It’s interesting how often the story of the thief on the cross (from Luke 23) comes up in discussions on baptism. Basically the argument is that baptism can’t be part of how God saves us because the thief on the cross was saved without being baptized.
Here’s the story from Luke:
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”” (Luke 23:39–43)
For many, this is absolute proof that all anyone need do to receive salvation is ask Jesus for it. (Am I right in thinking that this is as close as we have to finding the Sinner’s Prayer in the Bible? Or is there another passage I’m forgetting?)
Others have pushed back with different arguments. One is dispensationalism, saying that the thief lived under the Mosaic dispensation, while we live in the Christian dispensation. Rules change from dispensation to dispensation. (A variation is to place all writings before the book of Acts as “Old Testament,” being nailed to the cross along with Jesus)
Others have noted the peculiar circumstance of the thief. Basically the thought is that if you are being crucified alongside Jesus, then you too can ask for and receive instantaneous salvation. (Just to calm my Church-of-Christ-bashing friends, I actually read that argument in a non-CofC book)
For me, it comes down to what we said the other day. The Bible wasn’t written to tell God what he can and cannot do. God is still free to save anyone however and wherever he wants. It’s like the parable in Matthew 20:1-15 about the workers who worked differing hours but received the same pay. It’s not our place to complain if God decides to be generous and merciful. It shouldn’t surprise us; our God is like that.
For me to affirm that God has chosen to use baptism as the vehicle for new birth into the Kingdom doesn’t mean that God can’t bring people into the Kingdom in other ways. He can. But I have a promise that I can cling to when I’m baptized, the promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Denying others the possibility of receiving that promise in other ways wouldn’t make the promise any more secure for me.
I believe that the Bible teaches that those coming to Christ are to be baptized (faith-based immersion). I won’t teach people any other path. Will God accept someone who comes a different way? That’s up to him. That’s why he’s God, and I’m not.