Many people question the essentiality of baptism. We often hear the question, "What about the thief on the cross? He wasn t baptized, and he was saved. So how can you say baptism is essential to salvation?" To give fair attention to this question, let us consider what is said about the thief on the cross.
Luke 23:39-43 says, And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man bath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Some people conclude from this that the thief was saved without baptism. It is clear from the scriptures to see the thief was saved because Jesus promised they would be together in paradise. But what is said in this text or any other passage that demands we conclude the thief was not baptized? Where does the Bible say the thief was not baptized? Assuming the thief wasn t baptized is one thing. Proving he wasn t baptized is another!
The Bible does not specifically say the thief was baptized. The Bible doesn t say either way. In Matthew 3:5-6 it says of John the baptist, "Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins." John baptized a great many people.
In John 4:1 the Bible says, ". .Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John." If John baptized many people from the region and Jesus baptized more, then a very great many Jews were baptized. Between the work of John, Jesus and their respective disciples, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the thief on the cross was among their converts and that he was baptized. We don t know for certain that he was. However, we do know it is an unfounded assumption to say the thief was not baptized.
For the sake of this discussion, let s go with the assumption the thief was not baptized. Would that mean baptism is not essential to salvation today? To answer this, we must understand that baptism is a commandment of the New Testament and the thief lived under a different law, the law of Moses.
Baptism was never commanded in the law of Moses. It is a part of the New Covenant will of Christ. In the great commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus issued baptism as a New Covenant command. In Hebrews 9:16-17 the Bible says, "For where a testament is, their must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth."
Since baptism is a New Testament command, it was not binding until Jesus the testator died and made it binding. Think of it in this way. If you had in your will to leave all your furniture to your best friend when you die, would your friend try to enforce your will and collect your furniture before you die? Of course not! We all understand that a will is not legally binding until the person whose will it is dies. The same is true of Jesus and his will. Baptism is a part of his Testament. As such, it was not legally binding until he died!
Since the thief lived and died under the law of Moses, before the Testament of Christ was in force, he was not bound to baptism as we are today. In Luke 5:24 Jesus said, ".. The son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins..." As long as Jesus was alive, he had the authority to forgive the thief on whatever basis he chose. But when Jesus died, his New Testament was put in force and baptism was bound as a part of that Covenant.
Letts again use an earthly will to illustrate the point. Suppose I write you a check for $500.00. Then after I died, it was discovered that I left your friend $500.00 in my will, on the condition that he is baptized. What would you say if your friend insisted he get his $500.00 the same way you got yours? You would probably say something like, "While he was alive, he could write a check to whoever he wanted. But now that he is dead, his possessions must be given out according to what is specified in his will." This is what I am saying about the will of Christ. While he was alive, he could give the thief salvation for whatever reason he wanted. But, since Christ s death on the cross, he will only give these blessings out according to the terms specified in his will!
In Acts 2:38 when Peter preached the terms of the New Covenant he said, ".. Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Baptism is necessary today. It is the point at which Jesus forgives sin.
In 1 Peter 3:21 the Bible says, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the flit/i of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." In this passage Peter places a great deal of emphasis on baptism, making a connection between baptism and salvation. Based on this observation and the plain teaching of other scriptures, we place the same emphasis on baptism. It is essential to salvation.
Perhaps the thief on the cross was baptized. Perhaps he was not. In his case it didn t matter because he lived at a time when Jesus could forgive sins on whatever basis he chose. However, you live under the New Testament will of Christ. As such you are required to meet the terms in his will. Submit your life to his will today by being baptized into him, and enjoy the eternal benefits of a home with him.