This is a follow-up question regarding "Is baptism necessary for salvation?" The Catholic Church says that baptism is necessary for salvation. To respond to that, we often use the example of the thief on the cross. I recently read about it, and Catholics respond to this argument by "Well, the Bible nowhere says that the thief on the cross was never baptized before". How should we respond to this?
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"The Catholic Church says that baptism is necessary for salvation." is incomplete. Because of this, I understand this confusion. If we read the complete text of this teaching, we can better understand this teaching. Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.1257, The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
Well, I've never heard that rebuttal, but I can answer the question of the thief on the right from an Orthodox perspective, as you may hear a similar response from a Catholic apologist. The first thing I would do is clarify that you and I are both in agreement that in baptism we die with Christ and put on our new self (rise with Christ). Once I know we were in agreement on this, I would ask, What stronger baptism is there than to literally die with Christ? You might then wonder why we deem water so necessary. And this is based on Christ's saying that "Unless one is born of water and spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God." And while this is something we strongly hold to as much as we can, there is another format of baptism we recognize. We call it "baptism by blood" which is to die (especially in persecution) before having the opportunity to receive a water baptism. This is the baptism received by the thief on the right hand side of Christ. Additionally, many martyrs have received this form of baptism. One of the more recent occurred when the 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS in 2015. One of the men killed had not been Christian, but being moved by the great faith of the 20 around him, he embraced our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of this, he was martyred along with them, without having the opportunity for a water baptism. We would say that this man also received "baptism by blood". For those who have died of natural causes (including illness) with the desire but not the opportunity to be baptized we trust in the just judgement and mercy of our Lord who is the only one who knows the true heart and intentions. We believe that our Lord is not limited to this, and is free to make exceptions as He knows it is just, but since baptism is something He explicitly commanded we also believe that we must make every effort within our reach to carry it out. (The same mindset is held for those who have never heard the Gospel)
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