Read Luke 23:38-43 …
Often there is an appeal to the thief on the cross next to Jesus, and their conversation, to point to the fact that baptism doesn’t have to be part of the scheme of redemption. The question is typically phrased in a way that asks, “Well, wasn’t the thief on the cross saved?” … the implication being that baptism wasn’t involved. If one is faithful to the Scriptures, there is only one answer that can be given to that question – “Yes.” Yet, that answer must be qualified by at least two considerations.
First, Jesus is Lord (Amen!). On more than one occasion Jesus claimed a power and authority that the Jewish authorities rightly recognized belonged only to God. In Matthew 9 Jesus had come back across the lake to Capernaum where He encountered a paralytic and by way of healing the man, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven you,” which was blasphemous as far as the scribes were concerned. Again, in the house of Simon (Luke 7:36ff), Jesus sends a woman away with the words, “Your sins are forgiven” and those sitting around him are amazed. By taking the authority to forgive sins, Jesus was not only placing Himself on level with God but was also taking authority over the Law of Moses which at that time was the method by which forgiveness of sins was obtained.
Jesus also made the point that whoever received Him received the Father (John 13:20). Jesus also made the statement to Andrew that if one had seen Jesus, one had seen the Father; if one hears Jesus, one hears the Father (John 14:9-11). Jesus also made the assertion to the disciples when the 70 were sent out, that whoever rejects them rejects Him, and whoever rejects Him rejects the One that sent Him – or rejects God the Father (Luke 10:13-16). Therefore, if Jesus says a person’s sins have been forgiven, their sins are forgiven. If Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” then today that person will be with Him in paradise. The word of Jesus carries the same weight and authority as the word of God.
Second, there must be an understanding of the role of Jesus in the transition from the Mosaical dispensation to the Christian dispensation. Humans living after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ fall under a different covenant than those living before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This is exactly what the writer of Hebrews is speaking to in chapter 9. There has been a change in the covenant that the death of Christ has enacted; there is a new testament (v.15-17). Because of the change to a new covenant there was an opening of a new way into salvation, a justified standing before God that has been set forth by the Spirit thru the writers of the New Testament. This is the reason one sees the Christians of the New Testament responding to the good news with belief, repentance, and baptism and NOT a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem so a priest might offer the proper sacrifices.
Recorded for us is the response of the Jews from many nations in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Peter responds to their question regarding what should be done with the command, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (v.38). The same pattern is followed at the home of Cornelius. When Peter sees the Spirit fall on those gathered, the response was ““Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). The simple reason this is the pattern followed by Peter, and then the other NT evangelists, is because of Jesus’s great command given after His death, burial, and resurrection …
“18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 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, 20 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” (Matt. 28:18-20, NKJV).
When these two considerations are taken together the question isn’t was the thief on the cross saved without Christian baptism (because in accordance with the authority of Jesus he certainly was), the real question is can WE appeal to this example as binding for one today. To answer this second question from the Scriptures is to answer in the negative. Just as those of the Christian dispensation do not appeal to the Law for forgiveness of sins, neither do we appeal to examples contained under the old law as normative for our salvation. That Jesus chose to give salvation to the thief is wonderful, but now – after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – the scheme of redemption is found within the writings of the New Testament.