I am sometimes virtually dumbfounded at how far people will sometimes go to reinterpret a passage of scripture, or an event in Bible history, in order to maintain their doctrine. For example, concerning Luke’s account of the thief on the cross, Abrams (2006) says:
One passage the baptismal regeneration [an errant term he uses to describe us] people have never really correctly understood is Luke 23:42-43 and the fact the thief on the cross was saved as Jesus declared, and was never baptized. They try to skirt the matter by saying this was before the Church Age when baptism was initiated. They state that Romans 10:9-10 requires that to be saved a person must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. The thief could not have believed that because Christ had not yet arisen. The problem with that idea is that it does not take into account how were people in the Old Testament saved? Old Testament saints were saved by faith, through the grace of God as Hebrews 11 explains. This chapter is the Bible’s Hall of Faith and states repeatedly how from Abel on men believed the revelation they were given by God and were saved. Abraham never heard the name of Jesus Christ or of His death, burial and resurrection, but he was certainly saved…. (para. 5)
The Bible teaches that no one in the Old or New Testament who was saved, merited or earned it in any way. The thief died in the Old Testament dispensation during the time the Mosaic Law was in force. He expressed saving faith while hanging on a cross and had no time to keep any law therefore the keeping of any part of the law was certainly not a part of his salvation. Jesus declared that the repentant thief (malefactor) would be with Him that day in Paradise because the thief believed in Jesus Christ and nothing more… (para. 7)
As seen in this text, Mr. Abrams (2006) is very good a telling us what the Bible teaches—in light of his own theological positions. However, even a casual reading of Hebrews 11 reveals that the theme of the whole chapter is “faith in action”; demonstrating for us in example after example how that authentic “faith” is much more than mere “belief”; and how that it consists not only of a conviction within our hearts but the physical expression of that conviction, as well. In the section above, Abrams (2006) speaks of Abel, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks” (verse 4). Does that sound like “faith” is only “believing” to you? Abrams also mentions Abraham, of whom the book of Hebrews says he “obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (verse 8). I’m thinking Abrams’ Old Testament appeals to faith being nothing more than a mental acquiescence to, or belief in, something is not doing him any favors.
But, back to the thief on the cross. I am amazed, startled even, at how quickly those of Calvinists heritage run to this particular illustration to try to prove their point concerning baptism not being a part of God’s plan for receiving the forgiveness of sin. They inevitably say, “Well, what about the thief on the cross, he wasn’t baptized and Jesus saved him?” To this point we must point out that:
First, if it’s just “baptism” we’re talking about, how does Mr. Abrams (2006) know that the thief on the cross had not been baptized with the baptism of John? He very well may have been. According to the Bible, “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (Luke 7:29-30). Perhaps, at one time or another, the thief on the cross had, indeed, been among those people who were baptized by John, or one of his disciples. Just because he had sinned, and was now hanging on a cross beside Jesus, does not mean that he was totally disobedient to the will of God. It was the religious leaders—lawyers and Pharisees—who, like Abrams and company, “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (verse 30). Why is it always the religious leaders who, seemingly, cannot see what the common people so easily see? But whether or not the thief on the cross had ever been baptized with the baptism of John is a moot point because, it’s Jesus’ baptism, commanded after His death, burial, and resurrection, that we have in view here, not John’s baptism.
Second—and, really, of greater importance—despite Abrams (2006) claims to the contrary, it remains important to the discussion to remember that the thief on the cross lived and died prior to Jesus’ commands concerning baptism. When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16), He made these statements after His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is an expression of saving faith symbolizing the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—as we die to self and to sin (Romans 6:6), are “buried with Him through baptism into death” and raised up to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). How could the thief on the cross have be expected to have done any of that when Jesus had not yet died, nor had He issued His commandment regarding baptism? The whole appeal to the thief on the cross—with regard to Christian baptism, or any other New Covenant expression of saving faith—is a moot point!
If the Biblical account of the thief on the cross has anything whatsoever so say about our own salvation, it is not with specific regard to baptism or any other expression of the faith to which we are called in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant. Rather, much to the chagrin of the “legalists” on both sides of all such issues, it speaks to the beautiful, compassionate, ever gracious character of a wild and passionate God who will not be tamed or constrained by any man’s theology. I have had both conservative legalists and liberal legalist (and, yes, there are legalists—people who base their salvation, and that of others, on how well they adhere to particular tenets and practices of some religious doctrine or another—on both sides of every issue) tell me that, if God makes a single exception for any individual with regard to what He requires for salvation, then He must make that same exception for every person. Such legalistic thinking, however, does not take into account that God looks deeply into our heart—individually, person-by-person—and deals with us accordingly.
The thief on the cross is a first class example of God’s personal attention to, and intimate dealings with, the individual human heart. As the thief hung there beside Jesus, suspended between heaven and earth, and between two covenants—the Old Covenant with its Law of Moses, which was obsolete and passing away (Hebrews 8:13), and the New Covenant, which was about to be inaugurated with Christ’s own blood (Hebrews 9:15-16)—he was, to be sure, in a unique position. Whatever faith and obedience he had demonstrated in accordance with the Law of Moses, or even with regard to the prophetic authority of John the Baptizer, was now all behind him and there was nothing more he could ever do to show his penitence. He could do nothing to make restitution in accordance with the old law. He could offer no animal sacrifice for himself down at the temple. If he had not submitted to John’s prophetic authority, it was too late now. No one was going to take him down from that cross and over to the Pool of Siloam for baptism. Everything pertaining to the Old Covenant dispensation was behind him and irretrievable. Likewise, whatever expressions of faith and love required by our Lord in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant in Christ were beyond him and out of his reach. He had no knowledge or comprehension of some future baptism that Christ had not yet even commanded, or of what such an act of surrender might mean with regard to becoming a New Covenant child of God.
All he had to offer God in that moment was a living faith in Jesus as the Christ; a saving faith that prompted him to, well, do something—so he opened his mouth and rebuked the other criminal, then confessed his own sin and guilt, and then, finally, confessed Jesus as His Lord and King as he entreated Him to remember him. It was not exactly in keeping with the Law of Moses under which, technically, he lived and died. It was not exactly what John the baptizer had been preaching earlier. It was also not even entirely in keeping with what Jesus Himself, and the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, would later command, following the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But it was all that he had to offer in that moment; and, by faith, he offered what he had.
I think it incredulous for the Calvinists among us, or anybody else, to run to the thief on the cross and so tritely use him as some kind of rhetorical devise to justify their own theological positions; and especially to use him to negate something that Jesus Himself would later command following His own death, burial, and resurrection. I think it must break the thief’s heart—and I hate continually referring to him as “the thief,” must he continue to wear that label for eternity? Furthermore, I know it breaks our Lord’s heart for such a beautiful example of intimacy and compassion to be used in such a legalistic way. I also can’t help but think that, given the kind of heart that that man who was redeemed by Christ’s love on the cross reveals to us as he hung there beside Jesus, had he somehow miraculously survived that whole ordeal, and upon hearing his risen Savior say, “he who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), that man would have been among the first in line to surrender his heart and life to Christ in baptism.
What I learn from the account of the redeemed man on the cross—thief no longer—is that God will forgive whoever He chooses, whether such forgiveness conforms to human expectations or not. And nobody’s doctrine or dogma—Christian, Calvinist (and, yes, I make that distinction) or otherwise—can get in the way of that! As the Apostle Paul records it, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Romans 9:18). But God does not harden good and honest hearts. I know this because Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8) and, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). If a person is actively seeking God, like that merchant who was constantly in pursuit of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46), or even if a person simply has an open heart and, like the man who accidently found the hidden treasure buried in a field (Matthew 13:44), is willing to do anything to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom once they have discovered it, then God will surely give that person every opportunity to know the truth, to respond in living faith, and to be saved by the blood of Christ. But there is a huge difference between that kind of person—one like the man who was redeemed by Christ’s love on the cross—and someone who, being more devoted to their religion than they are the Lord, continues to walk contrary to the teachings of God’s word.
I was asked one time, by a liberal legalist, if I thought that someone killed in a tragic accident on their way to be baptized would still go to heaven. I answered, “In view of the thief on the cross, I believe that, yes, of course they would.” “But,” I continued, “I don’t think someone who is running in the opposite direction, away from the waters of baptism, will be saved.” When he asked me to explain that further, I simply said, “Well, as we learn from the account of the thief on the cross, it’s all about what is going on in our hearts. A surrendered heart seeking the Lord’s will is one thing, but a rebellious heart seeking its own will, or willing to put some theological concept ahead of the expressed will of God, is quite another.”
The New Covenant children of God understand that, while “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17), still, we do not put our faith in our works, or even in our faith. We are not saved because we have faith, or because we have works, or because we have a faith that works. We are saved because Jesus died for us on the cross! A living, active, working faith merely grants us access to what Jesus has done for us; but we are wholly dependent on God’s grace—His intimate and compassionate knowledge and handling of our heart—for our salvation.
I love that “redeemed guy on the cross,” for his heart, for his faith, for his faith in action, don’t you?
See you in paradise!
~ Philip ~
Abrams, C. (2006). Does the Bible say baptism is necessary for salvation? A Biblical explanation of the question and the verses used that supposedly teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Retrieved from http://bible-truth.org/BaptismNotNecessary.html
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.”