When it comes to the thief on the cross, it’s usually only raised as the “textbook” example of God’s saving grace. Specifically, it’s raised to counter the necessity of baptism. The popular response is something like, “What about the thief on the cross? Jesus declared him saved without having to be baptized first.”
At Jesus’ crucifixion, two criminals were also crucified on either side. One of them, in stark contrast to the other, acknowledged his own crimes while confessing Jesus’ innocence. This thief on the cross went further in his statement which led Jesus to confirm that they would be together in Paradise that very day, a clear affirmation of the thief’s salvation.
How Scripture answers "What about the thief on the cross?"
The saving incident of the thief on the cross1 has nothing to do with baptism’s role in salvation for one main reason: the Old Law was still in effect. Jesus Himself lived under and observed the Old Law5. It isn’t until about fifty days later, after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection6, that we see baptism for the remission of sins as the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?”3.
What we are reminded of from the thief on the cross1 is God’s pattern for salvation and Jesus’ authority to save and forgive sins. The thief on the cross acknowledged his own sin and demonstrated his faith/belief in Jesus by his statements1, which isn’t different than other interactions where Jesus exercises His saving authority2,4 while fulfilling His mission on earth.
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