Start discussing the biblical requirement to be baptized with someone and see how long it takes before they mention the thief on the cross. Odds are it will not take too long. That is because there is a widespread doctrine in the religious world that tries to eliminate the need for baptism by appealing to the example of this particular individual, whom Jesus told would be with Him in paradise on the day they both died (Luke 22:43). Just what does this example tell us about salvation? Does the example of the thief on the cross really mean that one does not need to be baptized in order to be saved? Let us look at this issue by noticing three things about this man being forgiven by Christ.
First, the argument is made that the thief was never baptized, and yet Jesus tells him that they will be together in paradise. Is it the case that he was never baptized? How would you prove that? The thief obviously knew something about Jesus and His ministry, for he confesses, “‘. . . we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’” (Luke 22:41b-42, NKJV). He knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and he had faith in that even though Jesus was hanging on the cross, death would not keep Jesus from receiving His kingdom. How did he know that? Was he a disciple of Christ, perhaps? Had he been baptized by John in the Jordan? It was said of John that, “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). Was the thief on the cross in this crowd that John was baptizing? It cannot be proven from scripture that the thief was baptized, but it equally cannot be proven by scripture that he was not.
Second, it should be noted that Jesus had the power to forgive sins while he was on this earth. If Jesus wanted to forgive the thief on the cross based upon his confession of faith, He had the ability to do so. Just look at the example of the paralytic, whom Jesus healed in Mark 2. Unable to reach Jesus in the house because of the crowd that had gathered, the friends of the paralytic man lowered him through the roof so that he could get to Jesus. “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you’” (Mark 2:5). The scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy, since only God could forgive sins. To show that He had the power and authority on earth to forgive sins, Jesus healed the man of his paralysis (Mark 2:6-12). Notice that the text says nothing about whether this man was baptized or not either!
This brings us to the third thing that we want to take notice of regarding both the thief on the cross and any others, whom Jesus forgave while on the earth. While Jesus lived on the earth, the Mosaic Law was in effect. The New Covenant had not yet been offered to anyone. There was a new covenant that was coming, but it did not go into effect until the death of Christ. Jeremiah prophesied about this new covenant between man and God.
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
This new covenant is the last will and testament of Jesus Christ. As with our own wills, no will or testament is enforced while the one who willed it is alive. A will is only in force after the death of the testator. That is exactly what is said about the new covenant in the Holy Scriptures (Hebrews 9:16-17). Just as the covenant, or agreement, between God and man that was offered at Mount Sinai was sealed in blood, so too would the new covenant between man and God be sealed with the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:18-22; Luke 22:20).
The new covenant was first offered to mankind on the day of Pentecost, as is recorded for us in Acts 2. If we will obey God and do what He commands, then we can have our sins remitted and have the hope of eternal life with Him. That is the agreement. Notice what Peter says they are to do when asked about how they can be saved. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). Since the thief on the cross lived and died during the old covenant, and since the new covenant was not offered to anyone until the day of Pentecost, the thief on the cross was not subject to the requirements of the new covenant. But guess who is subject to the new covenant. That’s right! We are!
God’s word could not be clearer on the need for baptism for the remission of our sins in order for us to have salvation. Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). If He didn’t mean it when He said it, then how would He have said it if He meant it? Jesus said exactly what He meant. He who believes AND is baptized will be saved. For more on God’s Path to Salvation, please click on this link. The fact that the thief on the cross received forgiveness and went to paradise that day does nothing to save our souls. We must be obedient to the One who died for us. We must live according to His will and testament. We are no longer under the Mosaic Law. Don’t take my word for it. See what the scriptures have to say about our belief, obedience, and salvation!