When you discuss the topic of baptism the discussion always seems to come back around to one man: the thief on the cross. This guy is the go-to for people who want to explain why baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.
Unfortunately for them the thief on the cross in no way shows that baptism is unnecessary. Here are three reasons why the thief on the cross doesn’t prove that baptism is non-essential to salvation.
He Actually Could Have Been Baptized
John the Baptist led the way for Jesus and His ministry. He was getting others ready for the teachings/lessons that Jesus was going to bring. John’s task was simply to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. Matthew gives us a glimpse into the preparation ministry of John the Baptist when he says: “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This does not mean that every single person that lived around there came to be baptized, but crowds and crowds of people certainly did. The thief on the cross could very well have been one of the many people that showed up to be baptized.
To be fair that point isn’t all that great. We don’t know either way that he was/wasn’t baptized. To say that he was definitively NOT baptized is to deny this section of Scripture here.
Baptism is a New Testament Command
As New Testament Christians we are obedient now to the New Testament not the Old Testament. The Old Testament served as a precursor or tutor leading us to the New Testament (Gal. 3:23-29). The Old Testament is useful for us in observing biblical principles and observing the successes/pitfalls of early men and women of God, but we are no longer bound to it as a system of rule.
You might be thinking “but the Gospels are in the New Testament.” That is true only in the sense of how our Bibles are divided. The Old Testament section in our Bible contains Genesis through Malachi and the New Testament section contains Matthew through Revelation. It’s important for us to note that when we talk about “testament” we are talking about a “covenant.” God had an old covenant and a new one. We are currently bound to the new covenant or testament.
This new covenant replaced the old covenant. When? At the death of Christ. Hebrews 9:15-18 makes it clear that Christ had to die in order for the New covenant to be established because just as the old covenant was enacted by blood so too is the new covenant. Romans 7:1-6 aids us in understanding this as well by illustrating that we are free from the old law and slaves to the new.
When the thief on the cross is saved, Jesus is very much alive. At that point the man is still under the Old Testament way of things as Jesus’ blood had not yet been shed and the new covenant had not yet been enacted. Now that Christ has died we are bound to the things put forth in the new covenant and this includes baptism.
Jesus Had the Authority to Forgive Sins on Earth
In Mark 2 Jesus is presented with a paralytic. After seeing the great faith of the paralytic and the men who brought him in He responded with “son, your sins are forgiven.” The crowd was astonished and the Pharisees accused Jesus of blaspheming because only God can forgive sins. Jesus replied “which one is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” (Mark 2:9-11)
This is more than just an account of Jesus’ great power and these men’s great faith. This account shows that Jesus had power far beyond the physical. He could heal people physically but he could also remove the spiritual illnesses of people as well.
The thief on the cross shows great faith when he says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus acknowledges his faith and right there forgives him of his sin and he had every right and all the authority and power to do so.