By Larry Ray Hafley
From the Philippines: “Will you please explain about the thief on the cross? Was he saved without water baptism?”
This is an old question. It is a frequent objection against the necessity of water baptism. Obviously, the denominational world has great confidence in the “thief on the cross argument,” else it would not make the contention that it proves salvation before and without water baptism. Thus, it must be dealt with each time it is presented (2 Tim. 4:2b).
The thief lived and died:
(1) Without believing that God had raised Christ from the dead. Can we (Rom. 10:9)?
(2) Without being a member of the body of Christ. Can we (Eph. 1:22, 23; 2:16; 4:4; 5:23-26)?
(3) Without hearing the gospel as preached by the apostles. Can we (1 Cor. 15:1-4; Eph. 3:3-6; 1 Pet. 1:10-12)?
If the fact that the thief was not baptized means baptism is not essential for us, then the same reasoning also excludes the three items listed above.
Jesus had “power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6). He exercised that authority more than once (Lk. 7:50; Matt. 9:2). I believe the thief was saved by this same power. However, this was before the cross, before the preaching of repentance and remission of sins began in Jerusalem (Lk. 24:47-49; Acts 1:1-8; 2:1-5, 36-47). Jesus still has power to forgive sins (Matt. 28:18.20). That Divine right is expressed in the terms or conditions of the gospel. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16).
Jesus is not now on the earth pardoning people as He did then. He is now qualified, certified and verified as Lord at the right hand of God (Acts 2:29,36; 1 Pet. 3:22). We are now living under the new testament system (Heb. 9:16, 17). It is the “new and living way” which He consecrated for us through His flesh, i.e., His death on the cross (Heb. 10:19.22).
Actually, whether the thief was saved with or without water baptism has nothing to do with our salvation. But forget the thief for a moment. Consider the rich, young ruler (Mk. 10:17-22). He could not inherit eternal life without going and selling all that he had. If one demands that salvation be “just like the thief on the cross,” then I shall demand that salvation be “just like the rich, young ruler.” So, we can exclude baptism, but we shall have to go and sell all that we have. Absurd, you say? Yes! Our terms are different from those of the ruler and the thief. One can understand that when he contemplates the ruler, and he ought to be able to do so when he hangs with the thief.
In the letter accompanying his letter, our querist mentioned John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 does not mention:
1) The necessity of repentance. Must one repent before he can be saved?
2) The command to confess Christ? Can one be saved without confessing Christ (Rom. 10:9, 10; Matt. 10:32, 33)?
If the fact that baptism is not mentioned excludes baptism as essential to salvation, then it excludes repentance and confession because they are not mentioned. Remember, too, that John 3:16 is in the context of John 3:3, 5, where Jesus said that one must be born of water and of the Spirit. That certainly includes baptism (Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Truth Magazine XXII: 13, p. 210
March 30, 1978