Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
Have you ever been water-baptized?
If you have, then you probably have wonderful memories of that day.
It might have been in your local church, in a public swimming pool, or down at the local beach. Believe it or not, I know some people who got baptized in the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized!
As a pastor in a local church, I’ve had the privilege of baptizing many people who found faith in Jesus. Many of them had their family and friends join them to celebrate, as well as their church family.
It’s a beautiful display of what God has done in us, going down in the water to show how we have died in Christ, and coming up to show how we have been resurrected with Christ (Romans 6:8).
However, as wonderful as it is, the glory of it can be overshadowed with a question that has been asked in many faith circles: Is it necessary?
Baptism, a Hot Topic?
When I think about something as incredible as baptism, it feels like such an odd thing to ask if it’s necessary. It’s a lot like when people debate if Sabbath is necessary. You mean to tell me that you have to be convinced to take a day for rest?
In the same way, baptism is like a “new life party.” Whether it is necessary or not, I would want to join in the fun. I mean, think of all the glory God would get. Furthermore, consider the people who might be encouraged toward Jesus after watching your baptism.
Of course, there are plenty of concerns around baptism. Infant or Believers’ Baptism? Immersion or sprinkling? Don’t worry, we’ve covered those questions in other blogs!
Whether baptism is necessary or not seems like an unnecessary question if you’re just trying to get out of it. That said, if you’re questioning the spiritual condition of a Jesus-follower who has not been baptized, then this question becomes much more important.
I hope to clarify with a biblical and accurate response.
Deeming Baptism Unnecessary
Although baptism is a beautiful demonstration, one that Jesus participated in himself (Matthew 3:13-17), I do not believe that the scriptures have put a requirement of baptism on believers.
For what it’s worth, I have a much stronger conviction that God does not ask unbelievers (or unbelieving babies) to get baptized, but that’s a blog for another day.
As for why baptism isn’t necessary for believers, I would begin with looking at those individuals who Jesus saved without following up with baptism.
Consider the penitent woman (Luke 7:37-50), the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2), the publican (Luke 18:13-14), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). All of them were forgiven apart from baptism.
However, I suppose someone could argue that those were exceptions that were made. Personally, I’ve never thought it was good to have a conclusive theology based on the thief on the cross.
What about Paul the Apostle in First Corinthians 1:14-17? Paul writes, “I thank God that I baptized none of you…” Again, he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”
These seem like odd statements if baptism were what saves.
If baptism were necessary for salvation, you would think Jesus and the Apostles would have consistently called people to be baptized, but they don’t. Sometimes they include baptism in their sermons; many times they do not.
Even Jesus, almost immediately after having been baptized, gives his first invitation, saying, “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Dealing with Difficult Texts
Most of the questions about the requirement of baptism arise when people encounter a scripture that appears to teach baptism as such. I’ll share a few.
One of the more common prooftexts is Acts 2:38. Believe it or not, the most important word when seeking to understand this scripture is what you might think it the least important word – “for.”
You could read this a couple of ways: “Pay $10 for this sandwich,” or, “Take an aspirin for your headache.” The word, “for,” has two different meanings. The first use of the word, “for,” implies, “in order to get,” while the second use suggests, “because you already have.” In Acts 2:38, the original Greek implies the second use of the word.
Another difficult text would be Mark 16:16. It is only difficult when you first read it; I’d encourage you to read it again slowly.
There are two basic statements in this particular scripture, but the condemnatory statement is only one those who do not believe. In fact, the scripture says nothing about those who are not baptized.
We’ll do one more. I think it is the best biblical argument for saying that baptism is necessary, and that scripture is 1 Peter 3:21. It appears to be pretty straightforward – “Baptism…now saves you.”
But look at Peter’s own commentary in the second half of the verse. It’s not about the water which brings “a removal of dirt from the body.” It’s about what baptism represents, “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”
In an article by GotQuestions.Org, Dr. Kenneth Wuest is quoted, saying:
Water baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a type...Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, 'not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.' Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he defines what he means by salvation, in the words 'the answer of a good conscience toward God," and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, 'by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,' in that the believing sinner is identified with Him in that resurrection.
As some final words on the subject at hand, I want to reiterate how wonderful water baptism can be.
As I’m writing this, our church family is being encouraged to participate in Baptism Sunday. I look forward to that weekend very much. I’d encourage you to consider baptism if you’ve never been baptized.
That said, I remember having an older lady who was incredibly scared of water in the church I grew up in. There were many who condemned her for not being baptized. Some condemned her because of the tradition. Some condemned her because they had misinterpreted scripture.
My pastor at the time reminded her just as I’d like to remind you: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).