What About the Thief on the Cross?

by Matthew W. Bassford

When it comes to discussion about baptism for the forgiveness of sins, most Christians know all the steps of the dance. If we’re studying with a non-Christian and we show them passages like Acts 2:38 and I Peter 3:21, one of two things is going to happen. Either they are going to submit to the word of God, or (because of past denominational indoctrination), they are going to hunt for a reason to object.

Jesus' Death on the Cross John 19:25

The most popular objection resides in Luke 23:39-43. “What about the thief on the cross?” they ask. “He wasn’t baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus told him that he would be with Jesus in paradise.”

I don’t see much basis for the assumption that the thief wasn’t baptized (for all we know, he may have been), but there’s an even more significant problem for the argument than that. It presumes that we find forgiveness of sins through Jesus now in the same way that people did during Jesus’ ministry, and we know for certain that isn’t true.

Consider, for instance, the account of Mark 2:1-12. This story is a favorite in children’s Bible classes because of its dramatic story arc (“They dug a hole in the roof and lowered their friend through!”), but the faith of the friends, and even Jesus’ healing of the paralytic, are not the true point of the story. Instead, in Jesus’ own words, all of this is recorded because it establishes that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

In other words, alone of all people who ever have walked the face of the earth, Jesus could say to somebody, “Your sins are forgiven you,” and it would be true. For anybody else to make such a claim would be blasphemy. For Jesus, it was a statement of fact.

The paralytic is not the only recipient of grace through the spoken word of Jesus. The same thing happens to the sinful woman in Luke 7, another sinful woman in John 8, and Zacchaeus in Luke 19. To that list, we can add another — the thief on the cross. Even granting the assumption that he wasn’t baptized, why did Jesus tell him he would be with Him in paradise? Because the Son of Man had authority on earth to forgive sins.

These stories provide powerful illustrations of the power of the grace of Jesus, but they can’t provide us with a pattern to follow. The Son of Man is no longer on earth. He no longer has conversations with people to tell them that they are forgiven, and no other human being has the authority to issue grace by fiat.

Today, then, rather than presuming that Jesus has forgiven us in the absence of confirmation from Him, we need to look to the pattern of salvation established by His disciples. We cannot expect to hear His voice telling us that our sins are forgiven, but we can expect forgiveness as we submit to His will — through belief, repentance, confession, and baptism.

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