The Salvation of the Good Thief: repentance as a baptism of desire

Human persons who have not received the formal Sacrament of Baptism with water can enter the state of grace for the first time, putting them on the path of salvation, by a baptism of desire. An explicit baptism of desire occurs when the individual seeks formal baptism. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that an adult preparing for a formal baptism can enter the state of grace prior to that formal baptism by a baptism of desire:

“man receives the forgiveness of sins before Baptism in so far as he has Baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly; and yet when he actually receives Baptism, he receives a fuller remission, as to the remission of the entire punishment. So also before Baptism, Cornelius [of Acts 10:1-2] and others like him receive grace and virtues through their faith in Christ and their desire for Baptism, implicit or explicit: but afterwards when baptized, they receive a yet greater fullness of grace and virtues.” [Summa Theologica III, 69, 4.]

By explicit desire for the Sacrament of Baptism, a person can enter the state of grace, and then subsequently receive the full benefit of the formal Sacrament by baptism with water. But Saint Thomas says that a baptism of desire can be implicit. This implicit baptism of desire can apply to non-Christian believers, who love God and therefore implicitly desire the state of grace, which is the state of loving God and neighbor. And for a non-believer, if his rejection of religion and God is not an actual mortal sin, an implicit baptism of desire can take the form of selfless love of neighbor. For baptism confers the state of grace, which always includes love of neighbor.

But can repentance from sin suffice to obtain a baptism of desire? Consider the good thief on the cross. He was guilty of grave crimes, and he admitted this. But he was repentant from those sin and crimes, therefore he received the state of grace. And dying in that state, he next received eternal life in the paradise of Heaven.

{23:38} Now there was also an inscription written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
{23:39} And one of those robbers who were hanging blasphemed him, saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.”
{23:40} But the other responded by rebuking him, saying: “Do you have no fear of God, since you are under the same condemnation?
{23:41} And indeed, it is just for us. For we are receiving what our deeds deserve. But truly, this one has done nothing wrong.”
{23:42} And he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
{23:43} And Jesus said to him, “Amen I say to you, this day you shall be with me in Paradise.”

The good thief was repentant, and the bad thief was not. So the good thief obtained the state of grace and eternal life. For a true sincere full repentance from all sin implies the love of God and neighbor. The entire moral law is based on the love of God and neighbor. And since the love of neighbor necessarily implies, at least implicitly, the love of God, we can say that the entire moral law is based on the love of neighbor.

{13:8} You should owe nothing to anyone, except so as to love one another. For whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
{13:9} For example: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not kill. You shall not steal. You shall not speak false testimony. You shall not covet. And if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
{13:10} The love of neighbor does no harm. Therefore, love is the plenitude of the law.

Therefore, repentance from sin can suffice to obtain a baptism of desire.

Now consider the case of a baptized Catholic Christian, who commits an actual mortal sin, thereby losing the state of grace. He cannot return to the state of grace by mere imperfect contrition, unless he also obtains forgiveness by the Sacrament of Confession (or in some cases Extreme Unction). But he does return to the state of grace immediately if he has perfect contrition — though he still must confess when the Sacrament is available.

So we must also say that repentance from sin with mere imperfect contrition does not suffice to obtain a baptism of desire — for it does not suffice even in the baptized Catholic who departs from the state of grace by actual mortal sin. Only if repentance from sin is truly selfless and full, by love of God and neighbor, can that repentance obtain a baptism of desire. And therefore, this type of repentance must be perfect contrition, not merely imperfect contrition.

But perfect contrition can be motivated by a love of neighbor, with the love of God being only implicit. Thus, an unbaptized person, who does not believe in God, can still enter the state of grace in a baptism of desire by repentance from sin, motivated by the love of his neighbor, who was harmed by that sin.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” (Redemptoris Missio 10).

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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