Beckett: Holy Baptism – What About the Thief on the Cross?

Dismas und Christus Mindelaltheim by Andreas M. Rau. Wikimedia Commons.

Which are these words and promises of God? That is, where does Jesus promise that He saves us in Baptism? “Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16)” (SC, Baptism, Second).

Baptism is not incumbent upon—that is, subservient to—belief, that is faith. Rather, as the conjunction καί (kai [and]) naturally indicates, the two work in tandem; you cannot have one without the other. A person with faith wants to be baptised; they do not reject it and the work of God therein, just like the Ethiopian eunuch after Philip preached the Good News of Jesus to him, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptised?” (Acts 8:26-38). A person who has faith does not reject God’s good gifts but desires them with all his heart, mind, and soul.

Also these words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if one is not born from water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, my translation). As Luther comments on these verses, “Of course, we are well aware that Baptism is natural water. But after the Holy Spirit is added to it, we have more than mere water. It becomes a veritable bath of rejuvenation, a living bath which washes and purges man of sin and death, which cleanses him of all sin” (LW 22:283-284). It is here that Sacramentarians (sacrament deniers) love to retort, “What about the thief on the cross,” which is a text that has nothing to do with Baptism.

Nevertheless, remembering Mark 16:16 and the example of the Ethiopian eunuch, true faith always leads to Baptism. The thief was dying on a cross. How could he possibly be baptised? Besides, they assume he was not baptised, but he just as well could have been baptised by John the Baptiser. We simply do not know. “What about the thief on the cross,” therefore, is a frivolous question. The thief on the cross is not the exception; he is the rule. Baptism gives through means what this thief received directly. Again, remember the whole point of Baptism is always about the Word of God and its efficacy. The thief implored, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” This is not something you and I can say to a living, bleeding, dying Jesus hanging on a cross next to us. Then Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

Baptism is that Word of Christ applied to us. Though shrouded in sacramental mystery, in your Baptism you have been crucified with Christ (Romans 6:3-8). So, if anything, the thief is the rule, and we are the exception. Baptism gives us what he received.

“What about those who believe and aren’t baptised? Are they not saved?” This question also belongs to frivolity. Again, remember Mark 16:16. Jesus says the ones who are condemned are those who do not believe, not those who are not baptised, just as we see in the thief on the cross if indeed he was not baptised. One who believes will always desire Baptism, that is, to receive that Word of Christ that saves, just like the thief. If they don’t desire Baptism, then they don’t really believe, for why would faith reject Christ’s good gifts? A person who believes and wants to be baptised but hasn’t been able before some tragedy took his or her life, therefore, is still saved because of that efficacious Word of Christ that effected their faith, just like the thief. Baptism is not a hammer Jesus hangs over your head; it is His well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).

Those who despise the Word that “Baptism saves” stand in the place of Nicodemus, who stands as the personification of reason, whose own vain reason could not fathom Christ’s offence, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). By saying this, Jesus is saying you must set aside all your reason and therefore become a child again. Children believe whatever they hear. Therefore, as a child of God, you believe whatever He says, even things that our reason would deem to be folly, whether that be bread and wine becoming His body and blood, or simple water giving you His salvation with His Word therein. A fool, by his fallen reason, rejects what Christ says.

Your reason will either reject what He says because His Word threatens the death of your reason, or your reason must be shamed to silence and acquiesce to His Word that is beyond every human thought (Isaiah 55:8-9). “Faith does not let itself be annoyed and does not question how something might appear to the eyes. It only clings to the Word” (Martin Luther, Epiphany of our LORD, Second Sermon, Vol. I, p. 204).

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