TEXT: Matthew 27:38-44 and Luke 23:39-44
If you ever teach people about the gospel of Christ you have probably heard the question, “What about the thief on the cross?” Maybe you were pointing out that Jesus said both faith and baptism were essential to salvation. (Mark 16:16). But they said, the thief was never baptized, and he was saved! Or perhaps you were showing them the first sermon preached by Peter and what he says in Acts 2:38
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And they said to you: “But what about the thief on the cross? He wasn’t baptized, and he was saved.” Or maybe you were in Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27, or I Peter 3:21—only to hear, “But what about the thief on the cross?”
It is interesting to note that after that great sermon from Peter, where he tells them that they must be baptized that no one said, “Well what about the thief on the cross?” Rather they were baptized. In Acts 8 when the treasurer was taught about Christ he did not say, “Well what about the thief”, he said, and “What prevents me from being baptized?” He then confessed Jesus and was baptized.
Who was this thief? What did God intend that we should learn form him and his response to the Lord? There are only two bible references that tell about this individual.
In Matthew’s account, initially both thieves insulted the Lord. As time went by, Jesus’ demeanor on the cross evidently had a positive effect on one of them. According to Luke, “one of the criminals who were hanged there” continued to hurl “abuse” at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!? (Luke 23:39). While there was a change in one man, the other seemed to just hurl more abuse as the pain intensified.
Now, I believe that this story is here for a reason, but I do not believe that this story is here to prove that baptism in not essential. There are several lessons that we can learn from this man. Since this incident has been misused, we will first clear away misconceptions.
His story does not teach the way of salvation.
Before we focus on the disagreement, let us focus on what we agree upon. We agree that the thief was saved. Jesus promised that he would be in Paradise that day. Paradise is that part of the hadean world where the saved await the Judgment. I believe that Jesus kept His promise—that, when, the thief died, he was taken by angels to Abraham’s bosom, even as Lazarus had been (Luke 16:22). Nevertheless, this fact does not prove that the account was given to teach the way of salvation for non-Christians today.
Much is assumed regarding the thief. Many assume that he was not one of God’s people already. Think about this: “Who crucified him? The Romans. Did the Romans crucify Roman citizens? No. Whom did they crucify? Disobedient subjects in a given vicinity. The subjects in that particular area were Jews. So it would be safe to assume that this man was a Jew. Now this man had been disobedient of God’s law in that he stole. Nevertheless, he was a Jew. That made him a child of God, because—up to the death of Jesus—the Jews were God’s chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6). If the thief’s salvation is to serve as any kind of example today it is an example of how an erring Christian, not a non-Christian, can find forgiveness.
More is assumed about this thief. It is assumed that the thief had never been baptized. He died near where John the Baptizer’s ministry had begun. We read this in 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.
Many who lived in that area had been baptized by John. Later, when Jesus began His ministry in the same general area, He and His disciple baptized even more than John.
Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John
Is it not at least possible that, at some point, the thief had been baptized by either John or Jesus’ disciples? Whether he was or not is really unimportant, but an argument made from a biblical text should not be based upon assumptions.
Now, why do I say that whether or not the thief was baptized is unimportant? As previously stated, his salvation was never intended as an example for non-Christians today. Let me share with you three reasons for making that statement.
His Story does not teach the way of Salvation today.
Why? Because the thief was saved before the old law was removed.
Using the story of the thief as an example of conversion for non-Christians today violates a principle taught in 2 Tim. 2:15
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
One way to handle accurately the word of truth is to distinguish between that which relates to the old covenant (Old Testament) and that which relates to the new covenant.
(Are we under the Ten Commandment Law or are we Under Grace?) The Bible teaches that Jesus’ death is the dividing point between the old covenant and the new. Paul wrote to the Colossians and said this.
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,  having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
In case there was a question regarding what regulations the apostle had in mind, he listed several categories in verse 16:
So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths,
The phrase “Sabbath Day” proves that Paul included the Law of Moses in his statement; one of the Ten Commandments was Exodus 20:8
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
The phrase “canceled out” and “taken it out of the way” are strong terms indicating that the Law had been abolished. When did that occur? Verse 14 tells us “having nailed it to the cross.” This is not a reference to a piece of wood on which Christ was impaled, but rather an allusion to the death of Jesus. Jesus and Jesus only, fulfilled the old covenant, keeping its demands perfectly. At the end of His life, it became a fulfilled or completed agreement. The old covenant was “taken out of the way” at Jesus’ death.
At the same time, Grace as we know it begins. Look now at Hebrews 9:15
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
He then explained what had to transpire before that new covenant came into effect. In other words, there had to be a death.
For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.  For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.
This analogy that the writer uses is based on a special agreement that we call “a last will and testament”. When does this will and testament go into effect? It goes into effect when the maker of this agreement dies and not before.
Your Bible has two testaments. When did the new will and testament of Jesus Christ go into effect? When he died, and at that same time the old will and testament stopped being in effect.
The thief is not an example for the salvation of non-Christians today because he was forgiven before the old law was taken out of the way. True, he was promised Paradise just a few hours before Jesus died, but the promise was still given “on the Old Testament side” of the cross.
The comparison between the New Testament and the last will and testament can be extended. A principal purpose of a will is the distribution of the will-makers’ property. After the will-maker dies people must adhere to the terms of the will to benefit from the provisions of the will.
Let’s notice another example of someone receiving “forgiveness of sins” on the other side of the cross.
Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”
As far as the text is concerned, Christ forgave the man on the basis of the friend’s faith. Did the paralytic also believe? We are not told. If the thief on the cross can be used as proof that baptism is not essential to salvation, this story might be used to prove that personal faith is not essential. (Do you see how far off we can get?) In either case, however, was it Jesus’ intention to establish the terms of our salvation today? Rather, in Matthew 9, at least one reason Christ forgave the man was to establish His spiritual authority.
But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”–then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
“that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” is just another way of saying, “While I am alive, still walking on earth, I have the right to distribute My spiritual assets in any way I choose.”
There are others who were forgiven by Jesus before His death. The thief of the cross and this paralytic are not the only people who received spiritual assets from Jesus while he was here. In John 8:3-11, the woman taken in adultery is another example of Jesus forgiving sins. All are examples of Jesus distributing His spiritual assets before his “last will and testament” came into effect. It is interesting that no one mentions these when trying to establish the basis on which a non-Christian is saved today.
Since the thief was forgiven on the Old Testament side of the cross, his salvation is no more an example for today than the salvation of Noah and Abraham. Have you heard anyone say, “Noah was not baptized and so neither will I?”
The thief on the cross is not an example of salvation today because he was saved before the old law was removed.
His Story does not teach the way of Salvation today.
Why? Because the thief was saved before Christ gave the Great Commission.
During Jesus’ personal ministry, He made reference to requirements for salvation. For instance, He spoke of a new birth (John 3:3, 5) and the need for conversion (Matthew 18:3). He emphasized the need for faith (John 8:24), the necessity of repentance (Luke 13:3), and the importance of confession (Matthew 10:32). Nevertheless, it was not until after His death, burial and resurrection that He gave His Great Commission. It spells out His terms of salvation: what men must do to appropriate God’s grace.
What Do We Do? Matthew 28:19-20
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
In order to fulfill what Christ demands, we need to become his disciples and be baptized into Him.
What Do We Do? Mark 16:16
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
In order to fulfill what Christ demands, we need to believe in Jesus and be baptized into Him. We might also note that baptism without faith is worthless.
What Do We Do? Luke 24:46-47
Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day,  and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
In order to fulfill what Christ demands, we need to believe in the resurrection, turn from our sinful ways and submit to baptism.
(Let’s use a modern day example) A basic legal principle is that a law cannot be retroactive. This provision is included in the U.S.Constitution, Article I, Section 9. If our legislative bodies pass a law today, those who did something that would be considered a violation of that new law yesterday would not be tried under that law.
The thief did not have to be baptized, but we do. Why, because the Great Commission was given after his death, and so the terms of this new law do not apply to those who did or did not do something before the law came into effect.
Example: Do we have to pay taxes? Yes. Well, could you argue that since George Washington and Abraham Lincoln never paid income taxes neither do I? Yes you could make that argument but if you did not pay your income taxes you would still go to jail.
We cannot point to the thief as an excuse for not being baptized since he was saved before Jesus gave the terms off salvation in the Great Commission.
His Story does not teach the way of Salvation today.
Why? Because the thief was saved before the Gospel was preached in Fact.
According to Paul, the heart of the Gospel is the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 15:1-4
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand,  by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
The sequence of the death, burial and resurrection had been set in motion at the time the thief was promised Paradise, but Jesus had not yet died; His burial and resurrection were still in the future. The gospel could not be preached or obeyed until after the Lord arose from the dead.
The first time that it was preached was on the Day of Pentecost, by the apostle Peter. (see Acts 2).
Today this wondrous gospel is God’s power to salvation. (Romans 1:16). We cannot be saved without it. In contrast, the thief died before it was ever publicly proclaimed. He lived and died without ever hearing the full gospel story. Therefore, his salvation is not an example for non-Christians today, who must hear that gospel and obey it. (I Peter 4:17 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8).
Way back in the introduction, I stated that everything in the Bible has a purpose. All of the incidents surrounding the death of Jesus have been preserved for a reason. They are all there to enhance the cross, to increase our appreciation of what Jesus did for us.
At this time then, let me urge you to turn your eye from the side cross, where the thief died, and focus on the center cross, where the Savior died for you.
If you really love him you will do what he asked you to do. You will not invent excuses to postpone obeying Him. Rather, with a heart love and gratitude, you will surrender to Him with complete trust.
If you need to be baptized today, do not ask, “Well what about that thief?” But ask the question that the treasurer asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” To which Phillip said, “You can if you believe.”
So if you believe with all your heart, you may. Then you can confess your faith and go down in to the waters of baptism that you might rise and go on your way rejoicing. If you need to be baptized, now is the time to do it.
Receive the free gift of Grace that Jesus offers to each and every one! Do it today.
Adapted from a sermon by David Roper