Friday, April 02, 2010

All Of Our Hands And Feet Are Nailed

This is Good Friday, and one of the subjects often discussed in this context is the thief on the cross. Because he was justified apart from baptism and is such an example of the gracious nature of justification, he's often dismissed as an exception to the rule. He was nailed to a cross. He couldn't be baptized or do some of the other good works that most people are capable of doing. And we're sometimes told that baptism wasn't required yet, so the thief is unrepresentative of how people are usually justified today.

But Jesus' acceptance of sinners apart from baptism is a common theme in Luke's writings, both before and after Calvary (Luke 5:20, 7:50, 17:19, 18:10-14, 19:9, Acts 10:44-48, 15:7-11, 19:2). Over and over in the gospels, in Acts, in Paul's letters, and elsewhere, we see forgiveness attained, peace pronounced, and Heaven promised upon faith, not upon baptism or some other later addition to faith. There was no inclusion of baptism or other works earlier than Calvary or any later addition of works. Jesus has always justified through faith alone. The thief on the cross isn't an exception, because he was nailed to a cross and therefore was prevented from physically doing works like baptism. Rather, he's normative, because his soul was as prevented from justification through works as everybody else's.

If anybody is interested, I wrote a post about some of the church fathers' comments on the thief on the cross a few years ago.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
(William Cowper, There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood)


  1. Jason,

    I have often used the example of the thief in conversations with those who hold to baptismal regeneration (i.e., traditional Church of Christ, UPCI, Mormons, etc.). Their objections always amount to the idea that (1) the thief died under the Old Covenant era and (2) people were saved by faith alone in the Old Covenant era, where as faith + baptism is essential for forgiveness of sins in the New Covenant era because it is commanded in Acts 2:38, etc.

    The response to this is easy:

    1. Paul argues for justification by faith alone in Romans 4 and applies it to people that live under either covenantal era (cf. vv. 23-24).

    2. Jesus died before the criminals did (John 19:32-33), and Hebrews 9:16-18 says that the New Covenant was inaugurated by Christ's death, hence, we are saved the same way the thief was, by faith alone.

  2. There are so many problems with the position Dusman describes and responds to above. Their reading of passages like Acts 2:38 is problematic to begin with. Acts and other documents discussing post-Calvary theology refer to people being justified prior to baptism, including in contexts addressing what’s normative. There’s no reason to exempt baptism from the many Biblical passages that exclude works from being a means of justification. Multiple forms of baptism existed prior to Calvary (John the Baptist’s and that of Jesus and His disciples) and weren’t justificatory. There’s no reason to think that Jesus’ baptism, which was already in effect prior to Calvary, later became justificatory. Etc. I discussed a lot of these issues in depth at a Roman Catholic blog a few months ago. See here.