Bible Q&A – The Thief on the Cross–Does it Matter?

Question: Last week, you posted a question and showed that the thief on the cross lived and died under the Old Testament. My question is why does that even matter? Why post an entire article on something so trivial?–Anonymous.

First, thank you for taking the time to read our article. Second, thank you for taking the time to drop us a note asking this question. There’s two answers to your question: the short answer and the slightly longer answer.

The short answer:

Someone asked us the question, so we took the time to answer it.

The slightly longer answer:

The Bible states that we are to “rightly divide” or “handle properly” the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15). There are many good, sincere people who have mishandled the story of the thief on the cross–and some people will lose their souls over it!  This is not a trivial thing.

Let me explain.

There are several religious groups–prominent, well-known religious groups–that try to tell people that they can be saved just like the thief on the cross was: By simply acknowledging Jesus as the Christ.

When it’s pointed out that Jesus said “he that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), they frequently run to the thief on the cross, and say “He wasn’t baptized, therefore baptism isn’t required for salvation.” It doesn’t matter how many times baptism is shown in Scriptures to be connected with salvation and sin-removal (see I Peter 3:21, Acts 2:38, 22:16, and several others), they still point to the thief on the cross as their proof.

The problem with their stance–with their sincerely-held belief–is that the thief on the cross isn’t an example of someone being saved during the New Testament. The thief lived and died under the Old Testament. It’d be just as logical to appeal to the examples of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, and David for the answer to “what must I do to be saved” as it is to appeal to the example of the thief on the cross. All of them lived and died before the New Testament ever came into existence.

The thief on the cross lived and died during a time when forgiveness was based on obedience to the Law of Moses and the system of animal sacrifices. If we appeal to his being saved on the cross, then logically–to be consistent–we also have to argue that we can be forgiven today by means of animal sacrifices.

One other thing to consider regarding the thief on the cross is that his salvation, as promised by Jesus, was not the same as becoming a child of God. In other words, the thief was already a child of God. He was an Israelite, born into the family of God by means of his ethnic heritage–by means of being a Jew. He was like the Prodigal Son–someone who was already part of the family of the Father, but who had gone astray and needed to be brought back.

Yet whenever the thief on the cross is brought up as an example of how to be saved, people use it as an example of how to become part of the family of God. The thief didn’t become a child of God while on the cross. He simply came back home to God.

God Himself (speaking through Peter) answered the question “What must we do?” with the following words: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:37-38).

When someone–regardless of how well-meaning and sincere they may be–teaches that all you have to do to become a child of God is to do what the thief on the cross did, they’re teaching a false salvation.

The thief on the cross is an example of how an erring child of God can come back in repentance. He is not an example of how someone becomes a child of God.

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One thought on “Bible Q&A – The Thief on the Cross–Does it Matter?”

  1. Excellent explanation about the thief on the cross. May I add, as well, that Jesus was alive when He told the thief that he would be with Him in paradise that very day. Because Jesus had all authority on earth to forgive sins while here (Matt 9:5-6; Luke 5:24), Jesus forgiving the repent thief without the man being baptized is no different than the forgiveness He granted to others as recorded in the gospels (i.e. Luke 7:24, Matt 9:2). Further, baptism is a participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:4), which had not all occurred at that point.

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