There are many in the denominational world who quickly go to the “thief on the cross” to negate what the Lord said with regard to the importance/necessity of baptism in water for salvation. That we might have in front of us what the Scripture teaches, note what Peter said: “Baptism, the counterpart of that, saves you to-day (not the mere washing of dirt from the flesh but the prayer for a clean conscience before God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21, Moffat’s Translation).
We see the godly importance of water baptism. Many deny this, however. What is normally asserted by those with a taught disposition against the Lord’s command is that baptism (in water) is a “figure” (KJV), and not really actual. In other words, baptism for salvation is figurative, not actual. To support this assertion, the remark will be made concerning the thief on the cross: “He was not baptized, but asked the Lord to remember him when he went into paradise. That means that one does not have to be baptized in order to be saved.” (cf. Luke 23:39-43)
This is, sadly, a mistaken way of thinking. The Lord said that baptism saved, and shall we listen to anyone who speaks contrary to this? Some do, and they feel justified with that which they have been taught regarding the thief on the cross.
Consider what Paul said about salvation, and how this applies to the thief. “…because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, NET). There are two things required by Paul in this passage. First, one must confess that Jesus is Lord; that is, acknowledge His “Lordship” over one’s personal life. Second, one must believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Looking at Luke 23:42, one might easily agree that the thief on the cross did confess Christ, but what about the second requirement the Holy Spirit puts forth for salvation? Could the thief have believed that? Hardly!
What this goes to point out is that the thief on the cross was not amenable (accountable) to what the New Testament teaches for salvation.