Does the Thief on the Cross Deny Baptism?

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.

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Richard lives in Florence, Alabama and is married to Deirdre. They have three daughters. He is an avid reader, devoted writer and lover of history and research. He is the author of "The Most Important Question" and is working on more books.

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5 thoughts on “Does the Thief on the Cross Deny Baptism?

  1. An important question is, what purpose did the Gospel writers have in recording the examples of Jesus forgiving sins?
    Obviously, the biblical authors were proclaiming the good news that in Jesus our sins can be forgiven. But were they ALSO trying to provide us models for how we can expect to be forgiven by the risen Lord today?
    From the story of the paralytic it is clear the Gospel stories of Jesus forgiving people are not models for how we can expect to be saved. In Mark 2:5, Jesus looked at the faith of those lowering the paralytic through the roof and forgave the paralytic! Jesus does not look at the faith of others and forgive me! This is not a model of how Jesus saves today. Neither is the thief on the cross. The purpose of both stories is to confirm that Jesus is good news, but the Gospel writers were not teaching those after the cross how they could respond to the risen Lord in order to be saved.
    I hope these thoughts can add to your great article. By the way, the reference should be Matthew 27:38, not 27:45.

  2. Barry,
    Good post. You are right in your assessment. People’s failure to understand the covenants are a big factor in so many false doctrines.
    Thank you for your comments and notice on the passage. It has been corrected.
    Richard Mansel

  3. The Thief died under the New Covenant. Read John 19:33 and you will see that Jesus was already dead (ending the Old Covenant, starting the New).The thieves legs were broken to speed up their deaths. When they died, it put them within the New Covenant, not the Old. Why has this false doctrine been so pervasive within the church..?
    Johnny

  4. Thank you for reading Forthright. Sorry for the delay in answering you.
    Jesus told him he would be with Him in Paradise while he was still alive. Besides, his situation is not applicable to anyone living today because we are all under the new covenant.
    Richard Mansel

  5. Did not the thief die under the New Covenant since Jesus was already dead when the soldiers broke the legs of the thieves?

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