Is baptism necessary for salvation?

There are some religious groups today that claim that baptism is necessary for salvation – not sufficient, it’s not the only thing required – but it is a requirement, a necessary requirement. A couple of these groups are be the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Christ.

Now, these two groups are not the same by any means and how they view baptism is not the same but they have a central problem. A summary of the Roman Catholic Church’s view would say that baptism is required. If you’re able to do it. It is the means by which grace is applied to you. You do have to do it, if you can, which is an interesting situation.

The Church of Christ would say that baptism is required for salvation also, not totally in the same way though. 

Let’s talk about this. We’re not going to talk about the mode of baptism. Is it a sprinkling? Is it immersion? We’re not going to talk about the age of baptism today. Is it for any age? Is it for infants? Is it for adults? We’re simply going to address a more simplified version of the baptism debate, namely, is baptism itself, regardless of form, necessary for salvation?

Well, here are some of the verses people would use to say that it is necessary. For instance, Mark 16:15-16 where Jesus says, “Go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe, will be condemned”. You’ll note that part, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”. Well that seems pretty clear. You have to believe and be baptized, but there are a couple things to point out.

One, this passage in Mark at the end of Chapter 16 is in what is called the long ending of Mark. As in, it was not in the original and/or best manuscripts, at the least.  We should not consider this to be Holy Spirit inspired scripture. There are other things in this passage which we also should not hold on to for the same reasons. 

We shouldn’t base doctrine on parts of the Bible that are in what are called textual variants – Things that were not in the original or that have alternate or disputed readings. We’ve some about these before. The woman caught in adultery passage is another example of a passage that is not in the oldest and best manuscripts for John. This would be John 8, starting at the end of Chapter 7 and doing through part of eight.

This verse, “Believe and be baptized and you’ll be saved”, that’s not something we should consider to be scripture so we shouldn’t base our doctrine on it. A close parallel to this, which is actually in scripture would be Matthew 28, the great commission. “All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even til the end of the age”.

Baptism and believing or disciple making, they are both things that are taught to be done, told to us to go do but they are not tied to salvation here. Let’s also consider another verse in Acts, this would be Acts 2:38. “Peter said to them, Repent and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This is a verse that at first blush seems to give the impression that believing and being baptized is necessary to receive the Holy Spirit. The problem with this is that many times in Acts, we see where repentance and belief preceded baptism but yet, they were still considered to be Christians or followers of Christ.

More so than that, this goes against the general tone and trend in Acts to present salvation as something that comes by faith. For instance, one of many verses would be Acts 10:43. “Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.” We don’t see baptism alone being described as the means through which forgiveness comes or salvation is attained. We do have faith or belief (a very close concept especially back in the first century) being described as that means, often times without baptism being included.

Sometimes yes, baptism is included when belief in Christ is being talked about. However, a few months ago we talked about the need to systematize our understanding of scripture. Specifically, we looked at Paul saying that justification is by faith and James saying that it’s by works. We talked about how we need to be able to reconcile these apparently contradictory statements and we worked through that.

We came to determine that the way you are set right with God – that you receive forgiveness of sins – is by faith alone. The way you exhibit that – in a justification sense – is by works. Paul says in Ephesians 2, they “Have been prepared in advance for us to do”. This is another example, the baptism discussion, of the need to systematize our understanding of scripture.

When we have verses that say salvation is by faith, verses that say salvation comes, it seems, through faith and baptism. What we need to do is see how does all this fits together. The first thing is always to go with the clear teaching of the majority of texts. At least that should be a starting point. We need to fit these verses that seem to tie baptism and salvation closely along with the other ones that do. We need to fit those with the verses that say it’s just by faith and come to understand how these fit together.

The general tone of the New Testament is that the works of the law are no longer required for salvation, and can’t attain it and are actually an affront to trying to attain it. This is the almost singular message of Paul in Galatians. He has many sub points but the main one is that you are saved by grace; you are not saved under the law. You aren’t saved that way, don’t live that. For everyone relies on doing the works of the law is under a curse. We’re told in Galatians that those who believe are blessed along with Abraham the believer.

The person who exhibits faith in Christ as opposed to merely keeping the law, those are the true descendants of Abraham in a spiritual sense. Paul’s main thrust in the letter of Galatians is that there are people adding works to grace. Saying yes grace is necessary, very much so, but you also need this work of circumcision. Now some have said that Paul’s really just getting upset about the fact that they were adding the Old Testament law and it’s just the Old Testament law that was in affront, as if to leave the door open to add other works.

How would that make sense? If Paul says that adding a work is too much then what does it matter if it’s an Old Testament work or a supposedly New Testament work? It doesn’t. Any work added to grace is a distortion of the gospel. What makes baptism a work, because some people don’t think it is? Let me ask you this, if circumcision is a work, then what is different about circumcision and baptism.

Baptism requires a person going to the place to get baptized, walking into the water or something like that. Another person lowering them down under the water, coming back up. That sure sounds like something I am doing. If I don’t do that action, I don’t gain salvation? Then that is a work. It can’t be anything else.  It is a work, a good work. (Being baptized is a very good thing, and we’ll talk about that in a minute) But since it is a work, it can’t be required for salvation.

It also totally goes against Paul in Ephesians 2:8, 9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves it is a gift of God. Not of works, least any man should boast”. Not of works. Not of works plus grace, not of works alone. Only grace trough faith. That’s Paul’s point in Galatians, that’s Paul’s point in Ephesians, that’s his point in Romans.

Now some people have said that baptism replaces Old Testament circumcision. I actually think circumcision still happens, just in a totally different way and so does Paul. This is his point in Romans 2:29 where he says, “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly. And circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people but from God”.

So the people who are truly children of God today have been circumcised in the way that their heart has been circumcised. It has been made new, it has been refreshed. That heart of stone as Ezekiel talks about has been replaced with a heart of flesh and this is very much in keeping with all of the other descriptions of New Testament salvation. Old Testament justification was understood to be about trying to keep the law.

New Testament, God does it for you. God accomplished in your place what you could not successfully do on your own. It’s the same thing with circumcision. Circumcision was required under the Old Testament law, you did that. It did not ultimately save or perfect. In the New Testament, the New Covenant, God does the saving, God does the justifying through Christ on the cross. God does the circumcising of your heat. All of that is God’s doing to His glory to the praise of His grace, as Paul says in Ephesians 1.

The Old Covenant to the New Convent, Old Testament, New Testament, very different in how this works out. Except for the fact that salvation has always been by faith. Circumcision never saved anyone under the Old Covenant either. It doesn’t save you under the new. Keeping the law but not having faith would not have saved you either. This is Paul’s point, once again in Galatians, that the true children of Abraham are the ones who have faith.

Abraham was saved before the law, so it can’t be keeping the law the justifies you. It can’t be works that do that. It must be only faith. Now there are a couple other problems with the “baptism being required for salvation” view. The second would be that Paul Says in I Corinthians 1:14 that “Christ didn’t send him to baptize, just to preach”. He says further that he’s thankful that he didn’t baptize people.

Let me ask you this, if baptism is necessary for salvation, then isn’t Paul basically saying “I’m thankful you’re not a Christian. I didn’t do that one extra thing that you needed to be saved.” That seems rather silly and absurd and it is. We’ve already talked about the fact that the “baptism being required” view flies in the face of the clear teaching of the majority of the New Testament and systemizing our understanding of scripture is extremely important.

We can’t interpret one verse one way over here and another over there and come up with contradictory conclusions. Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument and it’s the sign of a worldview in trouble. The last things I want to say is we do have verses that strongly link baptism and salvation. I think this is a reasonable thing if we understand the first century context.

For one, Christianity is not and was not unique historically in having its converts be baptized. John the Baptist wasn’t the first to do this. Other sects would baptize their converts as a public sign of a decision they had made and Christianity adopted this practice too. If you came to believe you would be baptized. What’s the alternative? Well not being baptized would show that you’re ashamed, because you wouldn’t take a public stance, of that thing you were claiming to believe.

“I claim to believe this but I don’t believe it enough to tell other people.” That doesn’t sound like a strong belief. That is why baptism is so closely linked with salvation in the New Testament. Because after being saved, well what else would you do? Why wouldn’t you be baptized? That’s the assumption. It’s the same thing as saying, you’re married; put the ring on her finger. Well putting a ring on her finger or kissing the bride doesn’t make you married. But if you are married, that is something you had better do. If you don’t wear your wedding ring your wife is going to wonder what is going on. Is my husband committed to me?

Now maybe he’s just forgetful. There are people like that, I don’t know who they would be. Maybe they forget to put their ring back on once they’re done working out. I would never do that. I’ve heard of people doing that though…

 My point is that the ring is the sign of the covenant you have made with your spouse. In the same way, baptism is a sign of being part of the New Covenant, of being regenerated from the inside out. It is a picture of dying to self and raising to new like in Christ.

You’ll notice, you’re like a board when you’re being baptized. Someone else is doing the action to you. If this is a picture of the gospel, then this just further reinforces the fact that salvation is the act of God on the unregenerate person’s life that ultimately brings them to new life again.

All of this is to say that baptism is a sign. It is not something that saves. It is not necessary for salvation, it is not sufficient for salvation. It is simply the outward manifestation and a picture to the New Covenant community of something that God has done on the inside; namely, circumcising your heart. 

I hope this clears up, in a small way, the confusion sometimes surrounding baptism and requirement for salvation. The New Testament is extremely clear, salvation is by grace alone through faith to God’s glory alone. Not ours, not the ones who decided to be baptized, but to God’s alone.

The book, Unapologetic, is out. I hope you have seen the Facebook or Twitter posts or the email blast. If you have not, you can pick up the paperback or Kindle version here:  . I hope you will be blessed. I hope you will be encouraged and equipped to better stand up for Christ in your community with your family, with your co-workers, wherever you are. Maybe, it will strengthen your own personal convictions.

Oftentimes we are our strongest critics and adversaries and it is our doubts that are the most powerful and persuasive to us, not always the questions of others. Pick up the book. If you read it, leave a review. Hopefully five stars but whatever you think it deserves. That would be very appreciated, reviews are very helpful on Amazon, reviews are also very helpful in iTunes for the podcast in helping other people find out about it. If the book benefits your life, I would love to hear that story. I hope it encourages you as it encouraged me in writing it.

Until next week, live out your convictions without apology.

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