What About the Thief on the Cross?

In response to discussions about redemption and the part that baptism plays, people often ask about the “thief on the cross.” Typical of such questions is the following: “What about the thief on the cross next to Jesus? Was he saved? He wasn’t baptized.” I appreciate the sincere and respectful tone of the inquiry and will try to answer in the same spirit.

That thief who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus (Mark 15:25-28) is perhaps the best-known thief of all time. He is not famous for his theft but for the words that Jesus spoke to him on the cross. The words that this man heard from the lips of our Lord are the words that we surely would most like to hear from those same lips. Jesus told this man, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NKJV).

But the sweetness of those words is often obscured by the controversy surrounding them. If you have had very many discussions with your religious friends and associates, you know that many of them want to be saved like the thief on the cross. They do not want the misery of the cross, but they want the ease of salvation. Jesus demands nothing of this man; He does not even mention baptism. Jesus just accepts his acknowledgment of who Jesus is and immediately honors his request for a reward.

People today want to be saved just like the thief on the cross; people today think they have been saved just like the thief on the cross. Those who claim that kind of salvation need to carefully consider the following two points.

You cannot pick and chose your model for salvation.

Those who choose the thief as their example are overlooking a lot of other potential examples. What about Noah? Noah was saved by building an ark. I don’t mean just saved from the floodwaters. Building that ark is how Noah ” … became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (Heb. 11:7 NKJV). Noah was saved (spiritually) by building an ark. But, how many today pick Noah as their example? Not many! Why? Because they do not want to do what he did.

What about Abraham? How was Abraham justified before God? James tells us that Abraham was “… justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar” (Jam. 2:21 NKJV). Why don’t people pick Abraham as their example of salvation? Because they do not want to do what he did.

You see, that is why the thief is much more popular as a model for salvation than Noah and Abraham. People don’t want all that obedience that Noah and Abraham exhibited—they just want to ask and be given the salvation.

But, if people are seeking the minimum-requirement model for salvation, why not the palsied (or paralyzed) man who was brought to Jesus by his four friends (Matt. 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5). He was brought for physical healing, but Jesus said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20 NKJV).

Now, why is this not the most desirable of all models for our salvation? This man did not speak of any repentance. He did not ask for forgiveness. He made no confession of Jesus as the Christ. If we are going to pick and choose our model of salvation, why would we not choose this man? Then, all people can be saved: no matter what they do or don’t do, no matter what they say or don’t say, and no matter what they believe or don’t believe.

This is even less demanding than the thief on the cross. If we can pick, let’s pick the paralyzed man and salvation will be really easy!

But, surely it is clear you can’t just pick and choose your examples according to your own preferences.

Suppose someone declares: “I have decided I am not going to pay my income tax to the Federal government.” “Why?” “Because I have learned that Abraham Lincoln did not pay a Federal income tax like we do. If he can be a good citizen without paying, so can I.”

It is true that Lincoln lived and died without paying the same kind of Federal income tax we pay. But, who can fail to realize that we cannot follow the same example today—for the very good reason that the Federal laws about taxes have changed since Abraham Lincoln died. When it comes to taxation, you cannot pick your model from a time when the Federal law for taxes was different than the one you are under. And, when it comes to the salvation of your soul, you cannot pick your model from a time period when God’s plan of salvation was different.

That brings us to the second point that must be considered by those who claim the same kind of salvation as the thief.

A person must comply with the law he or she is under.

The simple fact is that the thief on the cross was not under the Law of Christ that we are under today. Christ’s Law did not come into effect until after He had spoken those words to that thief and died.

The writer of Hebrews says in Heb. 9:15 that Christ was the mediator of the new covenant (the new testament, the Law of Christ). Then he makes the legal point that Christ’s Law (or testament or will) could not come into effect until after Christ died. He wrote:

For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Heb. 9:16-17 NKJV).

Jesus spoke those words of forgiveness to that thief while He was still alive. So, according to the legal point made by the Hebrews’ writer, Christ’s law could not possibly have been in effect! Also, the Law of Moses had to be “taken away” so that Christ’s new law could be established (Heb. 10:9, Rom. 7:1-4) and that “taking away” occurred at Christ’s death (Col. 2:14, Eph. 2:14-16). So, the thief was not under the Law of Christ when Christ granted his forgiveness—because Christ was still alive. So, as a model for our salvation, that thief is most inappropriate—just as inappropriate as Abraham Lincoln would be as a model for our not paying Federal income tax.

Those who try to claim they are saved in the same way as the thief on the cross must seriously consider this very important second point: People must comply with the law they are under. Those alive today are responsible to a very different law of salvation than was the thief!

Jesus stated clearly where and when His law of salvation would become effective. Just before He ascended into heaven, He said:

“… that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47 NKJV).

Just 10 days later, in Jerusalem, Peter spoke about exactly those two things: “repentance” and “remission of sins.”

Peter said:

Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; …” (Acts 2:38 NKJV).

Those are the terms of pardon for people under the Law of Christ, which includes everyone from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 up to today—but not the thief on the cross. The thief is not an exception to disprove the fact established by the scriptures: baptism is essential for salvation and baptism is exactly the point at which men and women today are forgiven of sins (Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16), become a saved person (I Pet. 3:21), and are transferred “into” the only body that Christ saves (Rom. 6:3, Gal. 3:27, Eph. 5:23).

We are glad to have the opportunity to discuss questions such as this.

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