The Baptism of the Thief on the Cross

I have several friends and acquaintances who point to the thief on the cross to show that baptism is not necessary for salvation. This is how I answer them.

To discuss the thief on the cross we need to start with James and John.

MK 10:35 James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, *came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.”
MK 10:36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
MK 10:37 They said to Him, “ Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on *Your *left, in Your glory.”
MK 10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
MK 10:39 They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.

What is this baptism that Christ speaks of? We know that he was baptized by John. It is safe to assume that these disciples were baptized by water also. It would seem that He is speaking of a different baptism that water baptism.

The Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary has an interesting take on this baptism.

“**38 **Jesus’ answer is sharp and penetrating. The two disciples did not really know what they were asking. The way to privileged position in the messianic kingdom is not by grabbing for power but by relinquishing it through suffering and death. Jesus explained this to them by using the analogies of the cup and baptism. The cup, symbolizing trouble and suffering, is found in the OT (Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 49:12; Eze 23:31-34 [see comment on 14:35-37]). Baptism is a symbol of a deluge of trouble (cf. Pss 18:16; 69:1-2).

**39-40 **With a confident “We can,” the disciples answered Jesus’ question about going through the suffering of his passion. How naive! James and John failed to understand what was involved in Jesus’ sufferings, though they would indeed participate in them. But to grant them privileged positions in his kingdom was not within his authority. Jesus refused to usurp the authority of his Father. “

Jesus was then speaking of His crucifixion in terms the cup and baptism.

Let us look at Paul’s take on baptism.

RO 6:3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
RO 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
RO 6:5 For if we have become united with *Him *in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be *in the likeness *of His resurrection,
RO 6:6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with *Him, *in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;
RO 6:7 for he who has died is freed from sin.
RO 6:8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,
RO 6:9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.

If we are crucified in our baptism, and arise with Christ, then was not the thief on the cross not also baptized by sharing Christ’s agony? Is this not the same baptism that Christ spoke of the James and John?

The Thief may not have had water baptism. He did have baptism in the Blood of Christ.

He might also be considered as one receiving Baptism of desire which I don’t think has to be explicitly requested, but is rather granted to those who die wanting to do Christ’s will.

Your friends mistake is assuming that he does not need water Baptism to be saved when he has plenty of opportunity to receive it. From Scripture it seems pretty obvious that water Baptism is the normative and ordinary way in which one joins the body of Christ and is first saved from sin. I guess maybe not obvious to a non-Catholic who wants to dig in his heels in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church aka the Teachings of Jesus.

A lot of people don’t buy into the “Baptism of Desire” teaching.

What you’ve got to show is that this is an extra-ordinary means of Baptism. The ordinary means is by baptism.

So how do you convince them that there are “extra-ordinary” and “ordinary” means of baptism? Point them to John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, even in the womb. Now, is this ordinary?!?!? Not exactly, but yet John was still filled with the Holy Spirit, which happens at and after baptism.

Once they accept this line of reasoning, you can then return to our good thief. Does the Bible teach of this type of Salvation? Only in extra-ordinary cases. Normally, it’s as Peter says in Acts, “Repent and be Baptized, for the forgiveness of Sins* and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit***”, or in his Epistles, “… this (water) pre-figured baptism, which saves you now”.

We have baptism, we have faith, we have Grace, we don’t have a “Sinner’s Prayer”.


The thief did not receive a Baptism of Blood, he did not suffer martyrdom. He did express his belief in Christ and would be considered to have received Baptism of Desire. Because after professing Christ he died before being able to receive water Baptism.

By the way Baptism of Desire and Baptism of Blood is not the equivalent of Sacramental Baptism.

My 2 cents…here’s how I responded to the obligation to receive “if able” as the OP hinted by quoting Mark 10:38. The same principles apply here.

I’ve read that if someone dies for someone else, that person gets a go straight to heaven, do not stop at purgatory, ticket, even if that person is unbaptized. Is that true?

Keep in mind that St. Dismas (traditional name of the Repentant Thief) who died at the Lord’s right hand did so BEFORE Christ gave His commandment to be baptized.

I’ve read that sinners that don’t believe in God and reject him go straight to hell… If a Satanist dies for another Satanist does that Satanist go straight to heaven? What you have mentioned sounds like something from a polytheistic religion… like if you die in battle you go to Valhalla… I don’t think that’s how God works due to a lot of things mentioned in His word… Unless the person was accepted into God’s Salvation and kept strong faith they wouldn’t go directly to heaven. Perhaps if they were martyred for their faith in Jesus… that’s a different story.

No, if someone died for Christ or are killed because they profess being a Christian and had not received Baptism they could be considered a martyr for Christ and could go straight to Heaven. Only if a Baptized person dies without mortal sin, by giving their life for another, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe would this be considered.

If your friend prefers crucifixion to water baptism, let him seek out his preferred method.

Water baptism worked just fine for me, and will be just fine for my child.

Try to imagine, being the only person who has ever lived, looking Christ in the eye, professing your faith, and hearing him speak with his own words, that you will be with him in Paradise.

Try to imagine how powerful that must have been.

All the more powerful given the agony the thief must have been experiencing at that time.

Crucifixion was an excruciating, slow, torturous way to die, among the very worst ever devised.

To hear Christ himself say you would have eternal joy at the end of it must have been a tremendous comfort.

The thing I wonder is “could you or I see the Christ, the Messiah, in this beaten and broken man next to us on the Cross” if we were the thief.

Good point.

I figure that the thief on the cross is one of those exceptions to the norm. It makes much more sense to me to base theology on the normal means, not the exceptions–as in this case, I think the “opportunity” to be crucified next to Jesus Himself is not available any more. (The mind boggles at preferring this method to the normal method.)

While we are bound to obey the law and be baptized, God, I don’t think, binds himself to His law for us. Even with the thief being unbaptized, if Christ proclaims him saved, he is. Call it whatever you want, I see it as the will of God.

His name is St. Dismas. Because of his acceptance of Christ, he has been “Baptized” and is saved. Also, assuming he went to Hell, he would have accepted Christ there anyways.

Come again!

Isn’t that an Oxymoron?

Actually we don’t know absolutely that he wasn’t baptized. He may have been one of those baptized in John 3:22

No, sorry this was my point. Let’s say he was not Baptized and died and thus went to Hell. Every one at this point goes to Hell, regardless of whether they were good or not. Another term being Abraham’s Bosom. After Christ’s Death He went to Hell just like everyone else. So if St. Dismas accepted Him there then he would go to Heaven.

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