The World's Most Popular Thief

Posted by Mark Lindley on 1 May 2019 | Comments

The Bible teaches that when Jesus died on the cross two thieves were also crucified. One of the thieves crucified with Jesus, repented. This repentant thief is likely the world’s most popular thief.

            The account of the thief who repented is recorded in Luke 23:39-43: “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

            The thief who repented is wildly popular among those who maintain that water baptism is not essential for salvation. The following argument is frequently made to “prove” baptism is unnecessary: 1) the thief was saved; 2) the thief was saved without being baptized; 3) therefore, sinners do not have to be baptized to be saved today.

            However, the argument does not stand in light of what the Bible teaches. It is certainly true that Jesus saved the repentant thief. Jesus said to him, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Does that prove that the thief was never baptized? No, it does not. Perhaps, the thief was baptized by John, but later became a thief (cf. Matthew 3:5-6). No one can know for certain because the Bible does not say.

            What can be known about the case of the thief is this: the thief was not baptized in Jesus’ name under the terms of the Great Commission. This is absolutely certain because the thief died “before” Jesus commanded: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16). Jesus gave these instructions “after” His death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, the thief could not have been baptized in keeping with the teaching of Mark 16:15-16.

            Does that mean that sinners can be saved without baptism today? No. Why not? The reason is that we live “after” Jesus commanded baptism as part of the New Testament (Matthew 28:18-19; Hebrews 9:15-17). The instruction Jesus gave will be binding until the end of the Christian age (Matthew 28:20). The thief was saved directly and personally by Christ (cf. Mark 2:10). The thief was never commanded to be baptized in the name of Jesus. Sinners are saved today by obeying the gospel of Christ, including the command to be baptized (Romans 1:16; 6:17-18; Acts 22:16; I Peter 3:21).

            No sinner today can be saved by doing what the world’s most popular thief did. He was never required to meet the conditions of forgiveness which are required of sinners today.