Christians sometimes hear the above response when teaching from the Scriptures that baptism is necessary for salvation (cf. Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; etc.). The statement is made to defend the position that “faith alone” is sufficient to attain salvation from God. But how solid is this defense?
First, the thief lived and died under the Old Law. Jesus did not issue His command of baptism until after His resurrection, just before His ascension back to heaven (note the timeframe of Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16). The New Covenant of Christ, wherein Jesus necessitates baptism for the remission of sins, began to be preached only after our Lord returned to Heaven—at which time He sat at the right hand of God to reign over His newly inaugurated kingdom (cf. Acts 2:14-40). The popular-but-faulty argument issued from the case of the thief might reveal that the defender of the doctrine is unfamiliar with the covenants.
Second, Jesus could save souls as He chose. Matthew 9:6 says in part, “the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” The case of “the rich young ruler” is an example of this. To this one who wanted eternal life, Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matt. 19:21). It’s rather interesting that folks favor the way Jesus saved the thief over the way He offered to save this young man. How many argue against “baptism for the remission of sins” while arguing for “selling all one has for the forgiveness of sins?” For the record, Jesus’ complete and unchanging New Testament law now requires baptism for salvation: this is the way Jesus now chooses to save souls.
Third, one cannot prove that the thief had not been baptized. When one argues that the thief on the cross was never baptized, he assumes the burden of proof. But no one can prove that the thief never submitted to baptism since the biblical record is silent on the matter. Actually, if one were dealing in matters of mere conjecture, it might be easier to build a case in favor of the thief’s baptism rather than against it. After all, the robber knew that Jesus was innocent and that He was going to establish a kingdom (cf. Lk. 23:41-42). Could it be that he had learned this from John the baptizer? Notice Matthew 3:5-6: “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” Perhaps the penitent thief had been among this great number. The fact is one cannot definitively prove either position. This being true, it is futile to build a case from this account on why one supposedly does not have to be baptized in order to be saved.
The Scriptures are clear regarding the role of baptism in salvation. Let us determine to be honest with God’s Word and lovingly submissive to it.