Criminal Baptism

When arguing against baptism being salvific, regularly people point to the salvation of the criminal on the cross next to Jesus as a prime example of the one that “made it” to heaven without having gone through the formality of baptism.  The account of this criminal’s faith in Christ is recorded in Luke 23:32-43.  But is this really true, did this man never undergo a baptism?  Mark 16:16 says that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38 he urges everyone to “repent and be baptized” in the name of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and to receive the Holy Spirit.  We see over and over again in the New Testament that baptism is closely linked to salvation, enough so that many churches throughout history have seen baptism as salvific.

In short, I believe baptism is not salvific but rather a symbolic ordinance commanded by Christ for His followers as a public testimony of one’s entrance into the new covenant community of the church.  Baptism is a divinely ordained means of grace whereby we as believers are symbolically washed of our sins and participate spiritually with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection by going under the water and raising again (Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:11-12).  If understood correctly, baptism becomes about our submission to and union with Christ; also gaining a hope in future resurrection because of Christ’s work on the cross.  This ordinance has always been about the heart of the participant and not the outward performance of the rite.  Baptism becomes the picture of the process of sanctification that will occur in all believers for the rest of their earthly lives as they suffer, and ultimately die in the hope of resurrection all in the name of Christ.

But what does any of this have to do with our newly saved criminal brother on the cross? 
If we understand the important piece of baptism to be what is going on in the heart of the participant through faith, as this is the important thing with all ordinances of Christianity, then we can see something very special about our brother on the cross.  Paul in Philippians 3 wants to know Christ (Philippians 3:8, Philippians 3:10) more than anything else.  In fact he considers all other endeavors and accomplishments as loss in light of the worth of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).  Paul wants to know Christ and share in his sufferings, death, and resurrection (Philippians 3:10).  And if you know how the book of Acts goes, Paul will get his wish.  In fact, if you understand the Christian life as a call to come and die, to put our sins, our will, our prerogatives, and our lives down and take on the will of God in Christ Jesus, then you will participate in the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ just like Paul, Peter, and many other saints throughout history have.  But here is the curious answer to the question above; if there was ever a Christian that got to participate in the baptism of Christ, it was the criminal on the Cross.  He embodies the exquisite truth of what is symbolized in baptism.  Although the criminal's death on the cross does not gain the salvation of anyone nor did he bear the sins of the world, he walked with Christ through the very suffering that Christ faced, the very death, and was looking forward to Christ’s and his own resurrection; being in paradise with Christ. 

Did the criminal on the cross “make it” to heaven having missed out on baptism?  If baptism is an empty writ of passage, a mere dipping in water, then yes.  But if baptism is meant to be a picture of our union with Christ in His sufferings, death, and resurrection, then our criminal brother absolutely did not miss out on baptism.  The criminal on the cross next to Christ embodies exactly what it means to be baptized both spiritually and physically in union with Christ.  In an instant, through a confession of Christ, this criminal’s just punishment for his criminal offences is turned into one of the grandest baptisms of all time; being united with Christ in the very experience of Christ’s own work on the cross.  Believers throughout the ages have hoped for the same and so should you.

You may not have gone under the water as a believer (and if you haven’t I think you should), but you will share in Christ’s suffering and death if you are to truly live with Him.

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