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

Note:  In my previous post in this series, I reprinted “The Thief on the Cross” and commented at the end that I had received a lengthy response to what I said.  I mentioned that I had answered that response with another post.  This is that post.  The reason I did this, and reprint the two posts together, is because the view expressed on the other side strikes directly at how people are saved.  It diverts them from faith in the Lord Jesus and what He did on the Cross to faith in a ceremony, a ritual, namely immersion in water for salvation.  Not faith in Christ for salvation, but baptism for salvation.

Several years ago, I attended a few Bible studies led by an elder of the Boston Church of Christ.  During one of these studies, at a home, this elder baptized a young lady in the swimming pool out in the back yard.  I have no difficulty with that, but after he brought her up from the water, he commented that “her sins were now at the bottom of the pool.”  I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate the  situation.  My first reaction was, “Boy, I sure don’t want to go into that water.”

Anyway, here is the post.

On November 23 [2013], 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 can show their viewpoint from Scripture.  The trouble is that there are many, many conflicting views, most of which appeal to Scripture.

This was the case with this gentleman’s response.  He clearly believes that there has been more than one way of salvation.  His comment was titled, “Can Men, Today, Be Saved Like Enoch?”

He 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 term “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 continues, “Their argument is that the thief was not baptized in water, and was still saved.”  I agree.  However, he also says, “Their proponents fail to mention that the thief was also saved without being born of the Spirit.”  I disagree.  Just 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 to 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 OT 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.

Having admitted that Enoch was saved, the writer then asks a series of questions about things which 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 died on the cross so that his sins could be washed away.  He wasn’t 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 who 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.  We might add to that, the Word of God as it has been given, as it had been given to Enoch, not as it will be given, as it has been to us with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Enoch was saved through faith in the revealed Word of God, just like you and I are.

Then the writer turns to the thief on the cross.  Again, he lists some things about the man.  The thief believed that Jesus was the Christ.  This is true.  He repented, but he did not confess that God raised Jesus from the dead.  This last is irrelevant.  Jesus hadn’t yet been raised from the dead, so the resurrection wasn’t yet an object of faith.  And, finally, he wasn’t born of the Spirit.  We believe this is inaccurate, as we mentioned above.

Then he asks, “Can men, today, be saved like the thief on the cross.  ABSOLUTELY NOT” (his emphasis.)  So, he believes that there have been at least two different ways to be saved.

He says, “men, today, can only be saved by meeting the terms of the New Covenant,” which, according to him, “started on the Day of Pentecost.”

It might be interesting to see what the Old Testament, which was 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 when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was an husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant which 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 of Jeremiah 30-33 is the context in which the above portion should be read.

Ezekiel 11:19-20; 16:60-63; 37:15-28, and 39:21-29 are just some of the 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?  To the nation?  To individuals, yes, but to the nation?

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 during or after the Return.

There’s not a verse in the OT about the New Covenant which includes baptism as one of its “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 have to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that they did not have to be born of water and of 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 other things he lists 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 Resurrection, which are now the objects 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 the Lord meant by “water.”  Our friend says that it has to be immersion in water in order to be saved.  Others says 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 referring to physical birth seems unlikely.  All Nicodemus had to go by was the Old Testament, where baptism is never mentioned.

In his listing of salvation experiences on Acts, there’s one incident to which our friend never refers.  It’s found in Acts 10:  the conversion of Cornelius, his family and several close friends.  We’ll start reading from 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 sin.”  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 AS WE HAVE?” (emphasis added).

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

Cornelius and his family and friends were all saved without baptism, as witnessed by their receiving the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, was evidenced by their speaking in 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; perhaps none of them more-so than Peter.  That’s why he received the vision in the early verses 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 vs. 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 instances that Peter never asked for a “decision.”  He never told people to “pray to receive the Holy Spirit.”  He just simply told them about the Lord Jesus, 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 in spite of the two or three other verses proponents of baptismal salvation use, Acts 10 forever refutes the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation.

(originally published December 26, 2013.) edited.