This “question” is an attempt to raise doubt over the biblical teaching on baptism by appealing to emotionalism. It produces a negative emotional response to contemplate the fate of a person who wanted to be baptized but died before they could make it to the water. However, emotionalism doesn’t determine biblical doctrine. The Bible does!
It matters not one whit how I feel about something as to whether it is sound doctrine or not. How does the fact that the vast majority of the human population, from creation to judgment day, being lost make me feel? (Matt. 7:13, 14). Not good! Does that affect the truth of it at all? No! Likewise, how I feel about someone dying before they make it to the water, terrible as it is, has no affect whatsoever on the biblical teaching of baptism.
This is a very common question raised by those who are trying to find any way around the necessity of baptism that they can. I usually ask a question in response; “How old where they?” This brings the discussion back to facts and out of emotional appeals to abandon the word. “Well, what difference does that make?” The difference it makes is that the person is implying, from their “question,” that it would be God’s fault the person was lost. That is, if baptism is essential to salvation, and the person dies before they could be baptized, then it would be God’s fault they were lost. So, I ask, “how old were they?” No matter what the person says, though they usually say elderly, I will say that the person had “x” number of years to obey the gospel before they died and they didn’t. So, say a person of 50 dies on the way to the water and someone says, “well they wanted to get baptized so they are saved.” That means, according to the person’s reasoning, they are saved because they made a “last minute” decision to be baptized after a lifetime of disobedience. No, my response is, if they died on the way to the baptistry then they waited too late to decide to obey the gospel.
Let me ask some questions from biblical examples and see what the answer would be. If Naaman had died on his way to the Jordan would he have died a leper? (2 Kings 5:8-14). If the blind man died before washing in Siloam would he have died blind? (John 9:6-7). In both of these examples, among many, it clearly states that they were healed after they obeyed. No one would look at examples like these and say that if they died before they obeyed that they would have died anything other than what they were at the time of their death. When it comes to baptism for the remission of sins there is no apparent physical condition being healed. It is a spiritual condition that is being treated. However, the same principle of blessing after obedience, not before, is true.
In Romans 6:3-5, Paul says,
This passage makes it as clear as it can be made that the “newness of life” comes after baptism, not before. However, those who deny the necessity of baptism say that the newness of life can (and does) begin before baptism. Where is the example of such? No passage in the New Testament even comes close to implying salvation prior to baptism.
Some try to use the thief on the cross as an example of one being saved without baptism (Luke 23:39-42).
Here again, I like to ask some questions in return to such an attempt. I ask, “what did Jesus say to the thief?” Without fail they always reply with the text, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Then I simply ask, “OK, what did the thief say to Jesus?” And it is very rare if the person can tell me. It seems to me that, if a person is going to base their salvation on the example of the thief, they would be very clear on what happened there.
The fact is, when a person uses the thief on the cross for an example of one being saved without baptism, they are making a supposition with no basis in fact and with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Now let me be very clear, it doesn’t matter whether the thief had been baptized or not. Jesus had power on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). However, Jesus is not on earth forgiving sin today. He is in heaven at the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:3). The only way to be saved today is by giving obedience to Christ through his word (Hebrews 5:9; 1 Peter 1:23-25). With that said, when we examine the evidence of the thief on the cross, there is more reason to believe that he had been baptized than to believe that he had not.
The reason I ask what the thief said to Jesus is this, it shows that he did not just come to his faith while on the cross. He was a person who knew who and what Jesus was. The way he addressed Jesus and his knowledge about what Jesus would do demonstrate that he was either a follower of Christ who had fallen away into thievery; or, a thief who had heard and obeyed and was suffering the consequences of thievery committed prior to his repentance. Whatever the case my be, it cannot be that he was just encountering Jesus for the first time there on the cross. Notice:
The thief called Jesus “Lord” – a term used by Jesus’ disciples. At what point in the course of his being crucified and hanging on the cross would the thief have heard and/or seen any evidence that Jesus was Lord? He would have already had to have known this.
The thief asked Jesus to “remember” him. Why would the thief have expected Jesus to be able to “remember” him? Jesus was in the same condition the thief was, they were both dying on a cross! If the thief was just encountering Jesus for the first time on the cross when would he have heard anything about Jesus being raised from the dead? And, even if he had, what evidence would he have seen during the crucifixion to cause him to believe it? Clearly, the thief had already learned that the Christ would rise from the dead and, thus, could “remember” the thief after they both died on the cross.
The thief knew Jesus would have a kingdom. If he was just encountering Jesus for the first time on the cross, when would he have learned anything about the kingdom? Why would he be expecting a dying man to come into a kingdom? Clearly, he had already heard the teaching of Christ and his kingdom prior to being on the cross.
When we see this very clear evidence of the thief’s prior knowledge of who and what Jesus was, it becomes a very strong likelihood that he had been baptized. Notice, “Jerusalem, and all Judaea” went out to be baptized by John in the Jordan (Matt. 3:5, 6). Of course, this doesn’t literally mean that every single individual in this region was baptized. It is hyperbole to emphasize the very large numbers of people who were being baptized. But; even though John was baptizing so many people that it was said he baptized “Jerusalem, and all Judaea;” the disciples of Christ baptized even more than John did! (John 4:1, 2). There were a lot of people being baptized!
Also, those who were being baptized were being told to produce “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). So, how exactly would a thief, converted by the preaching of John and/or Jesus, bare “fruits worthy of repentance”? He would certainly have to stop being a thief! He would also have to make restitution for his thievery. It very well may be that the thief was on the cross because he had repented and been baptized.
Now, I have presented a supposition also – I believe the thief was baptized. The other side presents their supposition – that the thief was not baptized. Neither supposition can be stated as a matter of doctrine because the Bible simply doesn’t say. However, a supposition is only as good as the supporting evidence. Which supposition has the weight of evidence and which not only has no evidence but actually contradicts the known facts?
Is the thief on the cross an example of one who was saved without baptism? No, he is not! He is an example of one who confessed faith in the Lord and was saved by the Lord. Whether he was baptized or not is irrelevant. Not only because the Lord forgave him while he was still on earth but also because the thief died before Christ established his church and added those who were baptized to it (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38, 41, 47).
Let’s make application of the thief to the question at hand. What if the thief had died before he asked the Lord to remember him in paradise? What if he really wanted to say it but died before he could? What then? At what point will a person say that one died before doing what was necessary to be saved?
What if a person died in the process of having a Bible study before they heard the word to believe? (Romans 10:17). Could they be saved without believing, even though they would have if they had the time to study before dying? Or, if they had studied but had not yet confessed Christ? (Romans 10:9, 10). Maybe they were on their way to confess Christ but died before they could. What then? The Bible says a person must hear the word (Romans 10:17; Hebrews 11:6), believe what it says about Christ and his kingdom (John 8:24; Acts 8:12), repent of your sins (Acts 2:38; 17:30), confess faith in Christ (Romans 10:9, 10), and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), in order to be saved. So, at what point in the process did God not mean what he said? Did he say that a person who believes and is baptized would be saved (Mark 16:16) but really only mean that a person has to be believe to be saved?
I have heard deceitful denominational teachers use the Philippian jailor as an example of one being told that faith only would save him. This is a deceitful and satanic use of Scripture! Every time a denominational preacher quotes Acts 16:31 to say that faith only is the means of salvation they are twisting the Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). When they stop at verse 31 with their “plan of salvation” they have stopped before the jailor had even heard the word of God so that he could believe in Christ (Acts 16:32; Romans 10:17). They stop before the jailor repented of his part in persecuting God’s servants (Acts 16:33; 17:30). They stop before the jailor was baptized into Christ for the remission of his sins (Acts 16:33; Galatians 3:26, 27; Romans 6:3-5). They stop before the jailor was rejoicing in his salvation (Acts 16:34; 8:37-39). Notice, it doesn’t even say that the jailor had done what Paul told him he needed to do to be saved until verse 34, after he had been baptized! Paul told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (31), then preached Christ to him (32), the jailor believed, repented and was baptized (33), and then it says he was a believer (34). I would to God that denominationalists would stop abusing this beautiful passage!
Let’s make application of the jailor to the question at hand. At what point during the process could the jailor have died a saved man? What if he died when he originally planned to kill himself? (Acts 16:27). He was obviously one who would obey the gospel given the chance. So, if he had fallen on his sword before having the chance to obey would he have been saved? He had not even heard the gospel yet! (Romans 1:16). When had he obeyed the doctrine of Christ for salvation? Not until he had been baptized into Christ!
It is not a pleasant thought, to think of one dying before they obey the gospel. But bad feelings about someone’s death won’t save them! Only obedience to Christ can save. And it cannot be said that a person has obeyed until they have been baptized. As unpleasant as it may sound, if a person dies “on the way to the water” then they waited too late to obey.