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Baptism and the Thief on the Cross

When the thief was sentenced to death, never did he suspect that while suspended on the cross he would receive salvation and have the event recorded in God’s word for all time.

The salvation of the thief has been called upon to prove something Luke never intended, namely, that today people do not need to be baptised, that one can be saved in precisely the same way as the thief. When Luke recorded this incident he was not providing us with a model of how people can be saved; that wasn’t Luke’s point. The focus of Luke’s words was not the thief, and is not a commentary on whether the thief was or wasn’t baptised. The focus is on Jesus, the sovereign king who demonstrates his kingdom authority, who reigns even from the cross. Not even his murder can rob Jesus of his dominion and authority. His sovereignty, even in death, is demonstrated in his extension of mercy to a sinner. And that’s what Luke wants us to see. That’s where Luke has his lens trained.

Was the thief baptised? I don’t know if he was or if he wasn’t baptised. (Some confidently tell us that he was never baptised but fail to show us in Scripture where that information is found). Do I think he was baptised? I really don’t know. Whether he was or wasn’t makes no difference to the purpose for which Luke recorded the event. Luke is not using the event to provide us with a proof text showing that one does not need to be baptised in the Saviour’s name for remission of sins. When Luke wanted to say something about baptism he was well capable of expressing himself. For instance, he records the anger of Jesus at the Pharisees who rejected God’s purpose by not being baptised (Luke 7:29-30). In passing let me say that there is a possibility, and I would not state it any stronger, that the thief could have been among the multitudes that came to both John and Jesus to be baptised. It’s a position that is not entirely unreasonable, and yet it is neither here nor there in our discussion (John 3:22-23; 4:1-2).

Holding up the thief as a model for present day conversion is fraught with problems. First, there is no way the thief had a Pauline understanding of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, yet we have to have such an understanding today if we are to be saved. Second, there is no way that the thief believed in the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus, yet we must believe in his bodily resurrection if we are to be saved. Third, if the thief is a precise model for conversion today, then people need only believe what he believed in order to be saved; this cancels out the Great Commission which calls upon us to believe the good news of Jesus’ redemptive death and be baptised into him who achieved for us the remission of our sins. Finally, to those who would say that the thief was never baptised, yet the Lord saved him, and then draw the conclusion that we don’t need to be baptised, I would point out that the thief was not commanded to be baptised in the name of Jesus, in whom is remission of sins, but we are.

The thief must not be allowed rob us of what the Bible teaches about baptism.