Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

John's Baptism
In reply to a question from a FaceBook friend:

During seminary, I did considerable research on John 3:5, which to my recollection is the main prooftext for Baptismal Regeneration. Jesus told Nicodemus that one must be “born again.” which He explained further as, “born of water and of the Spirit.” The reference to water is often taken to refer to water baptism, but is also speculated to be descriptive of natural birth (referring to amniotic fluid or even semen).

Many sects of the Jews practiced ritual cleansing, a symbol of repentance, so the Lord could be referring to repentance. Truly, John the Baptist said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matt 3:11), and insisted that those he baptized must “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).

Baptizmos, by the way, means “immersion,” not simply “washing.”

I think the verse is best interpreted by the parallel verse that follows it: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” (John 3:6), i.e., “born of water” = “born of flesh,” and “born of the Spirit” = “born of the Spirit.” It seems clear that Jesus is saying, “You must not only be born naturally but reborn spiritually.”

Very early on, perhaps even before John’s Baptism, water baptism became considered an initiation into a sect, and its recipients novice disciples of the baptizer (see John 4:1). Sometimes, baptism had a further connotation of a trial of faith to be endured (see Mark 10:38 f.). The term is also applied to initiation into empowerment by the Holy Spirit (see Matt. 3:11, John 7:37 ff., Acts 1:8. 11:16).

The Apostle Paul used water baptism to further elaborate his “old man”/”new man” theology:

Know ye not, that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin, (Romans 6:3-6).

Paul thus declares that those who have received cleansing from their sins and have confessed themselves to be Christians should consider (“reckon,” 6:11) themselves to have been buried with Christ, and resurrected to new life, leaving their old, carnal life behind, along with their former sins.

True, Mark 16:16 says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned,” which sounds absolute; but there are alternative interpretations. We find many instances in the New Testament of persons who “believed,” yet were not converted (see John 8:31, Acts 8:13). If water baptism embodies one’s true heart repentance, and further embodies one’s confession of faith in Christ’s death, and one’s initiation as a Christian, then without a doubt all those things are required to inherit eternal life.

Consider, however, the repentant thief on the cross. He had no opportunity to be baptized in water, yet Jesus promised, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43). His cry of repentance and expression of faith was enough.

Paul even went so far as to state that “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17). Barne’s Notes explains that “Baptism was not his principal employment, though he had a commission in common with others to administer the ordinance, and occasionally did it.” Apparently, to Paul the essence of the saving of souls was embodied not in fulfilling ordinances but in believing the Gospel.

At the same time, it was the command of the risen Christ to both make and baptize disciples (see Matt 28:19, Acts 2:38). Jesus himself submitted to baptism because “it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness,” (Matt 3:15).

In conclusion, I do not think that water baptism is absolutely required for salvation, but we dare not take lightly or shrug off a commandment of the Lord as unimportant. One who would ignore this command needs to thoroughly examine his/her motives (1 Cor 11:28) until becoming “thoroughly persuaded” of the Lord’s will (Romans 14:5, 7, 8).

Since we are “not our own, we are bought with a price’ (1 Cor 6:19 f., 7:23), it is not up to us to decide.
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© 2010 Paul A. Hughes. Contact the author at pastor@cueroassembly.org for permissions.

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