“Well, we all know that the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized!”
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. I will be having a conversation about what the Word of God says about Baptism and the question will come up, “Do you actually believe Baptism is necessary for salvation?” I’ll reply with the Confessions, creeds, and Scripture, “Why yes! Yes, we do!” I will typically qualify the statement with the oft-repeated line “It is not the lack of Baptism that damns, but the denial of it.” But inevitably, the conversation will go back to the seemingly, unbaptized thief on the cross. “Well, he was never baptized, yet Jesus said ‘Today, you will be with Me in paradise!’ What do you do with that?”
I have worked this argument over a number of times in my head, and the more I think about it, the more it comes up short. It seems to me both a misunderstanding of what happened to the thief on the cross and of Baptism. Let me explain.
First, let's deal with the logical fallacy in all of this. Whether or not the thief on the cross was baptized is, in a certain sense, an argument from silence. After all, he very well could have been baptized by John. To be sure, Jesus had not instituted what we would call “Christian Baptism” and wouldn’t until after the resurrection. Although we do know his disciples were baptizing during his ministry (John 3:22-24). Nonetheless, to claim that the thief wasn’t baptized is not verifiable. Who knows? But, for my purposes here, it is beside the point.
What I think needs to be clarified in the conversation is what the nature of Baptism truly is. Asking, “Do you have to be baptized to be saved?” is really like asking, “Does Jesus have to save you in order for you to be saved?” The Biblical view of Baptism is, after all, that Baptism is God’s work, not man’s (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11-14). And, God must do all the work to save you (Psalm 3:8; John 3:1-17; Gal. 2:21).
Asking, “Do you have to be baptized to be saved?” is really like asking, “Does Jesus have to save you in order for you to be saved?”
The question at hand typically arises from someone who views Baptism as nothing more than a ritual, a new circumcision or a ceremony one must perform to be pleasing to God. But the Bible doesn’t present Baptism as a human activity. Instead, Baptism is the place where God acts on the sinner. There, in that water, He has placed His promise to save you. As Christ’s apostle Peter himself says, “Baptism, which corresponds to [the flood of Noah], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Christ.” (I Pet. 3:21) Baptism is the place where God’s gift of salvation is for you. There, in and with the tangible water, God’s promise is made to you. His Word of promise saved you through the resurrection of Christ!
St. Paul goes even further in Romans 6 when he says that, in Baptism, you were crucified with Christ and raised to a new life.
“Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. We know that [in baptism] our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:3-4, 6).
Paul talks about Baptism as a death and a resurrection, a judgment, and a promise. It is the crucifying of the old sinful nature to death and the raising of the new man/woman in Christ. Baptism is the effective attack of God on your sinful nature and the glorious raising of you to a new life in Christ. It is judgment and promise, death and life for you. God’s powerful Word–that world-creating, sinner-crucifying, dead-raising Word–is at work in that water for you. So if one is to ask, “Do you have to be baptized to be saved?” they are essentially asking, “Do you have to be crucified with Christ to be saved?” The answer is, undeniably, “Yes!”
Now, as it turns out, the thief on the cross was, indeed, crucified with Christ. He was also promised to be raised to a new life when Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Death, promise, faith, and life. There on that cross, the thief hung next to the Sacrament of sacraments, the incarnate God, who spoke His Word of forgiveness and life to that guilty, dying man. Jesus, from His cross of death, spoke the promise of life into that man’s ears. The same Jesus speaks that same Word into the sinner’s ears and heart in the waters of Baptism when it is poured on his or her head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You might say, Baptism puts you in exactly the same position as the thief on the cross in that you are crucified with Christ and promised a new life.
Baptism puts you in exactly the same position as the thief on the cross in that you are crucified with Christ and promised a new life.
The question is not, “Do you have to undergo some ritual in order to be saved?” but rather, “Does Jesus have to speak salvation to you in order for you to be saved?” The answer, unequivocally, is “Yes!” This justifying Word that He spoke to the thief on the cross is the exact same Word He speaks to the sinner in the actual waters of Baptism. The promise is the same, “You will be with me. The blood is shed for you.”
Whether you are dying next to Him on the cross or having His promise poured over your head in the waters of Baptism, Jesus must deliver His saving Word to you in order for you to be saved. Both you and the thief were crucified with Christ. Both you and the thief were promised eternal life from the mouth of Christ. You and the thief were baptized with the same Word that promises you will be with Him in paradise!