Is water baptism necessary for salvation?
Is baptism necessary for salvation? When I use the term “baptism” I am referring to the ceremony where an individual is baptized in water, whether by sprinkling or immersion. Is one’s eternal life dependent upon this ceremony? Let me illustrate:
Scenario #1: An elderly man, an unbeliever his entire life, decided to accept Christ on his death-bed moments before passing away. He had heard the gospel, realized he was a sinner, and trusted in Christ’s finished work on the cross. Does this man go to hell because he hadn’t been baptized?
Scenario #2: A new believer in Christ, walking across the street to get baptized, is hit by a car and killed. Do they go to hell because they were unbaptized?
As with any question, it is critical to see what the Scripture says about baptism. Is baptism the gateway into heaven? Let’s take a look.
“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 2:38
This is one of the main verses used by advocates of baptismal regeneration. Does this support the baptism of infants and new believers?
In regards to infant baptism, this verse really says too much. Peter said “repent and be baptized…” Can an infant repent? Of course not. Therefore, this verse cannot apply to infants because repentance was the first action Peter required.
Does this verse teach that baptism is a necessary element in the salvation equation today? To whom is Peter speaking? Let’s look at some preceding verses for context:
“And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.” – Acts 2:5
“But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words” – Acts 2:14
“Ye men of Israel, hear these words” – Acts 2:22a
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” – Acts 2:36
Peter was addressing the Jews, not the Gentiles. At one time, Jews did receive the Holy Spirit by being baptizing in water. But is this how we receive the Holy Spirit today? What did Paul write?
“In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” – Ephesians 1:13–14
We receive the Holy Spirit today when we believe, not when we are baptized. Acts 2:38 does not apply to us today.
1 Peter 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” – 1 Peter 3:21
Peter says “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.” To understand this statement, let’s look at the preceding text for context:
“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. 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” – 1 Peter 3:20–21
Peter connects baptism as a figure of Noah and the ark. So when we examine the story of Noah and the flood, what exactly saved Noah and his family? Did the water save Noah or did the ark? The ark saved Noah from the water. But what prompted Noah to get on the ark? Faith. Notice Peter says that baptism is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Is it the water of baptism that saves? Or is it the faith within? Peter was clear that it is by faith—“the answer of a good conscience toward God.”
“Jesus answered, 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.” – John 3:5
This is one of the most highly cited proof texts for baptismal regeneration. First, it is automatically assumed that the “water” in this verse is referring to water baptism. Is that really the case? Let’s look at the context:
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, 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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” – John 3:1–10
In the above exchange, we see Jesus being critical of Nicodemus for not understanding Jesus’ words. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, did not understand what Jesus meant by “born of water and of the Spirit” or being “born again,” and Jesus criticized him by asking him “art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” How could Jesus have expected Nicodemus to be knowledgeable of Christian baptism practices when Nicodemus was a Jew?
If the “water” in John 3:5 isn’t a reference to water baptism, what could it mean? There are several ideas, such as:
“Water” meaning natural birth.
“Water” meaning the Word of God:
“That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” – Ephesians 5:26
“Water” meaning the Holy Spirit:
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” – Titus 3:5
“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye 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 an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” – Ezekiel 36:25–27
Baptism in the New Testament
If water baptism was a necessary element in salvation, we would certainly find evidence of that throughout the New Testament text. As we look through the Scripture, what do we find? In fact, we find the exact opposite. Baptism is never used in the context of providing “life-saving” regenerating waters. Baptism is an act of obedience, a public testimony, symbolizing that the believer has died, was buried, and has risen again with Christ. Consider the following verses as they relate to water baptism:
In Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized after he believed (believing being a prerequisite):
“Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.” – Acts 8:35–38
In Acts 10, we find the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the Gentiles who were not yet baptized:
“To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And 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. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.” – Acts 10:43–48
In Acts 16, the Philippian jailer asked what he needed to do to be saved. Again, baptism was not spoken as a requirement. Note that the baptism took place after the jailer believed:
“And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.” – Acts 16:30–33
Why did Paul downplay baptism in 1 Corinthians if it was the means of salvation?
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” – 1 Corinthians 1:17
In Luke 23, the thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him. There was no baptism, yet what did Jesus say?
“And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:43
When is a person saved? Is it when they believe? Or is it when they are baptized? If we are saved when we are baptized, then we are not saved by faith. What does the scripture say?
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” – Romans 5:1