Among the most important discussions in Christianity is ‘what is required for us to receive salvation/eternal life’. This debate has caused much division in the body of Christ and needs to be addressed. When it comes to the issue of baptism and its role in the process of salvation there are two primary camps. Those who claim baptism as an essential support their case with verses like Acts 2:38 which says: “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” Mark 16:16 which says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Or 1 Peter 3:21 which says baptism now saves you. Verses like this seem to indicate that you must be baptized to be saved.
The issue with this view is the word ‘essential’ or ‘necessary’. The natural and only logical conclusion then is anyone who comes to believe in Jesus but is unable to be baptized prior to their death will go to hell. Also the thief on the cross serves as an example of salvation without water. Those who believe water baptism is a requirement for salvation will claim that these cases are ‘exceptions to the rule’. When you say baptism is essential to salvation there can’t be exceptions otherwise it is not essential.
On the other side there are verses like Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Roman 5:1 says we are: “justified by faith.” Romans 4:3: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” These verses seem to indicate that we are saved by faith alone. This would indicate that baptism cannot be an essential for salvation because if it were we would not be saved by faith alone. Ephesians 2 says we are saved through faith, not by works. We can dress it up however we want but in the end water baptism is a work. It is something we do. If something we do is required to earn our salvation we are not saved by grace alone.
Furthermore, it is impossible to say that baptism is required for salvation without also saying that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is not enough to save us. If we have to do something in addition to the cross then Jesus’s death alone, is not enough. So the question: is baptism essential for salvation? No. Water baptism is not.
This conclusion is further supported in Acts 15:11; Paul addresses the leaders of the church by saying: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Or Romans 10:1: “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…” Baptism is suspiciously missing from these verses. If baptism is essential for salvation, then you would expect to see it mentioned every time the issue of salvation comes up. How could Peter tell the crowds in Acts 2 they must be baptized to be saved but in Acts 16 when the jailor asks Paul this same question Paul doesn’t mention baptism?
There is a certain tension in the text. The result is a great debate because there are scriptures that seem to support both sides. Our desire is not to take some Scriptures and ignore others. We want all of Scripture. If the Word of God is true then we know it will be consistent with itself.
Romans 6:3-5 says: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection,”This passage connects baptism with resurrection. What it does not do is state baptism is with water.
The problem is not that the Bible contradicts itself or is inconsistent. The problem is when we talk about baptism we are referring to two different things. Reading through the New Testament it becomes clear that baptism is more than just dropping someone into water. We believe that baptism is essentially not essential for salvation. There are two types of baptism: one is done by us and the other is done to us.
The baptism we do is with water. This is a ceremonial act of obedience that comes after the Spirit has regenerated you to the point where you are ready to convert, turn from your sin, and turn to God. This is an important part of our relationship with God and a significant event in our Spiritual journey. Water baptism is like a wedding ceremony. It is not required but most people want it. In addition, those who love Jesus obey Jesus and Jesus tells us to be baptized. Therefore choosing not to be baptized if you have the opportunity is a sign your heart does not belong to God. Water baptism is an outward display of an inward reality. It’s symbolic of our death, burial, and resurrection into Jesus. Water baptism, while an important act of obedience, is not a prerequisite to eternal life.
Then there is baptism that is done to us. This is baptism with the Spirit of God, or baptism into Jesus (Acts 1:5, 11:16, 1 Cor. 12:13, Rom. 6:3). This happens inwardly. We are baptized into Christ when He becomes the Lord of our lives. Your old self is put to death and the Spirit gives you new life as a redeemed child of God.
When it comes to baptism the question becomes how important is it to salvation? That depends on what type of baptism you are talking about. Water baptism makes you wet. Jesus baptism makes you His. A more accurate understanding of Acts 2:38 would read: What must I do to be saved? Change your way of thinking (self-rule). Follow God’s ways. Immerse yourself into the character of Jesus and live a life modeled after Him.
When you truly convert and submit yourself to the Lordship of Christ, the Holy Spirit moves into your life; that is baptism. Conversion is the act of submitting yourself to God (dying to ‘self rule’) and committing yourself to live for Him (rising to new life in Him). This form of baptism is not a work as Jesus does it not us and is absolutely essential to salvation as only those who have Jesus have life.