(aka The Thief on the Cross, The Good Thief)
“Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom!”
With these words, one of the two thieves who hung in crucifixion with Jesus was saved as he was promised by our Lord: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This beautiful story is often cited by critics of the soteriology (salvation theology) of the traditional Church (usually focused on the sacrament of baptism).
Historically, salvation is seen an act of God whereby his unmerited grace is poured out on people through faith for good works (Eph. 2:8-10). Typically this occurs at baptism (John 3:5; Acts 2:37-38; 1 Pet 3:20; etc.). This grace is then increased through other sacraments such as the Eucharist (John 6:53-58), and good works (Gal. 5:6; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 10:24; James 2:20-26; etc.). These critics, though, claim that salvation is by faith alone (although this is said nowhere in the Bible and is directly contradicted by James 2:24) and anything added to faith is contrary to the gospel. This can be seen, they say, in the story of the thief on the cross. After all, he was never baptized, received the Eucharist, or did any good works – yet he was saved!
The basic problem with prooftexting the thief on the cross in this manner is that it ignores several critical differences between his and our situations.
All analogies “fail” at some point, because analogies are – by definition – likenesses between unlike things. Simply because an analogy does not demonstrate 100% correspondence does not mean it is a failure. Where analogies become problematic is when the differences cancel out the similarities or, worse, the two are confused (which elements correspond must often be argued and not simply assumed). As will be shown, only a loose analogy exists between the thief on the cross and people living today – and some of the differences make simple citations of the event in salvation discussions moot.
First, one of the more obvious problems with making the thief on the cross an exemplar is that the thief lived and died under the Old Covenant, while sacraments such as Christian baptism are part of the New Covenant (which was not ratified until Jesus died – Heb. 9:15-18; Acts 19:1-6). This alone seriously weakens any appeal to the thief on the cross as an argument concerning salvation under the New Covenant.
Second, even dispensing (pun intended) with the problem of covenant history, the thief on the cross remains a theological edge case. That is, his situation is so extreme and unusual that it really should not be used to evaluate a general principle. In fact, treating the thief on the cross as a soteriological role model would prove too much. Would any Protestant or Evangelical claim that simply asking Jesus that he “remember you in His kingdom” is a sufficient gospel message? Why was the rest of the NT (with its numerous commands) even written?
Third, even if we ignore covenant history and make the thief a standard-setting example, why not others? While Jesus walked the Earth, he forgave the sins of many people in a wide variety of non-standard-setting circumstances. If unique situations like the thief on the cross show that faith alone is normatively sufficient for salvation, then what do those who require personal faith for salvation make of Jesus forgiving a man based on his friends’ faith (Mk. 2:5)? Why can’t that story be made into a normative salvation principle? Rather than theologizing Gospel stories that may or may not be normative, we should stick to explicit assertions and commands.
Fourth, even if we ignore covenant history and make the thief on the cross (alone) a standard-setting example, he was not actually without good works. The thief exhibited all the faith and works that he could, given his situation. The fact that his physical limitations made it impossible for him to do anything more than speak was certainly not lost on God! Even if certain good works are overlooked because they are impossible for one to accomplish (see Conclusion), that does not prove they are not normatively required. (See HERE on the relation of faith and works to salvation).
Finally, even if we ignore covenant history, make the thief (alone) a standard-setting example, and do not count his speech and repentance as “good works” – how do we know the thief was not baptized? The Bible does not indicate that he was baptized – but it doesn’t report the apostle’s baptisms either, and it also nowhere says he wasn’t. We certainly would not want to argue a positive case from silence, but neither should those who assume the thief was not baptized. I also find it interesting just how much the thief seemed to know about Jesus than he did not learn from Jesus on the cross: e.g., that Jesus had done nothing wrong (Lk. 23:41), that Jesus was Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3) and was going to his kingdom after he died (Lk. 23:42). Note that this last truth was something Jesus taught only to his disciples – not the public (Mt. 13:10-11). It is possible, then, that the thief on the cross was a fallen-away disciple (note his blasphemy in Mt. 27:44) who repented on the cross. (Indeed, many of Jesus’ disciples left him when he taught on the salvific and literal nature of another sacrament, the Eucharist – John 6:66 cf. Mt. 26:26-29.) During Jesus’ ministry, his disciples were baptized by John (Acts 19:1-5), so it’s likely that if the thief were ever one of Jesus’ disciples, he would have been baptized.
While Jesus was on earth, he forgave sins directly and personally. After his resurrection, Jesus mediated his authority through his apostles (Mt. 16:17-19; 18:15-20; 28:18-20; Acts 2, 8, 10; Eph. 2:20) who were commanded to baptize (Mt. 28:19), and did so throughout their foundation of the Church (e.g., Acts 2:38), which they handed on to their successors (e.g., Acts 1:20; Titus 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:1-7), the Church Fathers (who clearly taught that baptism saves – as did the Reformers). The thief on the cross is not a counter-example to this teaching for the reasons listed above, but also due to a principle often missed by the Church’s critics.
There are times when typical salvific requirements cannot be met, and in these cases salvation remains possible. The Church has had 2,000 years to work out a fine-grained theology that doesn’t fit neatly into a tract or bumper sticker. The result is that many merely normative statements are absolutized by critics and then condemned on that basis. The sacraments fall prey to these illicit attacks all the time. The Church teaches that while we are bound to God’s commands to us, God is not. The Church baptizes because that is how God revealed that New Covenant believers enter into salvation (e.g., Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21); but, this does not mean God cannot save without baptism. God looks on the heart, not just the body – and a person who, against their will, cannot be baptized isn’t judged for that.
Amidst all the assumptions made in this short story, one that seems safe is that had baptism or anything else been asked of the thief for salvation, he would have done it if he could. By his grace, God can save through (genuine) faith alone, of course – but it is illicit to make exceptions into rules.
The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. . . . God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. (CCC 1257-1258)