Friday, October 7, 2016

What about the Thief on the Cross?

When presented with Bible passages that demonstrate that baptism is the action (ceremony/rite/ritual/sacrament) God has prescribed as the point at which a believer is saved (e.g., Acts 2:38; 22:16, see this article), many Christians dispute the conclusion by citing the example of the Thief on the Cross. In the Thief example, a man was saved without being baptized.

The account of the Thief on the Cross is documented in Luke 23. Luke informs us that Jesus was crucified with two criminals. One of the criminals derided Jesus for being a crucified Messiah. The other criminal, the Thief on the Cross, rebuked the first criminal for criticizing Jesus, a condemned yet innocent man. Here is how the conversation went.

Luke 23:41-43 (NRSV):
41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There is a lot of Gospel in this account and it makes a lot of sense that Luke would have included this conversation for just that reason. Firstly, Jesus was an innocent man hanging there on the cross. If he had been guilty of something, his death would have been unable to provide forgiveness of sins (1 Peter 2:24; Hebrews 10). Next, the Lord's death was necessary to provide the kind of forgiveness the Thief needed. If Jesus had called for his own rescue from the cross (Matthew 26:53), as was suggested by the first criminal (Luke 23:39), then the sacrificial death by which salvation came would have not happened. Next, the Thief professed faith in Jesus and requested salvation. At that point, the Lord granted salvation to the Thief.

To dismiss this account as occurring at the end of the period of the Old Covenant and before the beginning of the New Covenant misses Luke's point. If the Thief had not been so indisposed, being nailed to a cross himself, and he had requested baptism, the baptism he would have received would have been John's baptism (for the forgiveness of sins, Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) - not Christian baptism. In New Testament times, Christian baptism was connected symbolically with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6). Christian baptism would have made no sense until after the Lord rose from the dead. Nevertheless, the reason the Thief on the Cross was not baptized is because he couldn't be baptized. He was indisposed.

The church, for the first 15 centuries, believed (from the Bible) that baptism was essential for salvation. From very early on, the church recognized a couple exceptions. The first and obvious exception was when a person came to faith but was martyred for her faith before she could be baptized. The church called it the baptism of blood. See the quote at the end of this article for a brief explanation of the martyr's baptism.

The second exception is called "baptism of desire." In that case, the person believes in Jesus but is somehow prevented from receiving baptism.
“Baptism of desire” refers to any situation in which a believing person honestly desires to meet the condition of baptism but is prevented from doing so by unavoidable physical circumstances, e.g., confined to prison, nailed to a cross, pinned down by enemy gunfire, lost in a desert. In such cases it is reasonable to assume that God “takes the will for the deed” and saves a person without baptism, as long as he or she believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Jack Cottrell)
We should all agree, minimally, that it was impossible for the Thief on the Cross to receive baptism. He had met the other critical conditions of salvation (Faith, confession/repentance of sin). In the Thief's special case, the more important condition, faith, had been met. The Thief's failure to submit to baptism cannot be blamed on his lack of desire.

Many Christians argue that Acts 2:38 (for example) cannot mean "you have to be baptized" because it would contradict the experience of the Thief on the Cross. That argument misses the point of Luke's account which is to highlight the salvific importance of the Lord's death. To enlist the Thief's salvation experience this way commits the fallacy of false analogy (comparing two situations that are not alike in important aspects). It also commits the fallacy of hasty generalization (drawing a conclusion from too little, bad or misunderstood evidence). It is a fallacy to say, "The Thief on the Cross was not baptized; so nobody has to be baptized."

Most of us are not physically prevented from being baptized for the forgiveness of sins. We don't have the Thief's excuse.

Here is another really basic point. Jesus on earth had authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:24). If Jesus walks up to you in person and tells you your sins are forgiven, you can be certain that they are. If not, I recommend you be baptized.

Everett Ferguson, Church History, vol 1, 2nd edition, electronic resource:
Writing on the subject of second century persecution:
Their death brought forgiveness of sins to the martyrs. Theirs was a “baptism of blood.” As Jesus Christ had spoken of his sufferings as a bitter “cup” to be drunk, so he had spoken of them as a “baptism” (Mark 10:38), for he was overwhelmed in suffering. The martyr shared this baptism of suffering, and the same benefits attributed to baptism were ascribed to martyrdom. This was one exception the ancient church made in its normally strong teaching on the necessity of baptism (chapter 8). Often catechumens who had not yet received baptism were caught up in the accusations made against Christians; not all had the opportunity to be baptized, as did Perpetua. It certainly made no sense for these persons to deny Jesus Christ so as to gain time to be baptized, hence the church assured them that their death for Christ was equivalent to the baptismal confession of faith. In spite of some defections, the persecutions—instead of crushing the church—strengthened the resolve of devoted believers. Their steadfastness under pressure, even to martyrdom, called attention to Christian faith and attracted inquirers. Opponents on the outside, however, did not provide the only problems faced by the second-century church.
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