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“Jesus told the thief on the cross that he will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). The thief wasn’t baptised, therefore it can’t be that baptism is necessary for salvation.”

Ed  BAPTISM IS THE beginning of life as a follower of Christ: ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16). The Apostle Paul explains the principle of baptism in Romans 6, and it’s obvious that he regards baptism as integral to the Christian life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (vs. 3–4).

The thief on the cross is the only case in the New Testament where someone who (as far as we know) was not baptised is commended as being a disciple. What’s the explanation for this?

The suggestion has been made that he was the one person who actually didn’t need to be baptised, because he literally died with Christ. But perhaps there’s a wider principle in operation here.

Baptism follows belief and repentance. The thief on the cross believed in Christ, and repented (Luke 23:40–41). He should have been baptised. But he wasn’t, because he couldn’t. So Jesus accepted his belief and repentance.

Here’s an illustration. A basic teaching of the Law of Moses is that the sin offering involved the sacrifice of an animal. ‘Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22). Note that word ‘almost’. The Law made an allowance: if someone was so desperately poor that they were simply unable to provide an animal, then God would waive this fundamental requirement and accept an offering of flour instead (Leviticus 5:11–12). He did not insist on the ritual, where it was not possible.

So, baptism is essential for salvation. If you have the opportunity to be baptised, and you’re not—or if you delay (which is tantamount to the same thing)—you are disobeying God and therefore your Christianity is not genuine. ‘Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin’ (James 4:17). But what about, for example, the case in which someone was on their way to their baptism and they were killed in a traffic accident? At the judgement, it will be Christ’s prerogative to assess their faith, as he did the thief on the cross.

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