Luke 23:43, Settlers and Baptism

by Barry Newton

In the minds of many, perhaps the criminal on the cross constitutes exhibit number one why baptism is not necessary for salvation. Jesus said to the thief being crucified alongside of him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Yet, a chapter from American history illustrates why it is misguided to nullify the necessity of baptism based upon Luke 23:43.

From dreams aboard the Mayflower to the later sense of Manifest Destiny, many chapters from within American history describe those pioneer impulses that drove colonists and settlers into new territory. One chapter from that long story of hope seizing upon opportunity involves the Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma.

At high noon on Monday, April 22, 1889, the land rush for the Unassigned Lands officially began with the sound of cannon blasts, pistols firing, and trumpets blaring. Potential settlers were to search for official boundary markers before returning to the nearest federal land office.

Today, the era of the Land Rushes is no longer even a faded living memory. Today, Oklahoma land is sold and purchased or inherited. Just as it would be ridiculous to argue, I should not have to buy Oklahoma real estate because the eighty-niners did not have to make a purchase, so too it is irresponsible to assert we do not have to be baptized because the thief was not baptized. In both scenarios, the passage of time transformed critical principles.

The death of Jesus brought into existence a new era, creating the possibility of being “baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3), in order to receive those benefits his death inaugurated. Accordingly, it was impossible for the thief to be baptized with this baptism which the gospel commands.

The criminal on the cross cannot provide a legitimate exception to the gospel’s call to respond to Jesus by being baptized, any more than Abraham being saved without baptism nullifies the need for baptism today. Neither of these individuals were capable of responding to the story of Christ crucified and raised, therefore neither is capable of providing an exception that would hamstring how the gospel commands us to rely upon Christ.

Furthermore, just like someone might write a history of the pioneer spirit describing various ways land was acquired, so too Luke’s gospel recounts Jesus revealing through various ways that he had the authority to forgive sins. For example, when Jesus looked at the faith of those lowering the paralytic, he said to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). Today, Jesus does not look at the faith of others to declare us forgiven.

These stories of grace, coming as they are from another era, cannot inform us about what is required or not necessary for responding to Jesus today. We cannot deduce from the pre-resurrection stories of the paralytic nor from the thief that exceptions exist to what the post-resurrection gospel demands. They simply underscore our desperate need for Jesus and forgiveness comes through his authority!

To conclude from the thief on the cross that baptism is unnecessary is like trying to argue in court that you own the real estate even though you never made a payment nor inherited it. The court will summarily dismiss the case. The times have changed.

2 thoughts on “Luke 23:43, Settlers and Baptism

  1. There was also at the time John’s baptism. He could have submitted to the baptism of John and then later fell into sin. Thus, all that he needed to do was repent.
    It’s an assumption I know, but the ones that make the thief on the cross argument make the same assumption also.

  2. Good insight Kerry. Thanks for the feedback.
    To springboard off of your last point, (namely that both assertions whether it be that the thief was not baptized or that he had been baptized with John’s baptism are arguments built upon assuming the unknown), this realization suggests another observation – one I had not previously considered.
    Whether someone claims that the thief was not baptized or that he was, in either case a predetermined doctrine about whether baptism has a role in salvation motivates assuming the specific affirmation being made about the thief’s baptismal state in order to conclude that the predetermined doctrine is true! It really is a bit circular.
    Thus, whenever people use the story of the thief to attempt to negate baptism, the discussion is really not about Luke 23 at all. Rather, the doctrine being advanced is actually arising out of their interpretation of other texts on salvation and baptism.
    Even though the circular reasoning involved in assuming the necessary conditions to support the desired conclusion exposes the absurdity of using the thief to discuss baptism, I prefer to approach the question of whether the thief is relevant to baptism with two principles: 1) The impossibility of the thief to constitute a legitimate exception to how the gospel commands us to respond to Christ in baptism, and 2) Luke’s pre-resurrection stories of salvation can not serve as models detailing the manner by which we can expect that Christ will save us today. Additional evidence of course exists in the larger picture of the NT’s teachings on faith and baptism.

Share your thoughts: