The Thief on the Cross: A Different Way of Salvation?

On November 23, I published a post about the thief on the cross.  Some time later, I got a lengthy response.  Wordpress put it into spam.  It wasn’t, but neither was it something I could “approve”.  I have no difficulty with people disagreeing with something I believe, provided they show that the Scripture says I’m wrong. I just want what the Scripture itself says, not what folks say it says.  Such was the case for this response.  The gentleman who wrote it clearly believes there has been more than one way of salvation.  His comment was titled:  “Can Men, Today, Be Saved Like Enoch?”  His comments are largely a non-sequitur, because they fail to follow what the Bible actually says about the subject.

His comment starts off, “Did you ever notice that the hydrophobic believers in Jesus want to be saved like the thief on the cross?”  I suppose the word “hydrophobic” (fear of water) has to do with the fact that this gentleman believes that baptism is necessary for salvation.  His whole response is based on that supposition.  At the same time, he refers to them as “believers in Jesus.”  So, are these “hydrophobic” “believers in Jesus” saved or not?  He doesn’t say.

He continues, “Their argument is that the thief was not baptized in water, and was still saved.”  I agree.  However, he says, “Thief proponents fail to mention that the thief was also saved without being born of the Spirit.”  I disagree.  Because the Bible doesn’t specifically mention it in this case, doesn’t mean that He wasn’t active in the heart and mind of this thief to enable him see that Jesus wasn’t just another criminal being executed.

According to this gentleman, “the Holy Spirit of promise had not been given at that time,” so, apparently, He was nowhere to be found until Pentecost.   However, the Old Testament is filled with references to the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost may have inaugurated a new day in God’s dealing with men, with Gentiles being granted salvation apart from becoming Jews, but it did not begin the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Then he brings in the case of Enoch, asking why men today don’t petition to be saved like Enoch.  He quotes Genesis 5:24, Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.

Then having admitted that Enoch was saved, the writer asks a series of questions about things that Enoch did not “believe”.  He didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, nor that God raised Him from the dead.  He wasn’t immersed in water for the forgiveness of sins.  He didn’t believe that Jesus shed His blood on the cross so that his sins could be washed away.  He was not born of the Spirit, again, because the Spirit hadn’t been given.

Except for the last item, all these things are irrelevant to the case of Enoch.  Hebrews 11:5 has a comment about Enoch:  By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, ‘and was not found, because God had taken him’; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God.  How was Enoch saved?  BY FAITH, just like anyone else has ever been saved, beginning with Abel.  (The Scripture nowhere reveals for certain whether Adam was ever saved.)

So then, what is “faith”?  According to Hebrews 11, it’s an obedient response to the Word of God, the Word, we might mention, which has been given, as in the case of Enoch, not which will be given, as in the case of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Enoch was saved through faith in the revealed Word of God, just like you and I are.

Then this gentleman turns to the thief on the cross.  Again, he lists some things about this man.  The thief believed that Jesus was the Christ [true].  He repented, but he did not confess that God raised Jesus from the dead [irrelevant.  Christ hadn’t risen from the dead yet, so the resurrection wasn’t a subject for faith], he wasn’t immersed in water for the forgiveness of his sins [also irrelevant], and he wasn’t born of the Spirit [inaccurate].

Then he asks, “can men, today, be saved like the thief on the cross?  ABSOLUTELY NOT” (his emphasis).  So, according to this writer, there have been least two different ways of salvation.

According to this writer, “men, today, can only be saved by meeting the terms of pardon under the New Covenant,” which, according to him, “started on the Day of Pentecost.”

It might be interesting to see what the Old Testament, written long before Pentecost, has to say about the New Covenant:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 says, “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH [my emphasis] – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL [my emphasis] after those days, says the LORD:  I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor,  and every man his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” 

The whole section from Jeremiah 30-33 is the context in which the portion above should be read.

Ezekiel 11:19-20; 16:60-63; 37:15-28, and 39:21-29 are just some of the other OT Scriptures which refer to this promise of God to the nation of Israel.

Did all of this happen at Pentecost?  Did any of it?

It’s commonly taught that verses like these were all fulfilled when Israel returned from the Babylonian Captivity.  Again, where is the Scriptural evidence?  It certainly isn’t in Nehemiah, Ezra, Haggai or Malachi, books written about, during or after the Return.

There’s not a verse in the Old Testament about the New Covenant which includes baptism as one of it’s “terms of pardon.”

In a final “note,” the author refers to conversions listed in the Book of Acts.  Turning his argument around, he maintains that no one who was saved said that they did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that they did not have to be born of water and the Spirit, did not have to believe in the Resurrection, did not have to be immersed in water in order to be saved, and did not have to repent in order to be saved.

Except for the two references to “water”, which we’ll look at in a moment, all the others are irrelevant.  Jesus had come, unlike the time of Enoch and even in some ways unlike the thief on the cross – as we’ve noted – and so there were things about Him, like His deity and His resurrection, which now are the subjects of faith.  One cannot deny them and be saved.

So, what about “water?”

The writer refers a couple of times to John 3:5, where Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”   There are a variety of viewpoints about what our Lord meant by “water.”  Our friend, of course, says that it has to be immersion in water in order to be saved.  Others say that it refers to physical birth, and still others look to Ephesians 5:26, where Paul refers to the washing of water by the word.”  However, Nicodemus probably never read Ephesians, and the idea of it simply being physical birth seems seems somewhat strange.  All Nicodemus had to go by was the Old Testament, where baptism is never mentioned.

Though listing salvation experiences in the Book of Acts, there is one instance to which our friend never refers.  It’s found in Acts 10:  the conversion of Cornelius, his household and close friends, v. 24.  We’ll start reading in v. 43, which tells us something of what Peter told those in the house:  “to Him [Jesus] all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.  And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.  Then Peter answered and said, “Can anyone forbid water, THAT THESE SHOULD NOT BE BAPTIZED WHO HAVE RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT JUST AS WE HAVE?”  (emphasis added).

“Whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”  If Peter had agreed with our friend, wouldn’t he have said, “Whoever believes in Him and is baptized will receive remission of sins”?

Cornelius and his family and friends were saved without baptism, as witnessed by their receiving the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, was evidenced by their speaking with tongues and glorifying God.

News of this reached Jerusalem and created quite a stir.  The early church, being mainly Jewish, had a great deal of difficulty accepting the idea that Gentiles could be saved without coming through Judaism and perhaps none of them more than Peter. This is why he received the special vision recorded in the first part of Acts 10.

Acts 11 records the argument that arose over what Peter had done.  He gives a complete account of what happened before and when he arrived at Cornelius’ house.  In v. 15-17, he said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.  Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

Notice in both these accounts that Peter never asked for a “decision.”  He never told his audience to “pray to receive the Holy Spirit.”  He just simply told them about the Lord Jesus Christ and God did all the rest.  These may or may not have their place elsewhere, but they had no place here.

Unless one believes that lost people can receive the Holy Spirit, and regardless of the two or three other verses proponents of baptismal salvation bring forth, Acts 10 forever refutes the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation. 

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