“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
With these words, St. Dismas (one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus) was saved by Our Lord who promised: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
Unfortunately, some Christians cite this beautiful story as evidence against the Catholic theology of salvation, claiming that salvation is by faith alone and anything in addition is contrary to the gospel. (This is the Reformation doctrine of sola fide). After all, they point out, the thief on the cross was never baptized, never received the Eucharist, never did any good works—yet he was saved!
But there are several problems with proof-texting St. Dismas in this manner.
First, a rather large assumption is being made concerning the thief’s sacramental record. How do we know he wasn’t baptized? The Bible doesn’t say he was—but it doesn’t say he wasn’t. We certainly would not want to argue a positive case from silence, but neither should those who assume the thief was not baptized (the Bible doesn’t report the apostles’ baptisms either!).
It is also noteworthy that the good thief seems to have been catechized to some level. He knew Jesus had done nothing wrong, that Jesus was Lord, and that Jesus was going to his kingdom after he died (something Jesus made clear only to his disciples—see Matthew 13:10-11). It is possible, then, that the thief on the cross was a fallen-away disciple (cf. Matt. 27:44) who repented on the cross. If so, it’s likely that he would have been baptized.
The second and much bigger problem is that even if the good thief had never been baptized, the analogy between his life and most other people’s is insufficient to support sola fide. One issue is that the thief lived and died under the Old Covenant. The sacraments, such as Christian baptism and the Eucharist, are part of the New Covenant, which was not fully in place until Jesus died (Heb. 9:15-18, Acts 19:1-6).
Another problem with the analogy is that the good thief’s situation was unlike virtually any person’s in history. What God does for someone in an extremely unusual context should not reassure anyone outside those same conditions. Further, treating this “edge case” as a general principle actually proves too much. Would any Christian agree that the gospel can be boiled down to asking to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom? Moreover, if the good thief is a standard-setting example, why not others? Jesus forgave the sins of many people in a wide variety of circumstances that few consider normative today. In Mark 2:5, for instance, Jesus forgives a man based on his friends’ faith! What does that do for “salvation by faith alone”?
A third reason why this story doesn't support sola fide is that the good thief on the cross actually seems to have exhibited all the faith and works that he could, given his situation. The fact that his physical limitations made it impossible for him to do anything more than speak was certainly not lost on God! Amidst all the assumptions made about this short story, one that seems safe is that had any sacrament been made available to the good thief for salvation, he would have received it. This hardly supports the theology behind sola fide, which eschews the need for good works under any circumstances.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that the Church makes many normative statements that are easily criticized when made into absolutes, and the sacraments fall prey to these illicit attacks all the time. The Church actually teaches that although we are bound to God’s sacraments, God is not. The Church baptizes because that is how God revealed that New Covenant believers enter into salvation (e.g., Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38, 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21)—but this does not mean God cannot save without baptism (see CCC 1257-1258). The same might be said of the Eucharist (cf. John 6:53-54). God looks on the heart, not just the body—and a person who unwillingly cannot participate in the sacraments is not judged for that.
There are unusual and extreme situations when normative salvific requirements cannot be met, and yet salvation remains possible. God knows this, and the Church teaches it. But unusual circumstances do not disprove normative expectations. By his grace, God can save through (genuine) faith alone, of course, but it is a mistake to make an exceptional act into a theological rule—especially one that directly contradicts Scripture.