The thief on the cross is typically cited as an argument against baptism’s necessity. “He was saved, and he wasn’t baptized,” the argument goes, “therefore no one needs to be baptized.”
With this seeming exception, the Lord’s words, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but whoever does not believe shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16) are set aside, along with the other commands and promises concerning baptism.
But the good thief, whom tradition names Dismas, is not the exception. He’s the rule. Baptism gives through means what Dismas received directly.
“Remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” Dismas asked Jesus.
This is a question we cannot ask – not directly to a living, bleeding, dying Jesus hanging on the cross next to us.
“Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise,” Jesus replied.
Baptism is that Word applied to us. I, who cannot travel through space and time to the cross, have the benefits of Jesus’ death poured over me. When the water and the Triune NAME are applied to me, it is as though Jesus says to me, “Christopher, you will be with Me in paradise.”
Dismas was splattered with the blood of Jesus, and heard Him speak. That is the archetype of baptism.
In our baptism, we are really—though shrouded in sacramental mystery—baptized into the blood of Jesus and hear Him speak, along with the Father, who says, “You are My beloved son [or daughter]; in you [through Christ] I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit descends and dwells within us, convicting us of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16).
Dismas is the rule, we the exception. Baptism gives us what he got.