I occasionally receive questions from people who visit my site. As I've said before, I always appreciate the questions I receive from you. It shows me your interest in the topics we study, and it often requires me to delve more deeply into the word of God as I answer them. This study is beneficial for me, as I hope it is for you.
Recently I received a question from a student regarding the thief on the cross. The example of the thief is frequently used as support for the doctrine stating that baptism is unnecessary for salvation. Someone may say, "I want to be saved like the thief on the cross." I believe they mean that their desire is to have faith in God, and that faith leads God to grant them salvation as they pray to Him and ask Jesus to come into their hearts. What can we learn from the thief? In this study, I will present the account of the interaction between Jesus and the thief, address the period of time in which they lived, review the New Testament teachings regarding salvation today, and summarize our study.
In preparation for this study I searched the internet for teachings regarding the thief on the cross. To my surprise I could find little erroneous information on this topic (at least within the first few pages of results to my query). I thought I would find many more pages teaching the idea that we can be saved today like the thief was then. This finding heartened me. I hope my study is of value to those who may have questions regarding the thief.
First, lets look at the crucifixion scene. We learn in Mark that Jesus was crucified with two thieves (Mark 15:27). Also in Mark we learn that it had been prophesied that Jesus would be crucified with transgressors (Mark 15:28, a reference to the prophecy recorded by Isaiah in chapter 53, verse 12). In John we learn that Jesus was crucified between the two thieves (John 19:18, also recorded in Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, and Luke 23:33). Matthew's account of the thieves suggests that BOTH of them were involved in mocking Jesus (Matthew 27:44, notice the use of the plural when referencing the thieves). A transliteration of the Greek states, "And the same also the thieves, the ones having been crucified with Him they were reproaching Him" (Greek New Testament, UBS 4th edition, Nestle-Aland 26th edition). But in Luke we see that one of them had a change of heart as he was hanging on the cross along with Jesus. The other thief (whom I'll call the second thief) continued his mocking, but the first thief rebuked him (Luke 23:39-41). Luke records the first thief's dialogue with the second thief and with Jesus. He asked the second thief, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." (Luke 23:40,41). We have no record of the second thief's response to this question. The first thief then turns to Jesus and says, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." (Luke 23:42) To him Jesus said, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Before we can fully understand the interaction between Jesus and the thief we must consider when they lived. Please turn to Hebrews 9:15-17. Here we read, "And for this cause He is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth." From these verses we learn that the new testament (the new covenant) did not go into effect until after Jesus' death. From these verses we also learn that the blood of Jesus went back, to forgive the sins of those who were obedient to the commandments given them under the old covenant ("for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament"). We read again of this action of Jesus' blood in Romans 3:25, "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;". Why was it necessary for His blood to go back and forgive their sins? Because they were not forgiven prior to His death! Hebrews 10:4 records, "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." So, the sins of the people under the law of Moses were never forgiven, but were overlooked by God through His forbearance. All who had faith in God (manifested by the works in their lives, as with Abraham and his willingness to offer Isaac) prior to Jesus' death were considered righteous and were granted salvation, even though their sins weren't forgiven. When Jesus died, those overlooked sins were forgiven. When the thief was hanging on the cross with Jesus, they were both still living under the law of Moses. Since Jesus hadn't yet died, the new testament was not yet in effect. The thief demonstrated his faith in God through his statement to Jesus on the cross. This faith allowed God to overlook his sin, just as the sins of untold numbers of people prior to him were overlooked. However, just as with those before him, his sin was not yet forgiven. When Jesus died, the sins of the thief and of all who had faith in God through the prior centuries were forgiven. His faith allowed Jesus to state, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."
The period of time under which Jesus and the thief lived has passed forever. Now, God doesn't overlook sin. He has given His Son for our redemption and instantaneous forgiveness for those who are obedient. God has told us what we must do to receive the forgiveness of our sin. In Colossians 1:13-15 we read, "Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins:". Who is the "whom" recorded by Paul in this verse? It is the "dear Son" mentioned before the colon. Whose "dear Son" was this? He is the Father's dear Son. Who is the dear Son of the Father? Jesus Christ. But how does one get "in" Jesus Christ to gain access to the forgiveness of sins available through His blood? In Galatians 3:26,27 Paul tells us that, "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Notice the "into" in this verse. How does Paul say that one gets "into" Christ? Through baptism. How does one gain access to Jesus' blood? By getting "into" Him. How does one gain forgiveness of sin? Through the cleansing blood of Christ. Therefore, what is absolutely necessary before one can be forgiven? Baptism. Through baptism, we get into Christ (Gal 3:26,27). By getting into Christ, we have access to His blood (Col 1:13-15). His blood is able to wash away our sins (Col 1:13-15). The one who fails to get "into" Jesus Christ has no access to the redeeming power of His blood.
I have a simple analogy that I think applies to our discussion above. I'm sure I'm not the only one to ever use this analogy. It is fairly simplistic. When you arose from bed this morning, you likely had the clothes you planned to wear hanging in your closet or folded in your dresser. After making the preparations necessary for dressing, you put on your clothes. At what point in time were you in your clothes? We all realize that we aren't in our clothing until after we have put on our clothes. For the one who seeks salvation, at what point in time are they in Christ, gaining access to the redemption present through His blood? Not until after they put Him on. We see in Galatians 3 that everyone who has been baptized into Christ has put on Christ. Is one in Christ before baptism? No. Just as we are not in our clothing before we put on our clothing, we are not in Christ until after we put Him on. The only way to put on Christ is through baptism into Christ!
Today, can one who is unforgiven enter heaven? No. Hebrews 10:26,27 shows us the fate of those who resume willful sin after obedience--there is no more sacrifice for sin: "For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries." So one who has never been obedient has never had access to the cleansing blood of Christ, and the one who has obeyed but resumed willful sin has lost access to His blood. Those who are unforgiven have only eternal damnation to look forward to. So, can one who has refused baptism be saved? No. Without baptism, one is not "in" Christ. Without being in Christ, one cannot have access to His blood that washes away sin. Without forgiveness of sin, one has only eternal damnation to look forward to after death.
You know, if God allowed us today to enter paradise in the same fashion as did the thief on the cross, He owes Jesus a tremendous apology. By doing so God would be saying to Jesus, "I had planned all along to allow them into paradise. Really, your suffering and death were meaningless. If they just ask me to overlook their sin, I'm happy to do it. Your blood wasn't necessary for them to be righteous before Me." It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But if all we had to do to be saved was to pray a simple prayer to God, how are we any different than those who lived before Jesus came to earth? As we saw with the thief, people prior to His death were allowed into paradise despite being unforgiven. If we are, in essence, no different than those people, why did Jesus have to come to earth and die on the cross? The only answer must be that something has changed for us. That "something" is that we must now come into contact with something the people prior to Jesus could never access: The cleansing blood of Jesus. So, upon His death the possibility of entering paradise in a like fashion to the thief ended forever.
In this brief study we have reviewed the account of Jesus' dialogue with the penitent thief. We have showed from the scriptures that they both lived under the law of Moses. In the scriptures we've seen that those under the law of Moses were granted access to paradise, despite having sin that was unforgiven. During this period of time, God overlooked sin through His forbearance. The grace of overlooked sin was available only to those who were obedient. When Jesus died on the cross, those overlooked sins were forgiven and the law of Moses ceased being a valid covenant between God and man. Upon His death, mankind entered a new covenant with God. This covenant contains no provision for overlooked sin, since mankind now has access to instantaneous forgiveness through obedience to the commandments of God. God commands that we come in contact with the cleansing blood of Christ, who has served as the propitiation ("mercy seat") for our sin. The path to access to the blood of Christ has been clearly laid out for us in the scriptures: We are redeemed through the blood of Christ, but have access to this blood only if we are in Him. We put on Christ by being baptized into Him. Therefore, today we CANNOT be saved in a fashion like unto the thief on the cross.
I haven't addressed speculation regarding the thief. Some approach the fact the thief was granted access to paradise without being baptized with the statement, "How do we know he wasn't baptized?" They reference the baptism of John when making this statement, and the possibility the thief may have been baptized under John's baptism. We don't know whether the thief ever submitted to the baptism of John. The Bible doesn't tell us. As we've seen, it is irrelevant whether he did or didn't. People prior to John were granted access to paradise (Lazarus was recorded as being in "Abraham's bosom" in Luke 16:23; Enoch was "translated that he should not see death", recorded in Genesis 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5; Elijah was taken directly into heaven in a chariot of fire, recorded in 2 Kings 2:11). None of these men (Abraham, Enoch, or Elijah) ever had access to any form of water baptism. So, whether the thief was baptized or not is irrelevant.
I hope this study has been of benefit to you. As always, you are invited to e-mail me with questions should they arise. I'll be happy to address them to the best of my ability.