What about the thief on the cross? This is probably my favorite of all objections. Let’s take a look at this fellow.
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In this objection to water baptism for the remission of sins, people point to the Thief on the Cross and claim, “The thief on the cross was not baptized and he went to Heaven!
A Quick Side Study
When you see the answer to this objection, you will probably say, “Oh, yeah… I forgot about that.” There is a fairly obvious problem with this claim. But, before we get there, let’s have a little fun and get our minds whirling just a little bit. Then I will tell you why the using The Thief on the Cross is not a good example for rejecting baptism as integral to the salvation process.
Let’s take Jesus at his word, after all, Jesus always tells the truth. He told Thief on the Cross that whatever was going to happen, it would happen that very day. It would not happen sometime later. Jesus told the penitent criminal, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” How do we conclude from Jesus own testimony as to when this would occur? That very day. Do we believe Jesus? Of course.
Where did He tell the thief he would meet him? “Paradise.” Did Jesus say he would meet him in Heaven? No. He said He would meet him in “Paradise.” Well isn’t Paradise and Heaven the same place?
Listen to this, then you decide. Something interesting happens three days later, after Jesus resurrection when Mary, filled with joy, goes to embrace him.
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
Who is the “Father?” God! Where is God? In Heaven. It’s been three days, has Jesus been there yet? No.
This is an entirely different and really fun study. I offer it up just to whet your appetite for deeper, richer bible study… but it is clear, Jesus did not tell the Thief on the Cross he would meet Him in Heaven. Heaven and Paradise were two different places in the Old Testament economy. Does Paradise still exit? Has it been closed? I don’t know. Maybe you can study that one out and let us all know.
The Real Reason
Ok, that’s interesting and certainly worthy of a lot more study, but what is the real reason the Thief on the Cross serves as a bad argument against water baptism?
Water baptism was first commanded by Jesus when He issued The Great Commission. It is not initiated until the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Water baptism is a New Covenant command. The Thief on the Cross died under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is not open for business for another 50 days. Baptism, introduced by Peter, was not yet in force. The Thief on the Cross could not be baptized because there was no such thing as New Testament baptism!
In Romans, we learn that baptism is a participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The thief could not do this because Christ had not yet died, been buried and resurrected.
Now you may ask, “But, doesn’t Jesus have the power to forgive the sins of anyone he chooses and save them?” Yes. And we see many instances of Him doing just that in the Gospels. This authority was available to Him when he walked on the earth. But, He also told us how this would happen, after his resurrection. He provided a special prescription which leads to the forgiveness of sins for everyone who obeys the Gospel. It’s called “The Great Commission.” Today, we simply need to follow His instructions.
Unfortunately, we always want to do things our own way. We desperately want to believe Jesus will forgive us, just like the thief, if we humbly ask Him, with all sincerity. That will not work. It’s not what Christ told us to do to be saved. We do not have any special permission to deviate from the instructions of The Great Commission.
Again, you may protest, “But God can do anything He wants. If He wants to save me, because I ask, are you saying He can not do that?”
While God can certainly do anything He wants and save anyone He wants to save, He will be doing it through the framework He has established. We are not authorized to to go beyond that. He is, but we’re not. I believe God is willing to save anyone who comes to him and sincerely asks him to show them the truth and save them. If a person is really sincere, why wouldn’t they be willing to do what Jesus has asked them to do. When we reject the Biblical Plan of Salvation, perhaps we are not as sincere as we think we are.
The Thief on the Cross, at first, sounds like a really good exception to the rule but his death was under the Old Covenant. There was no such thing as Christian baptism at that time in history so using the thief as an example of someone who was saved but never baptized doesn’t work.Enjoy!