Baptism is practiced by most all Christians, though different denominations have various modes of baptism. The basic biblical model for baptism which many Christians follow is that of submergence in water. Many denominations and non-denominational churches practice baptism by fully submerging a person into a special tank, tub, or pool built inside of the church or on church property, or they may use a pond, lake, sea, or even the ocean. Outside of those denominations that practice infant baptism or baptism related to church membership, baptism is most commonly an action taken by a newly professing believer as an outward expression of their faith in Jesus Christ and their prior acceptance of salvation.

Baptism In the New Testament

Baptism is a common theme throughout the New Testament, and Jesus Himself told His disciples to baptize other new believers (Matthew 28:19). For most evangelical Christians, there is no doubt that baptism plays a significant role in one’s faith, but its exact purpose and function is highly debated. Throughout history, there have been many discrepancies between varying viewpoints regarding the method and meaning of baptism, causing multiple churches to practice baptism in vastly different ways. In order for one to reach a solid, biblical conclusion on baptism, the varying current practices must be contrasted to that of the New Testament instances so that its purpose, function, merits, and mode may be correctly understood and applied today.

 

Is Baptism Necessary to be Saved?

One of the most controversial debates surrounding baptism has to do with its purpose and merits. On one hand, there are those who believe it to be a step taken after one is saved in order to publically profess their faith and decision to follow Christ. For this group, baptism is certainly important, but it is not needed in order to accept the gospel message and be saved. According to this perspective, baptism comes after one receives salvation. On the other hand, there are those who believe that baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation. In this way, they believe that baptism is a part of the process, or a means, of salvation, and that one cannot obtain salvation without having been baptized. This view places baptism prior to receiving salvation.

Each of these views claim to be biblical and rely upon Scripture, and each side presents convincing arguments for why their perspective should be the one followed. Yet each differs from the others significantly. Since each of the views pertaining to the separately debated issues cannot all be true because they are contradictory, it is important to study all of the instances and mentions of baptism in the Bible in order to reach a solid and biblical conclusion.

 

A Sign of Faith or a Means of Salvation?

The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes baptism as a “rite of initiation practiced by almost all who profess to embrace the Christian faith.”[1] When one studies baptism in the New Testament, it can be found that it is meant to be a symbol and sign of faith. While there have been those throughout history who believe that baptism is a necessary action in order to obtain salvation, Scripture indicates otherwise when one carefully examines the original language and context.

Peter’s Teachings on Salvation and Baptism

Throughout the New Testament, faith and repentance are shown to be the only necessary factors in regards to salvation (e.g. John 1:12; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 3:9).[2] Some, though, may argue that there are other verses in the New Testament that render baptism necessary for salvation, such as Acts 2:38. However, a closer examination of this text specific text reveals that this is not actually the case. In this verse, Peter tells his audience to “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38, NIV). In his book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, Eric Bargerhuff proposes that the correct understanding of this verse lies within the context of the passage.[3] Within this section of Acts 2, Peter is speaking to the Jews who are feeling deep regret and guilt over demanding the crucifixion of Christ. Therefore, when he tells them to be baptized along with repenting, he is telling them to outwardly express their true change of heart.[4] Along with this, it can be seen that there were many other instances in which Peter himself taught of how to receive salvation and forgiveness without mentioning baptism at all, and one of these instances occurs just one chapter later in Acts 3:19.[5]

Along these same lines, Steven Ger explains that the grammar of the original Greek text in Acts 2:38 “indicates that forgiveness of sin is the result of repentance” which makes baptism a “parenthetical idea” because it is third person singular while the words repentance and forgiveness are both second person plural.[6] With this in mind, Ger states that this verse is better conveyed by the sentence “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and be baptized” [7]. When analyzing the various options for grammatical translation, Ger’s understanding appears to be both true to the text and in agreement with the rest of the teachings on salvation throughout the Bible.

Jesus’ Teachings on Salvation and Baptism

Another verse that has commonly been used in arguments by those who believe baptism is necessary for salvation is John 3:5, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of “water and the Spirit” in order to enter God’s kingdom. Though the meaning of this verse is not completely understood, there have been many plausible explanations presented that seem much more likely than it meaning that baptism is a necessary means of salvation.[8] Regardless of which theory pertaining to the meaning is true, it is impossible to rightly suppose that Jesus would have viewed baptism as a necessary factor for salvation in this verse, yet neglect to mention in His multiple other statements about salvation throughout the New Testament.[9] In this case, one would have to conclude that Jesus withheld or forgot to mention, whether knowingly or unknowingly, necessary information regarding salvation in His numerous other statements recorded in the Bible.

Along with this, in Mark 16:16, Jesus states that “[whoever] believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned”. While Jesus does mention baptism in relation to salvation in the first part of the verse, He leaves baptism out of the second part. This verse is intriguing and somewhat puzzling (perhaps due to uncertain grammatical translation as with Acts 2:38), but it would seem that “believing” is the main component of salvation, since one is condemned based on unbelief alone and not on whether or not they have been baptized. It would seem that, while Jesus expects believers to be baptized, it is action of belief that is directly related to one’s salvation or condemnation.

Paul’s Teachings on Salvation and Baptism

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of salvation standing alone from baptism is the account given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Within this verse, Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus sent him “not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” While Paul is addressing the fact that no one is baptized into his name but rather the name of Christ, this verse seems to also indicate that baptism is not a necessary part of salvation given Paul’s distinct wording.[10] Directly prior to this statement, Paul states that he does not remember baptizing more than a handful of people (whom he lists – 1 Corinthians 1:14–16), though it is a well recorded fact that he preached to hundreds, if not thousands, of people and led countless people to Christ (e.g. Acts 14:1, 21; 16:14–15). Paul makes it a point to declare that his priority mission was spreading the gospel message, which is evidently separate from baptism considering he separates these concepts in these statements. Also, when the Roman jailer asks Paul and Silas “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), the apostles simply respond with “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” with no mention of baptism in their reply (16:31).

When studied in context, it is clear that these verses do not contradict the message found in the rest of the Bible, which states that salvation comes through faith and repentance alone. Baptism is never once depicted as a means of salvation or a part of the saving process, but rather it is always salvation that precedes baptism,[11] symbolizing the cleansing of sins.[10] As Dr. Elmer Towns states in his book, Theology for Today, baptism is not the cause of salvation, but rather it is meant to be a “demonstration of their [believers] faith,” as shown in Acts 2:41.[12]

 

Conclusion

Though baptism is a recurring theme in the New Testament with multiple references as to how and why it was practiced, much debate still remains. However, with a careful study of these biblical mentions, a solid conclusion for each of the related questions can be reached. Baptism was established as an outward sign of a believer’s faith and salvation, as is seen in the New Testament accounts. Though it is not necessary for salvation, it is nevertheless an important step in every believer’s life, as it is a public proclamation of one’s faith and salvation through Jesus Christ.

 

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Sources used in this article are not necessarily in agreement with or endorsed by the author(s) of this website, but are rather used for the sole purpose of explaining/supporting the topics with which they directly relate.

[1] Charles W. Draper, Chad Brand, and Archie England, eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003), 166.

[2] Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word Is Misunderstood (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012), Kindle Edition: 136.

[3] Ibid. 134–135.

[4] Ibid., 135–136.

[5] Ibid. 137.

[6] Steven Ger, The Book of Acts: Witnesses to the World, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2004), 53–54.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines That Divide: a Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), Kindle Edition: Loc. 1286–1292.

[9] Ibid. Loc. 1294–1296.

[10] Ibid., Loc. 1318–1319.

[11] Michael C. Bere, Bible Doctrines for Today, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1996), 247.

[12] J. D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, EPub. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle Edition: 164.

[13] Elmer L. Towns, Theology for Today, 3rd ed. (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008), 699.