them can tell us anything about how the good news of Jesus calls us to rely upon Jesus and his blood which justifies us (Romans 3:25).

To summarize, many who lived and died before the death of Jesus were justified by faith because they responded in faith to that message which God had given them (e.g. Hebrews 11:6). None of these examples are parallel to our situation since none of them were responding in faith to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. In the gospel, we have told told to trust in Christ in a very specific manner. Examples of someone being saved prior to Christ's death and resurrection have no bearing upon what the gospel may demand of us.

The Situation of the Thief is Not Parallel to Our Situation.

To compare the thief with what is or is not required of us in response to the gospel is like comparing apples and oranges. The following numbered paragraphs describe in more detail some of the significant differences between that time prior to Christ's resurrection as opposed to our situation before God today.

1. Since the gospel message by which we are saved today is built upon the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), no one who lived and died before the resurrection can be taken as an example of what it means to respond to the gospel. Although there was much activity leading up to the actualization of the gospel such as: glimpses of this gospel were announced ahead of time (Galatians 3:8), Jesus spoke about the life he was making possible (John 4:7-26), Jesus demonstrated his power to grant both life (e.g. Lazarus) and forgiveness to certain ones, all of this pointed toward the salvation which would be available for all people once the gospel had been completed with Christ's resurrection. Until Christ was risen, no one did or could have responded to the good news of Christ's death, burial and resurrection. Neither Abraham nor the thief on the cross could have obeyed the gospel containing the message of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Accordingly, pointing to an example of anyone being saved prior to Christ's death and resurrection tells us nothing about what the gospel does demand of us in order that we might be saved by grace in Christ.

2. Since baptism in the name of Jesus is based upon Christ's death, burial and resurrection and requires a faith in God who raised Christ from the dead (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4), no one who died before the resurrection could have received baptism in the name of Jesus even if they had wanted it since Christ had not yet been raised. Prior to Jesus' resurrection a different baptism was practiced. See below.

3. The gospel message requires baptism because baptism in the name of Jesus is necessary for entering into the new covenant whereby Christ's blood forgives us of all sin.

1. When Christ died, he inaugurated a new basis for a promised relationship between God and humanity. Scripture calls this new basis for a relationship with God, the new covenant. Jesus was aware that with his death his blood would inaugurate a new covenant relationship with God which would make the forgiveness of sins available to people. Matthew 26:28 See also Hebrews 9:15-23. For those who enter into this covenant relationship made possible by Jesus' death, God promises to no longer remember their sins (Hebrews 10:12-18; 8:8-12). A central promise of the new covenant is the forgiveness of sins. When God saves a person today as a result of their trust in Jesus, according to scripture it is because that person has entered into this new covenant relationship and the blood of Christ has forgiven that person of all his sins.

2. When scripture speaks of someone being "in Christ" and salvation being "in Christ," it is describing those who have responded to the message of the gospel and thus have entered this new covenant relationship with God which Christ has made possible. Accordingly, it is quite understandable that the biblical authors would describe that action which is necessary for entering Christ as being an action for the remission of sins since by entering into the new covenant a person is purified by Christ's blood. Acts 2:38; 22:16 Paul's description of an obedience which results in being released from sin (Romans 6:17-18) refers to the baptism described in Romans 6:3-4. See also 1 Peter 1:18-22; 3:21; Hebrews 10:22.

3. Since the new covenant was not yet in effect when the thief died and the thief's salvation did not depend upon his being in that new covenant which was about to be inaugurated, the thief can not be considered as a valid teaching example regarding what is or what is not required for us to enter into this new covenant of Christ. He does not constitute an exception proving that baptism is not necessary for us today.

4. Scripture reveals that the gospel message requires baptism because baptism is necessary for one to become a child of God. Jesus made it possible for those who would receive him to be born of God. John 1:12-13;1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1 This new birth comes as the result of believing in his name. John 1:12; Galatians 3:26. Whereas many people today mistakenly assume that this means that a person only needs to believe in Jesus, in actuality this statement affirms that it is those who will trust in Jesus who will become children of God. In Galatians 3:26-27 Paul made it very clear that becoming a child of God by trusting in Jesus involves being baptized into Christ. Similarly, within the Gospel according to John, Jesus described being born of water as being necessary for being born again and entering into the kingdom of God. John 3:3-5 In similar language, baptism elsewhere is described as a "washing of regeneration" Titus 3:5 (NASB) and the birth of a new man in Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

Preaching the Gospel Message

The good news is that through Jesus, God has provided salvation to all peoples who will rely upon His Son. Through his death Jesus provided a new basis for us to have a relationship with God (namely, the new covenant), a relationship with God which would be based upon Jesus and not who we are or what we have achieved (that is, it is not based upon works). When people trust in Jesus and in his blood, God adds them to the community of Christ which results in them being justified and hence saved. (Acts 2:47; Romans 3:25) The manner by which the gospel calls people to trust in Christ is by being baptized. Those who are baptized thus become disciples, are saved, are forgiven, become children belonging to God and are added by God to the body of Christ. Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 41; Galatians 3:26-27 The result is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for they have been freed from all sources of accusation against them. Romans 8:1 This is good news indeed!

Once Jesus made this salvation possible through his death, the gospel was then preached to people calling them to respond to the good news about Jesus. To rehash and amplify in greater detail some of the aspects in the previous paragraph:

The gospel calls us to trust in Jesus. When people do trust in Jesus they become members of his body, that is, they become a part of the new covenant community Jesus created by his death. When the scriptures refer to someone as being "in Christ," they are describing those whom God has brought into this community or body of Christ.

As might be expected, those who are members of this body of Christ or covenant community receive the promises associated with the new covenant such as forgiveness of sins and being adopted as God's children. Hebrews 8:7-12; 10:14-17 As someone might expect, those elements which are responsible for creating this new covenant relationship with its promised forgiveness and with it promise that he or she will belong to God or which are involved in causing us to be incorporated into it are described in scripture as providing the forgiveness of sins (salvation) and causing people to belong to God.

· Jesus - John 1:12, 29

· Jesus' blood - Matthew 26:28; Romans 3:25; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:14-15; Revelation 5:9

· Faith in Christ - Galatians 3:26; John 3:16

· Baptism - Acts 2:38; 22:16; Galatians 3:26-27

This original message regarding how the gospel calls us to receive Jesus requires us to respond in faith to the story of Jesus by being baptized. When people do respond to Jesus in this manner, they are included in Christ where all spiritual blessings exist such as being cleansed from their sins (Ephesians 1:3, 7; Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 6:3-4; Hebrews. 10:22). Therefore salvation is by grace (an undeserved gift) through faith (not based upon who we are or what we have achieved). Titus 3:5-7; Ephesians 2:8-9

Incidentally, it is only after the Gospel narratives recount the resurrection of Christ that we find the teaching: "... make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ...." (Matthew 28:20), "he who believes and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16) and "repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins ..." (Acts 2:38). Although John and Jesus preached the gospel that the kingdom was coming soon, it is not until after after Christ's resurrection that gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed.

Salvation Before the Time of Christ's Death (Salvation Before Christ's Covenant was Inaugurated)

Since the message of the gospel is that through Jesus' death, salvation has been graciously extended to us conditional upon our trusting in Jesus, upon what basis were people saved before Christ died? Paul mentions that prior to Christ, God had passed over the sins previously committed. Romans 3:25 What does this mean? We find help in Hebrews 9:15 which also teaches us an important principle. The power of Christ's death not only reaches down through time to us, but that cleansing power also flowed backward through history retroactively canceling sins committed under the former covenant. Since the author of Hebrews was contrasting only the Mosaical system with the new covenant brought by Christ, he only considers the effect of Christ's blood on these two groups. But he has demonstrated an important principle. Those who have been faithful to God are cleansed by Christ's blood. Thus Jesus' words "no man comes unto the Father but by me" remains true. John 14:6 The question which is important for today is, "how does God call us today through the gospel to be faithful to Him?" We can find the answer to this in Jesus' final statements and the message of the early church.

But Didn't Baptism Exist Before Christ's Death?

The baptism John administered during Jesus' earthly ministry was different from the baptism established by Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. In Acts 19:3-5, Paul clearly distinguished between these two baptisms. In contrast to John's baptism, the baptism associated with the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38) involves an immersion or burial into Christ's death (Romans 6:3) and a faith in God who raised Christ from the dead (Colossians 2:12). Christian baptism could not have been administered until after Jesus arose from the grave. Accordingly, it was first practiced on the day of Pentecost after Christ's resurrection (Acts 2:38). Not only was the thief not baptized with Christian baptism, it was impossible for him to have received it.

If Baptism Is Necessary, Why Did Not The New Testament Writers Emphasize Baptism More?

First of all, it is everywhere. From the historical examples of conversion in Acts to the Great Commission of the Gospels to the fabric of the New Testament epistles. But if some people might question why Paul or other New Testament authors did not write even more on this subject, it must be remembered that they were addressing a first century context where the New Testament church was not debating the nature of baptism. All of them knew how they had become Christians and what role baptism had played in this. In fact, it is this common foundation which lies behind Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 10. Why doesn't the New Testament contain more on baptism? Because it was not an issue then. But for those who are willing to listen, the New Testament is sufficiently clear on its teaching regarding baptism.

Barry Newton, Copyright © 1998, 2002

Return to the General Articles page

Home / Bible studies / Bible Survey / Special Studies / General Articles / Non-Bible Articles / Sermons / Sermon Outlines / Links / Questions and Answers / What Saith The Scriptures /Daily Devotional / Correspondence Courses / What is the Church of Christ / Book: Christian Growth / Website Policy / E-mail / About Me /