The question, “Is baptism essential?” needs something added to it, doesn’t it? But isn’t this how we sometimes view the question of baptism? I think we argue at times whether baptism is essential without asking the very important question, “Essential to what?” Let me ask this question in two distinct ways, and answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”
First, “Is baptism essential to the Christian life?” Answer: yes.1 Second, “Is baptism essential to the salvation experience?” Answer: no. Let me try to explain.
What’s the Difference?
The difference is huge. When I say that baptism is essential to the Christian life what I mean is that if you are a Christian, you will be baptized. Why? That is what Christians do. The Bible speaks often of baptism, “Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit:” (Matthew 28:19), “Then Peter said unto them, repent, and be baptized…” (Acts 2:38), and “…Why tarry you? Arise, and be baptized…” (Acts 22:16). The Bible stresses baptism, and it is simply something that Christians are supposed to do. Jesus Christ, our Lord, commanded us to. So in that sense, it is essential to the Christian life, similar to how love, praying, and forgiving others are all essential to the Christian life.
However, as important as baptism is, it is not part of the salvation experience nor does one have to wait till they’re baptized before they’re saved. Let’s look at this truth more. First, I will speak on some commonly quoted verses and arguments that some believe support that one must be baptized before one is right with God. Second, I will then try to show that Christians are indeed saved and ready for Heaven before they are baptized.
Arguments that seem to Support that Baptism is Essential to Salvation
Mark 1:4, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” By only reading this verse one might think that this “baptism of repentance” was what brought forgiveness to those who were baptized. However, the next verse sheds light on what was happening, “And there went out to him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5, emphasis mine). It was not the act of baptism that forgave their sins, but the fact that they confessed their sins to God. Matthew 3:6 agrees with this, “And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” (emphasis mine). It appears it was called a “baptism of repentance” because it was symbolizing the repentance that was happening in their hearts and minds.
Mark 16:16, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.” This verse doesn’t overly weigh in on the issue. I say this because the verse never speaks on what happens to the person who believes and is not baptized. It speaks about the person who believes and is baptized (he is saved) and speaks about the person who does not believe (he is lost), but this verse never tells us what happens to the person who believes and is not baptized (or the person who has believed and is awaiting baptism). Everyone would agree that the person who believes and is baptized will be saved, wouldn’t we? There should be no disagreement with that. And everyone agrees that the person who does not believe will not be saved, don’t we? This verse, at least in one sense, really doesn’t weigh in on the issue.
John 3:5, “Jesus answered, truly, truly, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” There are at least two reasons why “water,” as spoken of in verse 5, it is not speaking of baptism. (1) If “water” does mean “baptism” why doesn’t Jesus speak about it again? Why is it that when Jesus tells Nicodemus directly how to be saved He only speaks about faith and not baptism? (2) Jesus appears to rebuke Nicodemus for not understanding about the new birth (v. 10). But how could Nicodemus have known about a baptism that was not taught about in the Old Testament?
This brings up an interesting point. Why did Jesus seemingly rebuke Nicodemus in verse 10 for not knowing about the new birth? Other information in verse 10 should help us see why. Jesus called him the (it is literally “the” in Greek) teacher of Israel. He was not a second class teacher, but it appears he was the teacher. By supposedly being this knowledgeable about the Old Testament, Jesus expected him to know about the new birth. Why? Because the new birth is spoken of in the Old Testament. In fact the same language used by Jesus, “water and Spirit” is specifically spoken of in the same passage in the book of Ezekiel (36:25-27),
“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments, and do them.”
Yes, this is speaking to Israel, but it’s ultimate fulfillment appears to be for Christians, telling about the new birth that was to come, similar to Jeremiah 31:31-34 that is quoted in the New Testament (Hebrews 8:8-12) when speaking of the new covenant. In this passage “water” and “Spirit” are used. It appears then, when Jesus tells him he must be born of “water and Spirit,” Jesus was telling him he must be born of the Holy Spirit and must be spiritually cleansed (Ezekiel 36:25 speaks of water cleansing us).
Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said unto them, repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” One problem with making baptism essential for the forgiveness of sins in this verse is that in the very next chapter Peter says, “Repent you therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). In 2:38, Peter seemingly offers his listeners forgiveness on the basis of repentance and baptism. However, in 3:19 Peter again offers forgiveness, but this time baptism is not mentioned, but repentance is (“converted” can mean to turn). When comparing these two verses one can see that in 2:38 baptism is not essential for salvation because it is not spoken of in 3:19 and yet in 3:19 forgiveness is still promised. What is forgiveness then tied to? Forgiveness is tied not to baptism, but to repentance.2 How else could Peter offer forgiveness apart from the mention of baptism? Didn’t Peter give them the full way of salvation? He most certainly did, and it did not include baptism.
It is also helpful to know that one purpose of baptism in the New Testament is for the new Christian to make a public confession of faith and this, it appears, is one reason baptism is often spoken of when one becomes a Christian. When a Christian is baptized he is confessing his faith openly for the world to see.
Acts 22:16, “And now why tarry you? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” This verse is similar to Acts 2:38 (see comments there). We should note that “wash away your sins” is really linked with “calling on the name of the Lord.” It is by calling on the name of Jesus that we have our sins forgiven and are saved. Romans 10:13 says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In this passage there is no mention of baptism, and yet Paul can say that they “shall be saved.” However, there is a link with “wash away your sins” and “Arise, and be baptized.” The link is not one of literal interpretation but one of symbolic. Baptism is a picture of our sins being washed away, of our sins being cleansed. It is a beautiful picture as long as it is kept only as a picture, not as literally washing ours sins away.
1 Peter 3:21, “The like figure whereunto even baptism does 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:” This verse is not teaching the essentialness of baptism for salvation, for when it says, “baptism does also now save us,” it immediately follows that with, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh…” It appears Peter might have said that just after “baptism does also now save us” to show that he is not speaking of water baptism literally saving. For when he says, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh” he is essentially saying, “I am not talking about water baptism literally saving you. I am not talking about something that can remove dirt from your skin (water baptism) saving you.”
Christians are Saved and Ready for Heaven before Baptism
Now we turn our attention to why I believe that a person, when he truly believes in Jesus Christ, is completely saved before baptism.
The Thief was Saved without Baptism
Luke 23:42-43, “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, truly I say unto you, today shalt you be with Me in paradise.” One of the thieves turned to Jesus in the last moments of his life while dying on a cross. Jesus tells him that “today shalt you be with Me in paradise.” However, the Thief was not baptized. Shouldn’t this show us that baptism is not essential for salvation? Some argue that this was in the Old Covenant, that things have changed now. But it should be observed that Jesus died before the Thief died. Why is this important? It is important because the book of Hebrews tells us that the New Covenant began when Jesus died (9:17). Therefore, the Thief died in the New Covenant, and was not baptized, but still went into Paradise with Jesus.
Someone could say that this Thief might have been baptized earlier in his life and was included when it says, “And there went out to him [John the Baptist] all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). However, this would mean that the Thief was baptized before he became a Christian (see Matthew 27:41-44). For those who believe that baptism is an essential part of the salvation experience, will they allow a lost person’s baptism to “count”? And for the one who believes that all who are baptized are saved, regardless of faith and repentance, then why wasn’t the Thief saved when he was baptized, if, as it is argued, he was in fact baptized earlier in life?
We have the Holy Spirit before Baptism
Let me ask you a question. If an individual has the Holy Spirit (the blessed Third Person of the Trinity) living within him, is that person right with God? Listen to what the Bible says in Romans 8:9, “But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” Those who have the blessed Holy Spirit of God dwelling in them are Christians, and those who do not have Him dwelling within them are not Christians.
Now read Acts 10:47, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” These people had already received the Holy Spirit before baptism. Surely you cannot have the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant era and not have your sins forgiven, can you? Look at what John 7:39 says, “(But this spoke He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)” They had already believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit (see Acts 11:15-18) and had not been baptized. They had salvation before baptism. Baptism is not essential to salvation.
We Receive the Holy Spirit by Faith3
The previous point showed that Christians have the Holy Spirit before they are baptized and are thus right with God before baptized. Do we receive the Holy Spirit because of baptism? No. We receive Him by faith. Not only does John 7:39 and Acts 11:17 teach this (see above) but Paul says in Galatians, “This only would I learn of you, received you the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?…that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (3:2, 14). How do we receive the Holy Spirit? We receive Him by faith. When do we first have faith? We first have faith before we are baptized.
Baptism for the Remission of sin
Some would say that it’s not enough to be baptized for a public profession, but to be a Christian one must be baptized for the “remission of sins.” Acts 2:38 says, “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” (“Remission” is an older word for forgiveness found in the KJV). Is one not a Christian until they receive the right baptism, and that is only when one is baptized for the remission of sin?
The teaching of being “baptized for the remission of sin” is only found in three places in the Bible, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, and Acts 2:38. We have already looked at all three verses but it is important that we examine this thought of being “baptized for the remission of sin” because of the number of people who hold to this view.
If it is true that the only proper baptism is one for remission of sin then why didn’t Jesus teach this, but instead taught to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with no mention of being baptized for the remission of sin in Matthew 28? Surely Jesus told us everything we needed to do to be saved.
In Acts 10:43 the Bible says that whoever believes in Jesus receives remission of sins. Then it tells us that the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word (v.44), and it’s not until verse 47 that baptism is mentioned. We have individuals who have believed in Jesus for the remission of sin, and have had the Holy Spirit fall on them, all before they were baptized. No, being “baptized for the remission of sin” is not a baptism one must have before salvation. The Bible teaches that when men respond to God in faith and repentance they are fully saved by what Jesus did for them before they are baptized.
If you are Trusting Baptism to Save you, then Baptism is a Work
If someone if trusting baptism to save them then they are trusting in a work. One could argue, “How can baptism be a work? All you do is stand in the water and someone helps immerse you and then helps bring you back up. How could that be a work?” But that is to misunderstand what a “work” is when speaking of salvation.
A “work” has nothing to do with how much physical effort one gives. For instance, which would be more “work” physically? Being baptized or sitting in a comfortable chair while you think about something? In this case being baptized is more of a physical work. However, if one believes that by thinking “good thoughts” he will earn God’s favor and find a place in Heaven after he dies, then the act of “thinking” has become a “work.” Anything that we depend on to save us apart from Jesus Christ is a work, no matter how much or little physical exertion is used.
One might say, “Then faith and repentance are works, too,” but that would be to misunderstand faith and repentance. In a true sense both faith and repentance are gifts of God, and not works (see Romans 4:5 and 2 Timothy 2:25).
The Way of Salvation has Never Changed
Passages that support salvation by faith are so numerous, and not only those that support salvation by faith, but also those that support salvation by faith alone. Maybe the most direct verses in the Bible that teach salvation by faith alone are Romans 3:28 and 4:6, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law…Even as David also describes the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputes righteousness without works”.
However, this was true in the Old Testament as well, for Paul says of Abraham in Galatians 3:6, “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And then we find in the book of Genesis, “And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.” (15:6). Abraham was counted as righteous by faith in the Lord and this was before he was circumcised or before he had proven his faith before the Lord. And like Abraham, who showed he had faith in God by his good works, so we too as Christians show we have faith in the Lord by being baptized. However, just like Abraham, we are saved before we show our good works.
Thankfully none of us are required to understand salvation perfectly to be a Christian. If this was the case no mere man would ever be right with God. We are saved by grace, not by theological precision. Nor must one have a complete and perfect understanding of baptism in order to be saved. If this was the case whom among us would be saved? For we do not have complete and perfect knowledge of any Bible truth. Yet at the same time this most certainly does not mean we can believe anything we want and then think we are right with God. No, by God’s grace, we must believe the truths that God has given us to believe in order to be saved. There is a major difference between someone having an accurate understanding (and yet not a perfect understanding) of the way in which God has given us to be saved and someone being ignorant of or rejecting the way of salvation.
What is your trust in for salvation? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is enough to save you, that He can save you apart from your good works, including baptism? Because when someone says, “Yes, Jesus is enough to save me, but I must be baptized before I am fully saved,” we say, whether we realize it or not, that Jesus is not enough and we need to add something to what Jesus has done before we can be saved. We must look away from ourselves, and, like the dying Thief, simply trust our Lord, Who said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
1However, the Bible shows us that someone who is a true Christian but unable to be baptized will be saved, like the Thief on the cross.
2Though “faith” is not directly spoken of in Acts 2:38 or in 3:19, we should still say that faith is a condition of salvation. But how can we say this? If we can say that faith is a condition of salvation even though it is not spoken of (directly) in Acts 2:38 and 3:19, couldn’t some say that, though baptism is not spoken of in 3:19, it should still be included? Faith and repentance, though separate, are similar. Repentance not only turns one from sin, but turns one to God, through His Son Jesus Christ. Faith is trusting what God has said, and if we have true faith then we will leave our sins. So true repentance and true faith are inseparable. You cannot have faith without repentance. Faith and repentance are, in one sense, attitudes of the heart and mind. However, baptism is not. Baptism is not an inward working of God but is an outward physical act that God wants us to do to express our faith and repentance. Yes, baptism is a very good thing. God wants us to be baptized. However, though baptism expresses our faith and repentance, it is not itself faith and repentance.
3Though it appears that there were special circumstances at times in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit was given. For example, it appears that in Acts 8 God decided to give the Holy Spirit to those who had believed (though it is possible they might not have had true faith) after hands were laid upon them. God might have waited to show the Samaritans this so they would think of themselves as true Christians (just as much so as Jewish Christians) and possibly to show Jewish Christians that the Samaritans were just as much the children of God as they were, since the Jews and Samaritans (Samaritans being from Gentile and Jewish lineage) had animosity toward each other. A somewhat similar case might have happened in Acts 19.