By Frank Jamerson
In the Great Commission, Jesus taught that a person must believe, repent and be baptized in order to be saved (Matt. 28:1820; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:47). When men who believe in salvation by faith only hear these passages, they usually ask, “What about the thief on the cross?” They never consider the chief of sinners. Let us take a look at some facts about both.
First, the thief on the cross did not live under the law of Christ. “For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth” (Heb. 9:16,17). The thief was blessed by Jesus before His testament, or will, went into effect. After the death of Christ, we must conform to the conditions in the testament in order to be blessed.
Second, the thief did not believe in the resurrected Lord. Paul said: ” . . .because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved; for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10: 9, 10). The thief did not believe that God had “raised Jesus from the dead,” because He had not! If you can be saved like the thief, you can be saved without believing that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Third, the thief could not be “buried by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Jesus had not died or been raised when the thief was saved. The teaching of Romans 6:3-5 did not apply to the thief. It does to you!
Now, look at the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
First, he lived under the law of Christ. The first mention we have of Saul is when he was keeping the garments of those who stoned Stephen to death (Acts 7:18). This was after the Lord had arisen from the dead and ascended into heaven. In the ninth chapter of Acts we read of his journey to Damascus, the appearance of the Lord to him, and his conversion. Saul lived under the law of Christ; so do we.
Second, Saul became a believer in the resurrection of Jesus. He wrote the Corinthians: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Saul had been a persecutor of Christians, because he did not believe in Jesus, but when the great light shined on him, and he heard the voice of the Lord, he changed his faith! He was not saved on the road to Damascus, but he certainly became a believer in the resurrected Lord at that time (Acts 9:1-6).
Third, Saul, who became the apostle Paul, was baptized into the death of Christ. When Ananias went to him, he said: “And how why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). When Paul wrote the book of Romans, he included himself among those who had been baptized into Christ. “Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3).
The conversion of Saul shows that he believed in the resurrected Lord, repented of his sins, and was baptized “to wash away” his sins, or into the death of Christ. We cannot be saved like the thief on the cross, for he lived before the law of Christ went into effect, did not believe in the resurrected Lord, and could not be buried by baptism into Christ’s death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. We can be saved like the chief of sinners if we will be believe in Christ, whom God raised from the dead, repent of our sins, and be baptized into the death of Christ, that we may be raised to walk in newness of life.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 18, p. 567
September 20, 1984