Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Oneness Pentecostal theology states that baptism is necessary for salvation.  It asserts that without it a person cannot be saved.  Is baptism necessary for salvation?  No.  It is not.  The Oneness theologians are in error.  Nevertheless, disagreeing with them does not make it so and particularly when we have verses like the following:

  • John 3:5, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
  • Acts 2:38, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."
  • Acts 22:16, "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord."
  • 1 Pet. 3:21, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

The problem with baptismal regeneration (the belief that baptism is part of salvation and necessary for it) is that it contradicts other scriptures that state we are justified by faith.  Justification is God's declaration upon a sinner that the person is declared righteous in God's sight.  In other words, only Christians are justified; only Christians are saved.  Please consider the following verses:

  • Rom. 4:3, "For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness."
  • Rom. 5:1, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
  • Gal. 3:8, "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed."
  • Eph. 2:8, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God."
  • See also Rom. 4:5; 9:30; John 5:24; Gal. 2:16; Gal. 3:11-14; and Phil. 3:9.

There are other verses, but these are sufficient to show that we are made right in God's eyes--justified, forgiven--by faith, not by faith and baptism.  If baptism were necessary for salvation, then these verses would state that we are justified by faith and baptism; but they don't.  In fact, that is not what Paul says that the gospel is; and it is the gospel that saves us.

The Gospel is what saves

"Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures," (NASB) (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

The gospel is defined as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for our sins. Baptism is not mentioned here.
Paul said that he came to preach the gospel, not to baptize: "I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel . . . " (1 Cor. 1:14-17). If baptism is necessary for salvation, then why did Paul downplay it and even exclude it from the description of what is required for salvation? It is because baptism isn't necessary for salvation.
Additionally, in Acts, Peter was preaching the gospel, people got saved, and then they were baptized. Acts 10:44-46 says,

"While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the Word. 45And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God..."

These people were saved. The gift of the Holy Spirit was on the Gentiles, and they were speaking in tongues. This is significant because tongues is a gift given to believers (see 1 Cor. 14:1-5). Also, unbelievers don't praise God. They can't because praise to the true God is a deep spiritual matter that is foreign to the unsaved (1 Cor. 2:14). Therefore, the ones in Acts 10:44-46 who are speaking in tongues and praising God are definitely saved; and they are saved before they are baptized. This simply isn't an exception. It is a reality.

Let's Suppose...

Another way of making this clear is to use an illustration. Let's suppose that a person, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), believed in Jesus as his savior (Rom. 10:9-10; Titus 2:13) and has received Christ (John 1:12) as Savior. Is that person saved? Of course he is. Let's further suppose that this person confesses his sinfulness, cries out in repentance to the Lord, and receives Jesus as Savior and then walks across the street to get baptized at a local church. In the middle of the road he gets hit by a car and is killed. Does he go to heaven or hell? If he goes to heaven, then baptism isn't necessary for salvation. If He goes to hell, then trusting in Jesus, by faith, isn't enough for salvation. Doesn't that go against the Scriptures that say that salvation is a free gift (Rom. 6:23) received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9)?  Yes it does.

Saying that baptism is necessary for salvation is dangerous because it is saying that there is something we must do to complete salvation. That is wrong! See Gal. 2:21; 5:4.

Alright, so this sounds reasonable. But still, what about those verses that seem to say that baptism is part of salvation? I'll address those now. But, because this subject can become quite lengthy, in fact, sufficient for a book in itself, I'll only address a few verses and then only briefly.

Baptism Verses

John 3:5, "Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.'"

Some say that water here means baptism. But that is unlikely since Christian baptism hadn't yet been instituted. If this verse did mean baptism, then the only kind that it could have been at that point was the baptism of repentance administered by John the Baptist (Mark 1:4). If that is so, then baptism isn't necessary for salvation because the baptism of repentance is no longer practiced.

It is my opinion that the water spoken of here means the water of the womb referring to the natural birth process. Jesus said in verse three that Nicodemus needed to be born "again." This meant that he had been born once--through his mother. Nicodemus responds with a statement about how he can't enter again into his mother's womb to be born. Then Jesus says that he must be born of water and the Spirit. Then in verse 6 He says that "flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." The context seems to be discussing the contrast between the natural and the spiritual birth. Water, therefore, could easily be interpreted there to mean the natural birth process.

I would like to add that there are scholars who agree with the position, and some who do not. Some believe that the water refers to the Word of God, the Bible; and others claim it means the Holy Spirit. You decide for yourself.

Acts 2:38, "Peter replied, ‘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.‘"

This verse is a tough one. It seems to say that baptism is part of salvation. But we know from other scriptures that it isn't--lest there be a contradiction. What is going on here is simply that repentance and forgiveness of sins are connected. In the Greek, "repent" is in the plural and so is "your" of "your sins." They are meant to be understood as being related to each other. It is like saying, "All of you repent, each of you get baptized, and all of you will receive forgiveness." Repentance is a mark of salvation because it is granted by God (2 Tim. 2:25) and is given to believers only. In this context, only the regenerated, repentant person is to be baptized. Baptism is the manifestation of the repentance, that gift from God, that is the sign of the circumcised heart. That is why it says, repent and get baptized.  In other words, the phrase "each of you get baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" is parenthetical since it is in the singular, and "repent" is in the plural as is "your" of "your sins."  Therefore, "repent" must go with the purpose of forgiveness of sins.  Also, this concept fits with Peter’s statement in Acts 10:43 where the same phrase "sins may be forgiven" is used. There it is granted on the basis of faith alone.

Also, consider this from The Bible Knowledge Commentary: "The preposition used here is eis which, with the accusative case, may mean "on account of, on the basis of." It is used in this way in Matt. 12:41; and Mark 1:4. Though it is possible for this construction to mean "on the basis of," this is not its normal meaning; eis with the accusative case usually describes purpose or direction."1

1 Pet. 3:21, "and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

This is the only verse that says that baptism saves. But, the NIV translation of the verse is unfortunate. A better translation is found in the NASB which says, "and corresponding to that, baptism now saves you." The key word in this section is the Greek antitupon. It means "copy," "type," corresponding to," "a thing resembling another," "its counterpart," etc. Baptism is a representation, a copy, a type of something else. The question is, "Of what is it a type?" or "Baptism corresponds to what?" The answer is found in the previous verse, verse 20: "who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you" (NASB).

What does baptism correspond to? Is it the flood, or is it the ark? What was it that saved Noah and his family? Was it the water or the ark? Obviously, it was the Ark. Noah built and entered the ark by faith and was saved (Heb. 11:7). The flood waters destroyed the ungodly. Peter, when referring to the flood waters, refers to them as the means of destruction of the ungodly (2 Pet. 2:5; 3:6). It was the Ark that saved. Noah entered the ark by faith. Baptism here, in my opinion, refers to the Ark--not the waters. That is why the rest of the verse says, "not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God" which is consistent with what Paul said in Col. 2:11-12 where He equates baptism with being circumcised of heart.

Acts 22:16, "And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." Is the washing away of sins done by baptism, the representation of the circumcised heart (Col. 2:11-12) which means you are already saved; or is it by the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:14; Rom. 5:9; Eph. 1:7)? Obviously it is the blood of Jesus, and the washing here refers to the calling on Jesus' name. Baptism is a picture of God’s inner work of washing away sin (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Pet. 3:21).

Rom. 6:4, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." Because the believer is so closely united to Christ, it is said that the symbol of baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection. Obviously we did not die--unless, of course, it is a figurative usage.

Titus 3:5, "he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." The washing of rebirth can only be that washing of the blood of Christ that cleanses us. It is not the symbol that saves but the reality. The reality is the blood of Christ.

Gal. 3:27, "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." This is speaking of the believer's union with Christ. It is an identification with, a joining to, a proclamation of loyalty to, etc. In 1 Cor. 10:2 the Israelites were baptized into Moses. That means they were closely identified with him and his purpose. The same thing is meant here.

More on Baptism

It is an outward representation of an inward reality. For example, it represents the reality of the inward washing of Christ's blood upon the soul. That is why it is used in different ways. It is said to represent the death of the person (Rom. 6:3-5), the union of that person with Christ (Gal. 3:27), the cleansing of that person's sins (Acts 22:16), the identification with the one "baptized into" as when the Israelites were baptized into Moses (1 Cor. 10:2 ), and being united in one church (1 Cor. 12:13). Also, baptism is one of the signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace that was instituted by Jesus. It is in this sense a sacrament. A sacrament is a visible manifestation of something spoken. It is also said to be a visible sign of an inward grace. For example, the communion elements of bread and wine are called the sacrament of communion. When we take communion, we are partaking of the sacrament.

The Covenant of Grace is the covenant between God and Man where God promises to Man eternal life. It is based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the condition is faith in Jesus Christ. As the Communion Supper replaced Passover, baptism, in like manner, replaces circumcision. "They represent the same spiritual blessings that were symbolized by circumcision and Passover in the old dispensation."2

Circumcision was the initiatory rite into the Abrahamic covenant; it did not save. A covenant is a pact or agreement between two or more parties, and that is exactly what the Abrahamic covenant was. God said to Abraham, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen. 17:7, NIV). God later instructed Abraham to circumcise not only every adult male but also 8-day old male infants as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-13). If the children were not circumcised, they were not considered to be under the promissory Abrahamic covenant. This is why Moses' wife circumcised her son and threw the foreskin at Moses' feet. (Exo. 4:24-25). She knew the importance of the covenant between God and her children. But at the same time we must understand that circumcision did not guarantee salvation to all who received it. It was a rite meant only for the people of God, who were born into the family of God (who were then the Jews).

If you understand that baptism is a covenant sign, then you can see that it is a representation of the reality of Christ circumcising our hearts (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11-12). It is our outward proclamation of the inward spiritual blessing of regeneration. It comes after faith which is a gift of God (Rom. 13:3) and the work of God (John 6:28).

Conclusion

Baptism is not necessary for salvation. It is the initiatory sign and seal into the covenant of grace. As circumcision referred to the cutting away of sin and to a change of heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25, 26; Ezk. 44:7,9) baptism refers to the washing away of sin (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21; Titus 3:5) and to spiritual renewal (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:11-12). The circumcision of the heart is signified by the circumcision of the flesh, that is, baptism (Col. 2:11-12).

One last thought: If someone maintains that baptism is necessary for salvation, is he adding a work, his own, to the finished work of Christ? If the answer is yes, then that person would be in terrible risk of not being saved. If the answer is no, then why is baptism maintained as being necessary the same way as the Jews maintained that works were necessary?

 

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  • 1. Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press Publications, 1985.
  • 2. Berkhoff, Lewis, Berkhoff's Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, p. 620.

 

 

 

 
 
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