Jesus went to the cross for the remission of sins, thus bringing the possibility of salvation to all men (Romans 5:8-10; Galatians 3:27-28).
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he hung between two thieves (Matthew 27:38). One of the thieves calls Jesus the Christ and asks, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42, NKJV). Jesus replies, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Seizing on this passage, millions proclaim the thief on the cross as the chief argument against the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins. As the theory goes, since the thief on the cross was not required to be baptized, then we are also not required to do so.
First, no one can prove whether the thief on the cross was baptized or not. The knowledge he possesses indicates he knew a lot about Jesus. He knew Jesus was the Christ, the King of the Jews, possessed a kingdom, would be resurrected and that he was sinless. Further, Matthew 3:5-6 and Mark 1:5 tell us that multitudes came to be baptized of John. Accordingly, no one can say definitively that this man had not been baptized. To take an unknown, that is contradicted by other Scripture, and make it doctrine is bad theology.
Second, the thief was under the Old Covenant. Hebrews chapter nine tells us that the first covenant ended when Christ died on the cross (cf. Ephesians 2:14-18; Colossians 2:14). Therefore, the thief was under a different covenant than we live under today. Jesus? death made the first covenant “obsolete” and initiated a new covenant that governs us today (Exodus 24:1-8; Hebrews 8:6-13; 1 Corinthians 11:26).
Third, Jesus had the right and power to forgive sins while on earth (Mark 2:5,10). Today, we come to the remission of sins as Scripture has prescribed. We are now immersed for the remission of sins by the blood of Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21).
Fourth, to say that the thief on the cross denies the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins is to contradict the writings of Luke and the rest of the New Testament. Luke writes that baptism is indeed necessary for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16).
In John 21, Jesus is giving Peter instructions on what he wants from him after he ascends to God. Peter asks Jesus about John, who was also there. Jesus says, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). The rumor begins to circulate that John would not die. Jesus is not saying John will not die, but that John?s destiny has nothing to do with Peter?s mission. Jesus? message to Peter can also apply to the story of the thief.
To paraphrase Jesus’ answer to Peter in John 21, “You do what I told you to do.” And that is to be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) because we are under the New Covenant where this is the Lord’s plan of salvation. The situation with the thief does not apply to anyone today, so no one can do as he did. But we can do as the 3,000 did in Acts 2.
The thief was simply a man who came to Jesus before his life ended. He was saved by his Lord and went home to be with God. Yet, this simple man has been misused for centuries as the chief argument against baptism. It is an unfair and unscriptural charge. Let the thief rest in peace.