Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.
Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
At first glance, there seem to be, in the New Testament, a few passages that teach baptism is a requirement for salvation: Mark 16:16, John 3:5, and Acts 2:38.
One could argue, on the basis of other New Testament passages (John 13:8, Acts 22:16, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:26, Hebrews 10:22, and Titus 3:5), that baptism is necessary for salvation because it washes away sins.
One could also argue that baptism is a rite by which a person is united with Christ: Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27, and Colossians 2:12.
However, there are some passages in which Paul discusses what a person needs for salvation (also, justification), and Paul obviously excludes baptism (Romans 1:16-17, Romans 10:4-13, Galatians 2:16, and Ephesians 2:8-9, 17).
Paul also writes that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17); and, John states that Jesus himself did not baptize anyone (John 4:2). That neither Paul nor Christ themselves baptized new converts appears to imply that baptism is not a requirement for salvation.
Nevertheless, one could ask, “If baptism is not necessary for salvation, why then did Jesus and the apostles command that people be baptized?” (Matthew 28:19 and Acts 10:48). Understanding the roots of baptism may just help us answer this important question.
From Foot-Washing to Baptism
Back in Genesis, we read that it was customary for people to wash their feet when they came to someone’s house (Genesis 18:4, Genesis 24:32). Having walked all day in leather sandals and in very hot weather, their feet were surely sweaty, dirty, and stinky: so, guests needed to wash their feet to refresh themselves and to avoid stinking up their host’s house.
This custom was afterwards incorporated in worship: before approaching God’s presence in the Tabernacle of Congregation (Exodus 30:18-21), priests were required to wash their hands and their feet. Approaching God with dirty hands and feet was a sign of disrespect against God, and the sentence for this disrespect was death.
Afterwards, God’s Law demanded washing not only before approaching God’s presence in the tabernacle, but also after coming in contact with several things that were considered unclean: a dead body, a woman’s menstruation, a man’s ejaculation, anything that came in contact with these, etc. (Leviticus 11:28, Leviticus 15).
During the Second-Temple period, the Jewish elders identified many more things (and reasons) to wash: their hands, their pots, their vessels, their tables, etc. (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3-4, 8, Luke 11:38).
We must remember, however, that all these washings were insufficient to make one righteous before God: for, apart from washing, blood was still required (Hebrews 9:22); also, the washings were based on the Law of Moses, which made no one righteous (Romans 8:3); and, the washings themselves were not prescribed by the Law of Moses, but developed by the elders (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:8).
Understanding John's Tevilah
Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist was submerging people in the Jordan River (Mark 1:4-5). Why was he doing that? John was doing something other Jews were doing: he was practicing tevilah (Jewish immersion).
Although, from Christianity’s point of view, the many washings the Jewish elders had developed were not required by God since they were not part of the Old Testament (or, Tanach), John’s baptism was a rite God had indeed commanded (Luke 3:2, Matthew 3:15).
Let us now look at the baptism taught by John the Baptist:
- John was preaching that people should repent because the kingdom of heaven was close (Matthew 3:2)
- The purpose of John’s ministry was to prepare Israel to receive the Lord God (Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4-6)
- John told them Christ was coming (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:16)
- John was preaching the baptism of repentance for remission of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3)
- People came to be baptized and to confess their sins (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5, Luke 3:10-14)
- John told them the baptism of Christ with the Spirit was greater that John’s baptism (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16)
- Those who were baptized without a change of life (repentance) would be condemned (Matthew 3:7-9, Like 3:7-9)
After analyzing these passages, we should first notice that what John was preaching is not baptism for the remission of sins but baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. In other words, sins would be remitted in response to repentance, not baptism.
In support of this interpretation, we have seen that (1) baptism without repentance would still result in judgment, and that (2) those who were baptized with water would still need to be baptized by Christ with the Spirit.
Thus, when people were confessing their sins and being baptized, they were showing to God that they believed God’s word through John concerning the coming kingdom and Christ, that they were repenting (washing off uncleanness to pursue righteousness), and that they were waiting on God to forgive them and on Christ to give them the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, it may also be relevant to note that they were not only performing this rite to show their faith and repentance unto God and the man of God, but also unto the public.
The Baptism Commanded by Jesus
It is possible, then, to think of baptism as the God-ordained rite to show faith and repentance. Nevertheless, although we recognize this to be so, we must remember that baptism itself does not save: instead, God forgives sins in response to repentance, God bestows grace through faith, God saves in answer to calling on His name, and God justifies in response to faith. Therefore, the gospel, not baptism, is the power of God unto salvation.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nation and baptize those disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no reason why the baptism ordained by Jesus should be any different from the baptism ordained by John: baptism is baptism, the only thing that changed is that John’s baptism looked forward to the coming Christ, whereas the baptism of Jesus looks back to Christ’s work on the cross (Acts 19:3,4).
What Do These Verses Mean?
In 1 Peter 3:21, the author states that we are saved by baptism, not because it cleanses the body, but because we have responded to God with a good conscience. This verse sets an important precedent: when we read passages that appear to suggest that baptism saves, we should not think that baptism saves because it is performed, rather because of what it means.
It is not baptism that saves, but one’s response to God’s gospel about Christ: faith and repentance. Understanding this fact helps us to make sense of passages that appear to suggest baptism is necessary for salvation.
Mark 16:16. Jesus probably does not mean that baptism is a requirement for salvation, but that those who believe show their repentance through baptism. The ones who are not saved are those who do not believe (not because they aren’t baptized, but because they are unable to repent).
John 3:5. If being born of water is a reference to baptism, Jesus probably only means that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, people must repent and experience birth by the Spirit.
Acts 2:38. Peter makes a difference between repenting and being baptized: he is probably asking his audience to first repent in their minds and then show that they have indeed repented.
John 13:8. Whereas Peter is talking about the Lord washing his feet, Jesus is probably taking about a spiritual washing (see verse 10), and baptism is nowhere to be found in the context.
Acts 22:16. Paul was being told to show his repentance by being baptized (and, through the same baptism, wash away his sins: that is, change his life). Notice he must do all this while calling on the name of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 6:11. Since they had been washed (baptized), they had shown faith and repentance, therefore they are now set apart (sanctified) and justified (declared righteous).
Ephesians 5:26. It is unlikely this means that the church was baptized after it heard the word: more likely, it means that hearing the word was to their souls like being washed before entering God’s presence in the tabernacle of congregation.
Hebrews 10:22. The hearts were not sprinkled literally, but spiritually (or, figuratively). Therefore, the washing of the body is also a metaphor of what was happening in the soul. But, even if it is not a metaphor, baptism was only able to wash the body, and the heart was sprinkled in a spiritual sense.
Titus 3:5. The washing of regeneration is most likely not the baptism of the body, but a spiritual act from God, just as saving through mercy and renewing by the Holy Spirit are spiritual acts of God.
Romans 6:3. When Paul says that believers are baptized in Jesus and in the death of Jesus, he is clearly using spiritual (or figurative) language.
Romans 6:4. Paul is using spiritual (or figurative) language : when people are baptized, they aren’t literally buried and they don’t literally die to then literally resurrect. Instead, Paul is simply saying, “since you were baptized (which means you repented), you should change the way you live (show that you now live for God).”
Galatians 3:27. Paul is using spiritual (figurative) language again: people are baptized in water, not in Jesus; people don’t put on Jesus, they put on clothes. What Paul means is that, since you were baptized (which means that you believed and repented), you are now children of God (see verse 26).
Colossians 2:12. In this passage, baptism is a demonstration of faith. You weren’t literally buried or literally resurrected when you were baptized. Moreover, by being baptized, you demonstrated that you believe that God raised Jesus back to life.
Obey God, Honor Christ
The thief on the cross died without being baptized, yet Christ saved him, because he believed and repented (Luke 23:42-43). This makes sense since, as we now know, baptism itself has no power to save: the power to save is in God, who those saves those who repent and believe at the preaching of the gospel.
Still, baptism is the God-ordained rite to express faith and repentance. It was also commanded by Christ, and it was practiced by the apostles. One who truly believes should be eager to obey God and honor Christ.
Those who do not practice baptism are either living in disobedience and sinning, or showing that they are ashamed of Christ (Luke 9:26) and do not believe in him.
© 2022 Marcelo Carcach