Was the thief on the cross saved?

Question
Was the thief upon his cross saved? He wasn't immediately baptized, so wasn't he still lost? Since Christianity didn't exist until after Jesus' resurrection, the thief couldn't have been saved since he died before Jesus' resurrection!
Answer
Yes, one of the thieves on his cross near Jesus was saved without being baptized. Upon his death he was immediately with Christ in paradise (Luke 23:43). Besides Luke's explicit comment confirming the fact that the thief was saved (without being baptized), it is also scriptural for numerous other reasons.

I'll divide this answer into two main parts: 1) Salvation and Baptism in the New Testament and 2) Christianity in the Old Testament. There are also several other helpful links at the bottom of the page.

Salvation and Baptism in the New Testament

First, baptism is a "work," so a person must participate in this act. But a person is not and cannot be saved by works. Baptism can't save a person. The Bible is very clear on the issue concerning works and salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not because of our own works, but by His own purpose and by the grace He granted us in Christ Jesus before time eternal (2 Tim. 1:9).

He saved us, not by the righteous deeds we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).

Paul (inspired by the Holy Spirit) said that he wasn't sent to baptize (1 Cor. 1:17) and so performed very few of them (1 Cor. 1:14-16). But he does record in the last verse above that God saves a person solely "through the washing of new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Tit. 3:5; cf. John 3:1-8; 6:28-29; Acts 10:42; Gal. 3:26; 1 Thess. 4:14, et. al.). So, to assert that a person is saved by baptism would be to teach another gospel (cf. Gal. 1:8-9) rather than that which has been once and for all presented to the church (Jude 1:3; cf. John 1:12-13; Col. 1:19-20, etc.). This said, good works follow those who genuinely believe (Eph. 2:10; Jas. 2:14-26).

Second, we observe in numerous New Testament examples that a person is not saved by baptism. While baptism is a godly command that Christians should obey, its has absolutely no regenerating power. Nor can natural water save a person.

Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24) was baptized (Acts 8:13), but he had a false faith (cf. John 2:23-25; 1 John 2:19). According to Acts 8:9-11 Simon had practiced the magical arts for some time in Samaria. When he witnessed demons being cast out and many being healed (Acts 8:7), he lusted for this type of power (Acts 8:18-19). He was infatuated with power, and Peter told him so in Acts 8:20-23:

But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity."

Simon was still lost even though he had been baptized; he was still a slave to his sinful nature. The natural water of baptism did not save him. The text doesn’t say whether or not Simon was ever saved, only that he requested prayer from Peter (Acts 8:24). However, Peter had already told him to pray himself and stated nothing concerning requesting it from others (Acts 8:22).

There are numerous instances in the New Testament of others being baptized but having a false faith as well (2 Cor. 11:13; Gal. 2:4; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; Jude 1:4, etc.). So, baptism does not save. Even Peter didn't teach that it saves. (Please see, "Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22" below.)

Third, we know that circumcision was replaced by baptism as the sign of the covenant (Col. 2:11-12). A helpful example of this is Abraham who had the gospel preached to him (Gal. 3:8) and was saved. Moses tells us, "And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). So, was Abraham "immediately circumcised" with the sign of his new found faith? I believe not. A look at these biblical facts will show that he was credited as righteous well before he was ever circumcised:

Genesis 15:2-3, states Abram was childless; "for I continue childless" ... "Behold, you have given me no offspring."

Genesis 15:4-6, chronicles the promise to Abram that he would have an heir; "your very own son shall be your heir."

Genesis 16:16, reports that, "Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael" to him.

Genesis 17:24-27, affirms that Ishmael was 13 years old when his 99-year-old father Abraham and his whole household were circumcised.

Assuming that Hagar was with child soon after Abraham's faith (Gen. 15:6), we see there is a space of at least 14 years between Abraham being reckoned to be righteousness and him being circumcised. While it may have even been longer, a time less than 14 years is literally impossible. So, Abraham was declared a righteous man while still a Gentile (cf. Gen. 11:27-28, 31; 15:7), and he was not immediately circumcised. Abraham rested in his faith alone for salvation (Rom. 4:3, 16) and not his works. His later ongoing works merely confirmed what was already present — that he was already in covenant with God (Eph. 2:10; Jas. 2:14-26).

Fourth, while the signs of the covenant (circumcision and baptism, Col. 1:11-12) are very important (cf. Exod. 4:24-26) they point to a reality greater than themselves. Think of how "golden arches” along a highway point to a reality greater than itself — an actual McDonald's restaurant. In the same way the covenant signs point to a reality greater than themselves as well — being a part of God's covenant. They are not the reality itself, but only point to its reality. And so, since the sign of baptism isn't the reality itself, how can baptism save a person? It can't.

Christianity in the Old Testament

Although disciples weren't called "Christians" until Antioch in Acts 11:26, Christianity was already established in eternity past within the covenant of redemption (see, "What were the promises made to Jesus in his work of redemption?" below). Their existence was predestined (Eph. 1:4-5; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9) as God's elect (Acts 13:48; Rom. 9:10-14; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:4). This can be observed throughout the Old Testament.

We first see an example of Christians within the Garden of Eden when Christ is mentioned as the seed of the woman (compare Gen. 3:15 to Gal. 3:16). The crucifixion was symbolized by God putting animal skins upon Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). Salvation is shown to be of the Lord alone when God both made the garments and clothed the first royal couple. This symbolized Jesus coming in the flesh and clothing his people with his robe of righteousness through his death and resurrection (cf. Isa 61:10).

Christianity is also seen throughout the entire Old Testament by belief in a Messiah who was to come. Eve looked for the Messiah, believing Cain was the seed of the woman: "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man" (Gen. 4:1). And when she realized it wasn't Cain, she viewed Seth as a possibility (Gen. 4:25). The writer of Hebrews tells us of saved Old Testament saints (Heb. 11:1-40) and he calls them a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). He says Moses "regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward" (Heb 11:26). Job knew it too when he said, "For I know that my redeemer liveth ..." (Job 19:25). So, people in the Old Testament were just as saved as New Testament believers are.

The Old Testament saints looked forward and today we look back to the the focal point of all genuine believers — the cross. Both Testaments make genuine faith in the work of Christ, his life, his death, and his resurrection. Baptism is not the issue for saving faith. The only difference between the Old and New Testament saints is that the Old Testament saints were saved by faith in the Messiah (they did not know his name) who was to come, and the New Testament saints were saved by faith in the One whom they knew to be the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. According to Peter:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. (1 Pet 1:10-11).

Peter states that the Spirit of Christ was in the Old Testament prophets. But while the Old Testament prophets prophesied concerning Christ (Isa. 53:1-12, see "Christ in the Old Testament" below) and sought for when the physical Messiah would come, they were already saved by him! The Old Testament saints looked for the Messiah to come, and the thief on his cross who literally saw him and believed and was just as saved as the Old Testament prophets were.

We wonder how it can be that Old Testament saints existed well before Christ and the cross, or "the fullness of time" (cf. Gal. 4:4). It is because when God decrees anything, it is as good as done. It must necessarily be fulfilled, lest God would not be God:

God is not a man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and not act? Does He promise and not fulfill? (Num. 23:19)

I distinguish the end from the beginning, and ancient times from what is still to come, saying: “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isa. 46:10)

So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa. 55:11 compare Isa. 53:10).

The Master Painter ordained the end from the beginning. Though the cross did not materialize until later upon the canvas of history, it necessarily must, would, and did. And though his masterpiece is revealed in time and space, God's decrees are eternal (Eph. 1:4), most wise (Rom. 11:33), according to the counsel of his own will and free (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 11:34), most holy and pure (Jas. 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), unchangeable (Psa. 33:11), and absolute (Isa. 46:10). It is impossible for God's decrees to fall short of what he has predetermined. Therefore we can say the thief on his cross was saved prior to Jesus' resurrection three days later (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Indeed, though Christians aren't all they will be even now (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:2) and we require ongoing reassurance that we are his (Rom. 8:16; 2 Cor. 1:22; Gal. 4:6) because we still sin this side of glory (1 John 1:8-10), God's decree of salvation already has present effects — Christians are already saved (1 John 3:1-2) because God stands eternally behind his word.

Yes, the unbaptized thief upon his cross was saved. Some are saved on battlefields and die in combat having had no opportunity to be baptized. Others are saved after their baptism (i.e. infant baptism). So, while the sign and seal of baptism are very important, they aren't necessary for salvation. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

Although it is a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WCF 28.5).

Related Topics

What were the promises made to Jesus in his work of redemption?
Christ in the Old Testament
Mark 16:16 and baptismal regeneration?
What are Oikos Baptisms?
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
Explaining Baptism in Children's Language

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).