Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Robbed by the Thief on the Cross

"What about the thief on the cross?" This is the question I have heard so many times that I have stopped counting. This question arises whenever I get into a conversation about salvation with a person who does not believe in baptism as one of the essential elements. In Luke 23 we read of the conversation between Jesus and the thief who showed penitence and admitted guilt while asking to be remembered when Jesus came into His kingdom. We recall the wonderful love of God and extension of grace that brought these words from our Savior's dying lips, "Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Some allege this event proves that salvation is possible by simply believing in Christ, admitting personal sin, and asking God for forgiveness and a place with Him in heaven. While all of these are necessary for a person to be saved, these alone do not exhaust the requirements that God has left for us in His word.

There are many Bible answers for why the thief on the cross is not our perfect example. We could point out that both Jesus and the thief lived and died under the Law of Moses, or that Jesus nailed the Law to the cross when He brought forth the new covenant in His blood (Col. 2:14; Matt. 26:28). We could mention that New Testament Christians are those who have been baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 6:3-4) - which would have been impossible for the thief since Jesus had not yet died. We could note that baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins was not available, nor was it a requirement for salvation until the day of Pentecost, when the church began (Acts 2:38). And do we really want the thief to be our example? Do we want to live a life dominated by Satan only to repent in our final, tragic hour? This account is given to us not as an example of how to be saved, but rather as a testimony of the unsearchable and matchless grace of Jesus.

There is one simple passage which brings a great deal of light and truth on a subject that so many have clouded in an attempt to justify their denominational mode of salvation. In Romans 10:9-10 we read, "That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." I only bring up this passage because it has become a proof text for many who believe that baptism is not required for salvation, but merely belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the corresponding confession that Jesus is Lord. In other words, the people who use the "thief on the cross" reasoning for saying baptism is non-essential will quickly go to this passage in order to prove their point. I want to thank them for doing that, because they just proved why their reasoning is false.

Look again at the passage. Did the thief believe in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? Paul says in Romans 10:9 that this is a requirement for salvation. But how could he believe it? Jesus wasn't even dead yet! The thief didn't even know Jesus was going to be raised - the apostles didn't understand it until after it happened, and Jesus had been telling them virtually every day for three and a half years. The thief was dealing with a different set of requirements. Those under the patriarchal law and the Law of Moses were cleansed by the blood of Jesus and sanctified through their animal sacrifices. It was impossible for the thief to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But we must believe it. The thief was not required to be baptized for the remission of sins, but we are commanded to do so today (Acts 2:38, 10:48).

We need to rightly divide the Bible. The church does not determine what the Bible teaches, the Bible determines what the church teaches. Study. Humble yourself. Change your mind if you are mistaken. Obey the gospel - and obey all of it - not just part.

"...casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." - 2 Corinthians 10:5

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