Many Scriptures link baptism together with salvation (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and 1Peter 3:21 come quickly to mind). But in the atmosphere of Contemporary Christendom – in which many winds of doctrine blow – this connection is often denied. As a result, many objections are raised when we attempt to show people their need of a scriptural immersion. Perhaps there is none more frequently heard than this one: "What about the Thief on the Cross?"
Many have been taught that the penitent thief – whose example is seen at Luke 23:39-43 – is a model of "salvation by faith alone". Shifting focus to the 3000 converts of Pentecost as a more fitting model of our conversion is not an easy adjustment for them.
As this thief suffered on a cross along-side our Lord, he was promised entry into paradise. There is, of course, no mention of baptism and there was certainly no opportunity for him to be immersed. Naturally, his example is seen as an example showing salvation can be had without immersion.
Considered superficially, the thief's example seems persuasive. A deeper look reveals that this "proof" is actually not so substantial. This has to do with his circumstances, which were completely different than ours and in some ways unique.
UNDER A DIFFERENT COVENANT
There was a change of covenant in the time of Christ. The old covenant was given through Moses and sealed with the blood of sacrificed bulls. The new covenant was given through Christ and sealed with His blood.
Terms or conditions are a universal characteristic of covenants. Covenants have terms of entry as well as conditions defining obedience. Under the covenants of Abraham and Moses, for example, circumcision was an essential condition of entry into the covenant - Genesis 17:10-14. Every male child born into an Israelite home was entitled to be a part of the covenant. This took effect only when he was circumcised, however. Without circumcision, he was cut off from the covenant. Circumcision was therefore a condition of entry into the old covenants--those of Abraham and Moses.
Christianity has an equivalent to Old Covenant circumcision. The apostle Paul points out there ought to be an inward circumcision; one "of the heart, by the Spirit". This is an emphasis of the new covenant, which came through Christ.
Romans 2:28-29 - For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (NAS)
In another place, Paul points to a specific time and event in which the inward, spiritual circumcision takes place.
Colossians 2:11-12 - and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (NAS)
Paul shows that a circumcision of the heart is accomplished through God's power in the ordinance of baptism. His association of baptism and circumcision suggests that the old covenant ordinance prefigured the new. Circumcision was a condition of entry into the old covenant and immersion a condition of entry into the new.
All of this serves as important background information in considering the salvation of the penitent thief dying at Christ's side. Christian Baptism bears resemblance to the old covenant ordinance of circumcision in a specific way. Under the old covenant the uncircumcised were cut off from the blessings of the covenant. In similar fashion, the unimmersed can have no part in the new covenant blessings. The blessings of the New Covenant are for those who are "in Christ" and no others. Baptism is the ordinance in which God places us into Christ – Romans 6:3 & Galatians 3:27.
A great deal depends on what covenant was in effect during the dying thief's lifetime. Baptism is a new covenant ordinance. Under the old covenant--the Law of Moses--no one was ever required to be immersed. The following passage identifies the point in time when the old covenant ended.
Colossians 2:13-14, 16-17 - And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross… Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (NAS)
The written code with its regulations was nailed to the cross. The things of the law that were shadows of Christ have been removed, they have been canceled. These things died on the cross when Christ did. It was at that point in time that the old covenant ended and the new began.
If this thief was forgiven without immersion under the old covenant – and, of course, he was – what of that? We are under the new covenant, where different rules apply. Are we cut off from the covenant of God if we are uncircumcised? Certainly not! And why is this? It is because circumcision is not a part of the new covenant. Would the thief have been deprived of salvation because he was unimmersed? No, and for the same reason. He lived under the old covenant and immersion was not yet in force as a condition of entry.
A SYMBOL OF CHRISTIAN CONVERSION
We need to consider the exact circumstances under which the promise of paradise was given to this one we call, "The Thief on the Cross."
Please give careful consideration to the following chart, which outlines similarities between this dying thief and those who become Christian:
The Penitent Thief
Those who now come to Christ
Those are the similarities but there are also differences – important differences!
One we have already mentioned is that this penitent thief died under the Old Covenant, whereas we live under the new. But here is another:
The thief on the cross did in a very real way what we can only do in figure. The thief on the cross was crucified with Christ.
People remark that they want to be saved "just like the thief on the cross." That is an admirable sentiment but also an impossibility. The thief on the cross suffered with Christ. He offered our Lord comfort by defending His holiness when even most of the Lord's apostles had abandoned Him. He no doubt brought ridicule and derision upon himself as he took his stand with Jesus. He showed a very real love for Christ in a time when Christ needed it very badly.
If we understand the dying thief's salvation as based on some kind of minimalist faith alone, we have missed what really happened there.
We have no opportunity to do in a literal way what the thief on the cross did. We can do this in figure through baptism, however.
We know this to be true from Romans 6:3-8.
Rom 6:3-8 – Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, (NAS)
The passage above makes it plain that--in God's eyes--we die with Christ and are crucified with Him in Christian baptism. We often think of selfless Christian service as dying and being crucified with Him, as well. These thoughts are entirely appropriate but we must not lose sight of what God has appointed as a death and crucifixion with Jesus. Christendom must give more emphasis to what scripture says in this area.
The thief's example does nothing to prove that baptism is optional in seeking salvation today. We assert this in two ways.
- The penitent thief lived and died under the law of Moses, which remained in effect until after Christ's death. Since baptism was not a part of the Old Covenant law given through Moses, the thief was not required to submit to it. He lived under one covenant and we live under another.
- The thief provides an example of conversion that we can identify with. He repented, believed in our Lord, confessed His name before men and died with Christ. We do exactly the same but can die with Christ only in the figure of baptism.
I am by God's Grace,
Rich In Christ