Many have asked how it is possible that the thief on the cross was saved apart from baptism. Some use the thief as proof that baptism is unnecessary in salvation. Their thinking is in error as the thief proves nothing concerning baptism.
The story of the thief is found in some form in all four gospel accounts (Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:2, 28, 32; Luke 23:39-43; John 19:18), however only Luke provides us the details of his encounter with Jesus. Stated briefly, the thief recognizes his impending doom, knows his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him when he (Jesus) comes into his kingdom. Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). It seems obvious that Jesus granted salvation to this man while both were impaled on crosses. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. So then, if baptism is essential to salvation, how is it possible that this man could be saved?
Christian baptism, that is, baptism for the remission of sins, would not be given for another 50 days. Jesus was crucified at Passover and the command of baptism was not given until the church began on the following Pentecost (Acts 2:38, 41, 47). Thus the thief lived and died before baptism was commanded.
Jesus was still living and could do anything he wished. His last will and testament was not yet in effect because he was still living. Hebrews asserts the superiority of Christ over all that came before. He is greater than the angels, greater than Moses and his priesthood is greater than that of the Levites. The writer makes clear that while the tabernacle was established and cleansed by the blood of goats and calves, the new tabernacle, the spiritual tabernacle is established by Jesus’ “own blood” (Hebrews 9:12).
The writer of Hebrews argues that a new tabernacle or priesthood requires a new covenant (Hebrews 9:15-28). Now notice carefully, this new covenant could not come into effect until the one giving it (Christ) had died. “For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive” (Hebrews 9:16, 17). Therefore, since baptism that saves (1 Peter 3:21) is part of the new covenant established by Jesus, the thief could not be subject to it while Jesus lived!
If I possess something of great value then I may do with it as I will while I am alive. Only at my death does my will dictate to whom and when that thing of value will go. The great thing of value possessed by Jesus was eternal life. It was his to give freely. Now, by his choice, his will is in force and governs that great gift.
We do not know that the thief was unbaptized. Although Christian baptism had not yet been given, at least three years earlier John the Baptist had begun his ministry in the wilderness where he baptized for repentance. We know that people in Jerusalem knew of his work as many, including the religious leaders, were going out to be baptized by him. He had many followers including some we meet as late as Acts 19:1-7. It is possible the thief had been baptized by John. The text simply does not say and we cannot speculate.
If we wish to have discussions about baptism and its role in salvation, let us do so. But let us accept, in advance, that the thief on the cross is not a valid example of salvation for one in the Christian age.