The Bible teaches clearly that, under the New Covenant, baptism (immersion) in water is necessary to receive forgiveness of sins (Mark 16:15-16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-6). One of the most common objections to this teaching is to ask, “What about the thief on the cross?” In Luke 23:42-43, Jesus had a conversation with a thief who was being crucified next to Him. The thief expressed faith in Jesus when he said: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus responded by assuring the man: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Many have attempted to use this passage as a proof-text in arguing that baptism in water is not necessary for salvation. After all, if Jesus saved the thief who expressed trust and faith in Him, why would He not do the same for people who express trust in Him today? Does the thief on the cross teach us that water baptism is not necessary? Consider:
The thief lived and died under a different covenant than now — The thief on the cross was likely Jewish, since he was being crucified in Jerusalem and seemed to understand something of the Messiah’s mission (Luke 23:42). Thus, he was subject to the Law of Moses during his life. Since it is impossible to be under two covenants at the same time (Rom. 7:1-4), and since Jesus established the New Covenant through His death, which had not yet occurred (Col. 2:11-14), we must conclude that the thief was not a part of the same covenant we are. He lived and died before baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins was first preached in Acts 2.
The Bible says practically nothing of the thief’s background — Those who argue that the thief on the cross was never baptized are obliged to prove it. Luke 23:39-43 records all we know of the thief’s life. Who can say what he had done previously? John the Baptist baptized multitudes in the wilderness (though it was not the baptism of the New Covenant), and it is entirely possible that the thief on the cross had indeed been baptized (cf. Mark 1:4-5). This point is mentioned merely to point out that there is much about this thief that is unknown, and any attempt to say more than Scripture can lead to error (Deut. 4:2).
Jesus had power on earth to forgive sins — The best explanation for why and how the thief on the cross was saved is to look at Jesus’ claim in Mark 2:10. When He raised a paralytic, He claimed that His miracle was evidence of the fact that, “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus, while He was on earth, could forgive sins any way He desired. So, when Jesus recognized the faith of the thief on the cross, He was able to forgive him. That same Jesus, on the night before He was crucified, said explicitly that the grounds of forgiveness under the New Covenant would be the shedding of His own blood (Matt. 26:28). Jesus could forgive sins any way He chose while He was on earth, but now forgiveness is found only in contacting His shed blood — something that happens only in the waters of baptism (Romans 6:3-6).
We must look to the Word to see how to be saved — When Saul of Tarsus was confronted by the Lord on the road to Damascus, he did not ask, “Lord, what did the thief on the cross do?” He merely asked, “Lord, what would You have me do?” (Acts 9:6). If we are going to find God’s will for our lives, we must rightly divide His word (2 Tim. 2:15). We must appreciate the difference between the Old and New Covenants, and we must heed the words of Jesus in the Great Commission: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). —JB