I have a simple question. If one has to be baptized to be saved, what about the thief on the cross that Jesus said would be with him in Paradise that day??? He couldn't get off the cross to be baptized. And several people have accepted Christ in hospitals just before death. Are you saying they are not saved because they were not baptized? I'm sorry. All my Bible says is "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." There are no "strings" attached.
Your question is a good question. It is also one that has been asked and answered many times. I will assume that you have read the answers to Questions 1 and 9 (the portion of Question 9 that deals with Great Commission or Water Baptism) from which you have concluded that baptism is essential to salvation. Unfortunately, though you have concluded that baptism is essential, you seek to avoid that conclusion by two arguments: 1) the thief on the cross, and 2) the assertion that Acts 16:31 is the only verse in the Bible that deals with how to be saved. Both arguments fail.
The promise that Jesus made to the thief on the cross was made prior to the death of Jesus. Thus, the New Testament was not the basis of the thief’s salvation. “15 And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 16 For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it.” Hebrews 9:15-16. The thief could not have been saved by the death of Christ because Christ had not died. Prior to the effectiveness of the New Testament, Christ could, and did on other occasions, forgive sins without obedience to New Testament commands. There is no New Testament example of salvation apart from baptism after the establishment of the church on the first day of Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus. This brings us to the second argument.
Unless you have a New Testament that is different from any that I have ever seen or of which I have ever heard, your bible says more than you wish to admit. The passage that you cite relates the conversion of the Philippian jailer. Several things must be kept in mind. As far was Scripture reveals, this was the first time that the gospel had been preached on the continent of Europe. The jailer was most likely one who had never heard either what he needed to do to be saved or about Jesus. In fact, it is most likely that when he asked what he needed to do to be saved he was asking about his physical life, and not is spiritual life. Paul set a good example of turning an early question into a heavenly inquiry. Thus, Paul’s answer – “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved. . . .” Note that Paul did not then ask him to pray the sinner’s prayer, a prayer that never appears in Scripture. To the contrary, he spoke unto him the word of the Lord. Then, he took him the same hour of the night and baptized him. The question then arises, why was he baptized? Was it because his sins had already been forgiven, or in order to have his sins washed away (forgiven)? To answer this question we must read passages that deal with baptism. Passages that deal with faith offer no information at all. The answer to Question 9 established that the one baptism of Ephesians 4:3-4 was Great Commission or water baptism. If there is more than one purpose there is more than one baptism. What then is the purpose of Great Commission baptism? Let’s begin with the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached the first gospel sermon. At the conclusion, he was asked by the hearers what they needed to do. He commanded them to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. Skip to Acts 22:16. Surely Paul baptized the Jailer for the same reason for which he was baptized. Ananias commanded Paul (Saul of Tarsus) to arise and be baptized, and wash away his sins. Rom. 6:3-4 instructs that we are baptized into Christ and into His death. Can one be saved outside of Christ or outside of the death of Christ? Gal. 3:27 observes that all those who have been baptized into Christ (there’s that phrase again) did put on Christ. Can one be saved without putting on Christ? Finally, skip to 1 Peter 3:21 where Peter states plainly that baptism saves. Many other passages could be cited. A good concordance will help you find them.
Your question concludes with an emotional argument about eleventh hour salvation. One problem with waiting that long is that most who do die at the tenth hour. Certainly it is clear those in your hypothetical were not immersed. You have assumed that they were unable, but that is an unjustified and unproved assumption. Moreover, you do not state whether they had heard and rejected the gospel before reaching their final hour. But what shall we do if all of the facts support a first time hearer fatally ill who cannot be immersed. Why not do what we must do anyway? Leave them in the hands of God. The problem is that I cannot change what God required. I cannot preach and teach something other than what God requires. I will say that, based upon Scripture, their prospects are not great. They have not obeyed a clear command of the Lord. This could get into a completely different question – degrees of punishment. See Luke 12:47-48.
Clearly, you can never be in that position because you have heard the Lord’s will. I call upon you to render obedience to the Lord’s will and turn not away. The teaching of the Scripture is clear. In Mark’s account of the Great Commission, the Lord said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. He that believeth not shall be condemned.” It can be no plainer than that. Years ago at the World’s Fair in New York I had opportunity to speak to a woman about her soul. She made the same argument that you have made – the Bible only speaks of faith. I asked her to read 1 Peter 3:21 which speaks of baptism’s saving. Neither then nor now do I believe that baptism alone saves. Clearly it does not. But neither does faith only save. See James 2:24 which is the only verse in scripture that speaks on faith alone. I urged her to be like the Lord who combined them in the Great Commission by saying “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. He that believeth not shall be condemned.” See responded by denying that Jesus ever made such a statement. I turned to Mark 16 and asked her to read it aloud. She did so, stood quietly for several second, the closed the New Testament and handed it to me with the parting words, “I don’t care.” Please care and obey the gospel to the salvation of your soul.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)