Why stress baptism when the thief on the cross and Paul were saved before getting baptized?

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By BibleAsk Team


Baptism is a significant topic within Christian theology and practice. Questions about its necessity and role in salvation often arise, especially when considering biblical examples like the thief on the cross and the Apostle Paul. These examples raise questions about why baptism is emphasized in many Christian traditions if there are instances of salvation occurring without it.

Understanding Baptism in Christian Theology

Baptism, from the Greek word “baptizo,” meaning “to immerse,” is a sacrament or ordinance in Christianity that symbolizes the believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is often viewed as a public declaration of faith and a vital step in the believer’s spiritual journey.

Biblical Foundations for Baptism

  1. The Great Commission: One of the clearest biblical mandates for baptism comes from JesusGreat Commission to His disciples. Matthew 28:19-20 (NKJV): “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This passage establishes baptism as an integral part of the disciple-making process.
  2. Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost: Another foundational text is found in Acts 2, where Peter addresses the crowd at Pentecost. Acts 2:38 (NKJV): “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” Here, Peter links repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing the importance of baptism in the early church.
  3. Paul’s Teachings: The Apostle Paul also underscores the significance of baptism. Romans 6:3-4 (NKJV): “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Paul’s analogy of baptism as a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection highlights its theological importance.

The Thief on the Cross: An Exception?

One of the most frequently cited examples in discussions about baptism and salvation is the thief on the cross. His story is found in Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 23:39-43 (NKJV)

“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'”

Key Points from the Thief’s Example

  1. Immediate Salvation: The thief on the cross was promised immediate salvation by Jesus, “you will be with Me in Paradise.” This assurance was given without any mention of baptism.
  2. Exceptional Circumstance: The thief’s situation was unique—he was dying and unable to be baptized. His faith and repentance were genuine, and Jesus, who has authority over salvation, granted him eternal life.
  3. Faith as the Basis: This example highlights that faith in Jesus is the crucial component of salvation.

The Apostle Paul: A Different Journey

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) provides another perspective on the role of baptism in salvation.

Acts 9:3-18 (NKJV)

“As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’

And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’

Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’

And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”

Key Points from Paul’s Example

  1. Paul’s Encounter with Christ: Paul’s conversion began with a direct encounter with the risen Christ. His acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord marked the start of his transformation.
  2. Baptism Following Conversion: Although Paul experienced a radical conversion, he was baptized shortly thereafter. Baptism followed his initial belief and repentance, underscoring its importance as an act of obedience and public declaration of faith.
  3. Obedience to Christ’s Command: Paul’s baptism, administered by Ananias, was in obedience to the instruction of Jesus, reinforcing the pattern seen throughout the New Testament.

The Role of Baptism in the Early Church

Baptism played a crucial role in the life of the early Christian community. It was closely associated with conversion and the initiation into the Christian faith.

Acts 8:36-38 (NKJV)

“Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.”

This account of the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism illustrates the immediacy with which new believers were baptized following their profession of faith.

Acts 10:44-48 (NKJV)

“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, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.”

In the case of Cornelius and his household, the reception of the Holy Spirit was followed by baptism, demonstrating the close link between belief, receiving the Spirit, and baptism.

Theological Reflections on Baptism

  1. An Act of Obedience: While faith is the basis of salvation, baptism is an act of obedience that follows belief. Jesus commanded baptism as part of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and the early church practiced it consistently.
  2. A Public Declaration: Baptism serves as a public declaration of a believer’s faith in Christ. It symbolizes the believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-4).
  3. Baptism and Regeneration: Baptism is a sign that accompanies the inward change brought about by faith and the Holy Spirit.

Addressing Exceptions: The Thief on the Cross and Paul

The examples of the thief on the cross and Paul highlight important principles:

  1. Extraordinary Circumstances: The thief’s situation was extraordinary. He expressed faith in Jesus in his final moments, and Jesus, who has authority over salvation, assured him of eternal life. This underscores that while this rite is important, God’s grace can operate outside normal sacramental means in exceptional circumstances.
  2. Immediate Obedience: Paul’s conversion and subsequent baptism demonstrate the norm of immediate obedience to Christ’s command to be baptized. Despite his dramatic encounter with Jesus, Paul was still baptized, emphasizing its importance as part of the conversion process.

Conclusion

While the thief on the cross and the Apostle Paul provide unique insights into the role of baptism, the overall biblical narrative emphasizes its importance as an act of obedience and public declaration of faith. Baptism is not presented as the means of salvation but as a significant step in the believer’s journey with Christ. It symbolizes identification with Christ’s death and resurrection and serves as a public testimony of faith. Exceptional cases like the thief on the cross highlight the primacy of faith and God’s grace, but the consistent practice in the New Testament underscores baptism’s importance in the life of a believer.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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