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 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 or the thief that exceptions exist to what the post-resurrection gospel demands. They simply underscore our desperate need for Jesus!
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.