Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
In This Lesson
Actually the question or controversy over salvation "by faith alone" or "by faith plus works" is the main cause of a major schism within the Church and the eventual formation of Protestantism in the 1500s. As many well-intentioned Priests, Bishops, and Lay persons wrestled with the doctrine of "faith plus works", as taught by the Catholic Church, a sort of "splintering" movement took shape which came to be known as the "Protestant Reformation".
Now, here we are 500 years later and there's been little or no movement or compromise by either side toward a more ecumenical bonding. So, the question remains: "Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works?" in this case, baptism. Am I saved by believing in Jesus and His atoning work alone, or do I have to believe in Jesus and do certain other things, too?
Romans 6:3-4 declares: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." The action of being immersed in the water illustrates dying and being buried with Christ; and the action of being raised out of the water pictures Christ's resurrection.
Yes, the Bible does contain some verses that seem to indicate baptism as a requirement for salvation. However, since the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is received by faith alone (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), it behooves us to examine Scripture more closely and consider a different interpretation of those other verses.
Baptism as an Identity Issue
As God is the omniscient and omnipotent self-existent I AM who does not lie (cf. Numbers 23:19), we know His Word does not contradict itself. Therefore, we must dig deeper into the Bible in order to discern what each writer intended when he wrote about "baptism".
One thing we know that should influence our deductive reasoning about this issue is that in Bible times, a person who converted from one religion to another was usually baptized "into" that other religion or person to identify their conversion. Being "baptized into" or "in the name of" identified them as followers of that person or religion. That's why the Apostle Paul asked the question in Acts 19:3, "Into what then were you baptized?" Their answer was, "Into John's baptism." Elsewhere, he wrote: "What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas,' or 'I follow Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)
So we see that baptism at that time was the means by which a person's decision was made public. If a person refused to be baptized, it then raised the question of whether or not s/he truly believed. Thus, in the minds of the early disciples, the idea of an un-baptized believer was unheard of. When a person claimed to believe in Christ, yet was ashamed to proclaim his faith in public, it raised the question as to whether s/he had true faith or not.
Let Us Reason Together
Of course, we know this passage is really about the divisions among the Corinthian believers. Nevertheless, how could Paul possibly say, "I thank God that I baptized none..." or in verse 17, where he says, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel..."? If baptism were truly necessary for salvation, then reason dictates that Paul was really saying, "I thank God that you were not saved..." and "For Christ did not send me to save..." How absurd is that deduction!
Also, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, when Paul provides a detailed outline of the Gospel, why would he not mention baptism if it were indeed a requirement?
1"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,
If baptism is a requirement for salvation, how could any presentation of the Gospel not mention baptism? (GotQuestions.org)
If these were the only New Testament verses about salvation and justification, we'd be okay. No question. No controversy. But how do we reconcile the above passages with James 2:24, which states: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (emphasis added)
We could say, as some skeptics and antagonists do, that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God and that it frequently contradicts itself; or we could dismiss the seeming debate between Paul and James as mere semantics or perhaps errors in translation. While it really is primarily a matter of semantics, nevertheless we would do well to consider each one's words in their context rather than simply disregard them.
Paul clearly says, without contradiction or confusion, that justification is by faith alone (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9), while James appears to be saying that salvation is by faith plus some work(s). Let's read the entire passage in James chapter 2 verses 15-26:
15"If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,
In this passage, James is refuting the teaching that a person can have faith and not produce any good works (vv. 17-18). James emphasizes that genuine faith in Christ results in a changed life out of which pour forth good works (vv. 20-26). He is not saying that justification is by faith plus works. Rather, he is arguing that a person who is truly justified by faith will produce good works as a result of the unmerited grace of God granted to him/her. If a person claims to be a believer, but is without "good works", then s/he most likely does not have genuine saving faith in Christ.
On closer examination of Paul's letters, too, we see that there is no conflict between his and James' teachings, as even Paul mentions works in some of his letters. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10 emphasis added)
We see that Paul expects our salvation to manifest itself in a changed life which would then pour itself out by good works. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV)
James and Paul do not disagree in their teachings regarding salvation. Rather, as two unique individuals each having his own style of preaching, teaching, and writing and each to different audiences they simply have different approaches, or perspectives, in their writing on this subject. Paul emphasizes that justification is by faith alone but not to the exclusion of works while James emphasizes that genuine faith in Christ produces good works.
Permit me to reiterate a truth that all serious students of the Bible know well: As we study God's Word, we must filter seemingly-contradictory passages through what we know for sure the Bible does teach elsewhere on the same subject. We should never build a theology on single verses taken out-of-context.
Continuing the comparison between faith-alone or faith-plus-works doctrines in this lesson, we find solid Scriptural support for the faith-alone-in-Christ-alone theology, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (emphasis added)
Really, when we objectively examine the Scriptures to discern the whole truth on this matter, we find that no one contradicts the doctrine that faith is required for salvation. So, we should start such examination from that vantage point on which all sides agree. And from there, it follows that any interpretation of Scripture that reasons the requirement of any other act on our parts even baptism might, therefore, render a faulty conclusion. We must be careful to not surrender the requirement of faith in order to embrace any other interpretation, regardless of what we've been taught or believed in the past.
Concerning Ananias' words, "...be baptized and wash away your sins", we need to examine them in the context of the whole preceding narrative in Acts 22:10-15.
10"And I said, 'What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.'
So, we see in the above passage that Paul had already been cleansed spiritually before coming to Ananias to receive his sight. How can we know this for a certainty? Because God called (commissioned) him for ministry prior to his coming to Ananias and prior to his baptism. It is highly unlikely that Christ would commission Paul if he were not yet saved. So, while some churches today might reject the notion that Paul was saved before baptism, it would appear that God certainly was not conflicted concerning Paul's eligibility for salvation.
Thus, we can logically conclude that Ananias was referring to the symbolism of baptism in the name of Christ or that he was quite possibly referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, not water baptism. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, he understood that baptism is a picture of God's inner work of washing away sin.
"But now the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of God's Spirit have washed you and made you holy and acceptable to God." (1 Corinthians 6:11 CEV emphasis added) Where is water baptism mentioned in this verse?
Before we can state conclusively that this verse teaches or doesn't teach water baptism as a requirement for salvation, let's break it down grammatically to be sure about what it does say and what it does not say. One thing this verse clearly teaches is that belief is necessary for salvation, which of course, is consistent with all the passages in which belief alone is stated, for example:
Dissecting Mark 16:16
The "Negative Inference" Fallacy
In much the same way, "he who believes and is baptized will be saved" is 100% true. The negative inference, "he who does not believe and is not baptized" is an assumption not born out or supported by any other Bible teachings about salvation.
A second illustration: "Whoever believes and lives in the U.S. will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." This statement is 100% true. All Americans who believe in Jesus will be saved. However, we cannot say that only believers in America are saved and if a person does not live in the U.S., then s/he cannot be saved. To do so would be an example of the "negative inference" fallacy.
While the second half of the passage in Mark 16:16 affirms the negative "he who does not believe ", it does not affirm the negative supposition for baptism. It does not say, "he who is not baptized will not be saved." For us to infer such is an unwarranted assumption with no Scriptural support.
The passage states a fact that baptized believers will be saved. It says nothing, however, about believers who have not been baptized.
The Bible clearly teaches, and we can say with absolute assurance, that belief is both a condition and a requirement. However, we cannot say the same about the act of baptism. Nowhere in Scripture does it say if a person is not baptized, then s/he is not saved. While we can attach any number of conditions to the requirement of faith, the person is still saved whether they meet any one or more conditions that relate to salvation. As such, no one can state with absolute assurance and authority that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Before we dismiss this all-important question/concern/controversy, let's examine other Scripture references that tell us plainly and conclusively the requirement(s) for salvation.
The above Scripture references most assuredly affirm that faith is a requirement for salvation. However, there is no indication in any of those verses that anything else is required. Doesn't it stand to reason that, if baptism were a requirement for salvation, Jesus and the Apostles Paul, John, and Peter would have said so? Would they really neglect so great an issue when people's eternal souls were involved? I seriously doubt it.
At the heart of the matter is the question: Does "for" mean "in order to receive" or does it mean "because of"? I take aspirin for a headache or cough medicine for a cold and cough. Am I taking these in order to get a headache or cold? Or, am I taking them because I already have a headache or cold?
As we have already discussed in this lesson, we can only discern what an isolated verse of Scripture teaches by filtering it through other passages on the same subject. We already know, too, that the Bible teaches salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind which would include the work of baptism (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).
This verse in Acts, however, deserves a closer look and a breaking down of all segments to be sure we have a full understanding of what Peter said and what God intends. It definitely seems to say "be baptized . . . for the forgiveness [in order to be forgiven] of your sins."
This passage uses the Greek word eis which is translated "for" here and is also translated "at" in other passages. Those who hold to the belief that baptism is required for salvation assume the word translated "for" in this verse means "in order to receive or get". However, in both English and in Greek, there are three possible meanings of the word "for":
Since any one of the three meanings listed above could fit the context of Acts 2:38, we need to study further to determine which one is correct.
Let's look at how the preposition "eis" is used in another unrelated Scripture. Jesus said in Matthew 12:41, "The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." Here, "eis" is translated "at", which means "as a result of". (emphasis added)
So, clearly, the interpretation of this passage is that they repented "because of" or "as a result of" Jonah's preaching, not "in order for Jonah to preach" (ludicrous, I know, but I felt I needed to say it in order to make my point crystal clear). In the same way, Acts 2:38 may well communicate that the people would be baptized "as a result of" or "because" they had believed. Furthermore, this interpretation is consistent with Peter's next two messages in Acts where he associated forgiveness of sins with only the act of repentance and faith in Christ. In both of those instances, Peter never mentioned baptism (cf. Acts 3:17-26; 4:8-12). Question: If water baptism were indeed a requirement for salvation, can we presume that Peter would carelessly neglect that instruction on other occasions and put people's eternal souls at risk? Of course not!
Noted Greek scholars A.T. Robertson and J.R. Mantey also support the premise that the Greek preposition "eis" in Acts 2:38 should be translated "because of" or "in view of", not "in order to" or "for the purpose of".
Some other passages about salvation that do not mention baptism are:
Three Other Verses that Use "Eis" If one is consistent with the way the preposition "eis" is used in the rest of Scripture, we must conclude that Acts 2:38 is indeed referring to their being baptized "because" they had repented and received forgiveness of their sins. Some other verses where the Greek preposition "eis" does not mean "in order to obtain" are Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 19:3; 1 Corinthians 1:15; and 12:13.
If one is consistent with the way the preposition "eis" is used in the rest of Scripture, we must conclude that Acts 2:38 is indeed referring to their being baptized "because" they had repented and received forgiveness of their sins. Some other verses where the Greek preposition "eis" does not mean "in order to obtain" are Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 19:3; 1 Corinthians 1:15; and 12:13.
However, in so doing, we ignore the context of the passage. In order to determine if this passage really supports baptismal regeneration, we need to read the immediate context.
23"Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.
Here, Paul is scolding some in Galatia who were turning from the true Gospel to a false gospel that cannot save, as Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6-10
6"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel
The false gospel or "distorted" gospel, as Paul called it mixed works of the Law, including circumcision, as a requirement for being saved. Really, this is no different than those who add baptism as a requirement for salvation.
Paul's message in the entire letter to the Galatians is clear: We are not justified by works. "...yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:16 emphasis added)
You can see the entire context of justification by faith alone in Christ alone throughout the first three chapters of Galatians. And Paul reinforces that message in Galatians 3:26 "...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith." We see that Paul does not waver in any of his writings wherein he asserts that salvation is "through faith in Christ Jesus". In order for baptism to have any meaning at all, it must be preceded by faith. While baptism is important as a way of identifying us with Christ, it only has meaning if it comes from saving faith, which always comes first.
The Type of Baptism
There is more than one type of baptism spoken of in the New Testament. Therefore, is it logical to assume that Paul is speaking of water baptism when there is no evidence to support that assumption? The question we should be asking here is: "How do we get 'baptized into Christ'?" We can find the answer to that question in the following verses:
"You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." (Romans 8:9 emphasis added)
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body Jews or Greeks, slaves or free and all were made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:12-13 emphasis added)
The determining factor for whether or not someone is a Christian is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. And the baptism that puts us "into Christ", or makes us a part of Christ's Body is the baptism "in one Spirit".
Clearly, the baptism Paul speaks of above in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians 3:27 is not water baptism. Rather, it is the baptism of the Holy Spirit whereby we are "sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Ephesians 1:13-14). When the Holy Spirit indwells us, then we become part of Christ's Body.
John the Baptist said that he was sent to "baptize with water", and he prophesied that Jesus was the One who "baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33). At the point at which we receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are then "baptized into Christ".
Thus, Galatians 3:27 does not refer to water baptism at all. Water baptism is symbolic of what is accomplished in our spirit when we are baptized into one body by one Spirit. Paul is saying here that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what matters. It is at that point when we become part of the Body of Christ or are "baptized into Christ".
The context is very clear: God forgave Cornelius and his household and baptized them in the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in water. In fact, the reason Peter allowed them to be baptized with water was that they showed evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit "just as Peter and the Jewish believers" had.
"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace." (Ephesians 1:7 emphasis added)
If water baptism were truly a requirement for salvation, why wouldn't the Apostle Paul write: "redemption through his blood and baptism"? He didn't write it because he and the other Apostles and early Christians knew that God's saving grace is purely His work, from start to finish.
Is baptism important for new believers? Definitely! Is it a requirement for salvation? No.
for AOCI Bible Training Institute