Is Baptism Necessary For Salvation?

I recently received the following email:

Q – Pastor Jim,

This is in response to your Question and Answers on Baptism.

The bible is clear that the new law did not take effect until the death on the cross. So you have to say that the thief died either under the new law or old law and it is clear he was still under the old law. The bible is clear in Acts 2:38, I Peter 3:21 and Mark 16:15-16 and hundreds of other verses that Baptism is necessary for us to be a member of his church. They all link baptism to salvation. It is a very popular belief that salvation comes just because God loves us but the truth is that we have to take action. James 2 teaches faith without works is dead. The popularity of this belief alone should scare any believer. Matthew is clear that the gate is narrow that leads to salvation and broad that leads to destruction. So I challenge you to find an example of someone who died under the new law that was proven to be saved without baptism.

p.s. The thief could have been baptized by John’s Baptism … you cannot prove he was NOT baptized … just that he may not have been.

Jim – Thank you for taking the time to write. I always enjoy hearing from our readers – whether they respond positively or in opposition. I don’t actually know if you sent me this email in order to engage in a debate on the topic, but I think some of your assumptions are worth questioning. Let me say at the outset that I hope my words convey a Spirit of kindness, even when the language sounds corrective or argumentative.

I will respond line-by-line.

Q – This is in response to your Question and Answer on Baptism. The bible is clear that the new law did not take effect until the death on the cross.

Jim – That is an example of what I mean when I say that your assumptions require further investigation. The term “new law” is completely foreign to Scripture. When we talk about biblical things, we need to use Biblical language. The New Covenant, which Christ called “the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20), went into effect at Calvary, at the death of the testator (Heb. 9:16-17); but, not a new law. While it may be argued that the New Covenant does include higher, better commands, based on higher, better promises, it only muddies the waters when we refer to the New Covenant as the New Law. Jesus did not establish a new torah, or new nomos. In fact, the whole of Paul’s doctrine establishes the premise of salvation “without the works of the law.” The very word “law” implies acts of the flesh, or works of righteousness, that are required for salvation. But, Pauline theology states that Jesus paid the once-for-all-price to fully redeem, justify and glorify His people, completely without the addition of their works. So, I reject the unbiblical phrase “the new law,” in favor of the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8).

Now, I am not saying that Christians are lawless, or utterly antinomian. As Paul said, we are “bought with a price” and therefore we are instructed to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). But, Paul’s paradigm is clear. We act in a Godly way in response to the fact that we have been bought and saved, not in order to convince God to buy or save us.

I understand your desire to introduce the concept of “the new law” into the conversation because you are about to conclude that there is something we must add to Christ’s work in order to secure our own salvation. But, that concept is missing from the New Covenant.

Q – So you have to say that the thief died either under the new law or old law and it is clear he was still under the old law.

Jim – It is clear that the Old Covenant, the Covenant of the Law of Moses, was still in effect up until the time of Jesus’ death. But you must remember that Jesus was never subservient to that law. While His sinless life did fulfill the requirements of the Law, He was also known to eat without washing, to heal on the Sabbath and to argue with the Pharisees. He clearly considered Himself to be above the Law, in the truest sense.

“At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, that in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” (Matt 12:1-8)

Jesus was not a servant of Moses’ Law because He was not a servant to sin. And, according to Paul, the law was added to Israel so that sin would be exposed as all the more sinful. A righteous man has no need of rules and regulations to guide him in the paths of righteousness. Not only that, but Jesus assumed that those who were with Him were also exempt from the normal rules of Moses. Both He and His disciples were breaking the Sabbath commandment, which was the very emblem of the whole Law. He superseded Moses and that power to re-interpret and even exempt the Law was part of His Lordship.

On another occasion, John the Baptist’s disciples argued that they and the Pharisees continued to keep the legal requirements while Jesus’ followers did not:

“Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Matt 9:14-15)

My point here is that Jesus was able to act, judge and forgive regardless of Moses’ Law. The Law required that the woman caught in adultery be stoned. He spared her. The Law required that Jews not talk with Gentiles, and certainly not with Samaritans, but Jesus “must needs go through Samaria” to bring salvation to the woman by the well. Jesus was above the Law and was able to extend His Lordship beyond the boundaries of Moses’ requirements. And, so long as He was present, His followers were likewise exempt.

I said all that to say that, while on the cross, Jesus was perfectly capable of pronouncing the thief’s forgiveness and eternal security regardless of that man’s works, actions, guilt or complete lack of righteousness. Jesus was not bound by any activity of man – including baptism – in order to save His own. You seem to be arguing that the thief was not only bound by the Law of Moses, but that Jesus was powerless to save him without his cooperation, or at very least his baptism.

Or, let’s take this another way. Although it is true that the thief was dying while the Old Covenant of Moses’ Law was still in effect, what bearing does that have on Jesus’ ability to save him?

You are about to contend that he might well have been baptized, as if Jesus could not help the man had that requirement not been in place. But, even more frighteningly, you are about to contend that the Old Covenant had less stringent requirements for salvation than the New Covenant has. Rather than see the distinction between the Law of Works and salvation by grace through faith, you appear to be saying that, if the thief had indeed been saved without baptism, it was only because he was under the Old Covenant. But, here in this New Covenant, there is now a requirement for salvation that would have excluded the un-baptized thief had he died just a few hours later.

This is very confusing.

Q – The bible is clear in Acts 2:38, I Peter 3:21 and Mark 16:15-16 and hundreds of other verses that Baptism is necessary for us to be a member of his church. They all link baptism to salvation.

Jim – Yep. There it is. You have concluded that baptism is necessary for us to be included in Christ’s church. Salvation is therefore dependent on our willful activity rather than on Christ’s fully sufficient work.

By the way, the words “baptism,” “baptize,” “baptized” and all its derivatives appear in the New Testament a total of 92 times. I counted. So, your assertion that there are “hundreds of other verses” supporting your contention is a bit of hyperbole.

In fact, when you read all 92 citations, which I did, not a single one of them states that “baptism is necessary for us to be a member of His church.” It simply doesn’t exist. Not only that, I did a computerized word search on all the pertinent passages, and found that the words “baptism” (and its derivatives) and “church” cannot be found within 50 words of each other. So, you have drawn a conclusion that the Bible simply does not draw.

Even your proof texts fail to make your case. For instance, you cite Mark 16:15-16, which reads:

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.'” (Mark 16:15-16)

It is immediately obvious that Jesus judged between the believing and the unbelieving, not between the baptized and the un-baptized. It is true that those who believe will be baptized. But, it is not their baptism that saves them. It is their faith in Christ that is the deciding factor in their eternity.

You also cited Acts 2:38, which states:

“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.”

But you have truncated the verse and stripped it of its context. The very next verse undermines your assertion. Here it is in context:

“Peter replied, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39, NIV).

Luke (the author of Acts) is quoting from the Apostle Peter’s sermon delivered at Pentecost. It is obvious that Peter believed that the promise of salvation was “for all whom the Lord our God will call.” It is the calling of God that leads to salvation. And those who are saved by the call of God will submit to baptism as an act of obedience, publicly aligning themselves with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12).

But, the real question that must be asked is: Did the apostle Peter – the author of this quote – believe that baptism was necessary for, or a cause of, salvation? We can answer that most easily by reading the whole of what he wrote. For instance, in the opening of his first epistle, Peter wrote:

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-20 NIV)

Whatever else we may say about Peter’s theology, it is clear that he saw the precious blood of Christ as the means and method of redemption – not any act of any person. Even more to the point, Peter addressed this epistle to those who had been saved by an act of God’s sovereign choice, the work of the spirit, and the blood of Christ:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (1 Peter 1:1-2 NIV)

So, Peter’s position is consistent. It is the work of God in Christ which accomplishes salvation. Hence, baptism must be a response to God’s work, not the cause of God’s work. It is not a condition of salvation; it is an act of obedience on the part of the saved.

Luke and Paul agree, as we read in another portion of the Acts narrative:

“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48 NIV)

Entrance into the true Church of believers in Christ Jesus is determined by God, who adds daily to the Church those who were appointed to eternal life. Consequently, those same people come to believe; to have faith in Christ’s finished atoning work. This is the consistent testimony of the New Testament writers.

So you will naturally ask: What about Peter’s words “be baptized … for the remission of your sins”? If they don’t mean what they appear to say, what exactly do they mean?

It’s a fair question. And rather than simply rework another man’s scholarship, I’m going to lift a large portion of James White’s article, “A Brief Rebuttal of Baptismal Regeneration.”

But, one might say, what if one is called of God? Does this passage then not say that baptism is for the remission of sins?

A tremendously large number of interpretations have been set forth on this passage over the years. We believe the simplest and most consistent manner of approach is to ask a question that is frequently not asked at all: we here have a short snippet of what was obviously a longer sermon by Peter. Does Peter elsewhere tell us, in plain language, how our sins are remitted, how we are cleansed from our burden of guilt? Certainly! We began our article with the quotation of 1 Peter 1:18-19, where Peter directly teaches that we are cleansed by the blood of the spotless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Do we then have sufficient basis to identify the waters of baptism with the blood of Christ? Surely not. Sins are remitted through our participation in the death of Jesus Christ–it is by the “one time offering” of Jesus Christ that we are made whole (Hebrews 10:10-14). What of baptism then? It is the symbol, the outward representation before men of what the Spirit of God has done in our hearts (Titus 3:5-7). Unless we have first had our sins remitted in the blood of Christ, the symbol of baptism is meaningless. But doesn’t this passage say that baptism is for the remission of sins? Yes, but what does “for” mean? We feel that Dr. A. T. Robertson’s comments from earlier this century are very meaningful:

This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of “eis” does exist as in 1 Cor. 2:7….But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of “eis” for aim or purpose. It is seen in Matt. 10:41 in three examples “eis onoma prophetou, diakaiou, mathetou” where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt. 12:41 about the preaching of Jonah….They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah. The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koine generally (Robertson, Grammar, p. 592). One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, III:35-36).

The point being that one can (and we believe should, if one believes in the consistency of Scripture as a whole) understand Peter to be speaking of baptism on the grounds of the remission of sins that comes through belief in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:43).

Your third proof text of choice is 1 Peter 3:21. At the risk of overdoing it, I’m again going to refer to Dr. White’s scholarship. He writes:
But, someone will surely object, Peter himself said that “baptism saves us” in 1 Peter 3:21. Let’s look at the passage in context:

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who were disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

…we point out that foremost in Peter’s mind, again, is the death of Christ as the sacrifice for sin. Men are brought to God, not by what they do, but what God has done in Christ Jesus (v. 18). Upon the heels of this he mentions God’s act of judgment in the days of Noah. At that time eight souls were saved through water. Peter then says that this water “symbolizes” baptism (as the NIV translates the Greek term antitupon, literally, “antitype”). Baptism now saves us, Peter says–just as the water “saved” Noah and his family. But, of course, we know that Peter was not asserting that there was some salvific aspect to the flood waters themselves–God shut up the ark, and God saved Noah and his family. But the water is a symbol, Peter says, a symbol seen now in baptism. But is Peter dropping the symbolization so as to make baptism the means of salvation? Certainly not. Dr. Wuest has commented so well that we give his words at length:

Water baptism is clearly in the apostle’s mind, not the baptism by the Holy Spirit, for he speaks of the waters of the flood as saving the inmates of the ark, and in this verse, of baptism saving believers. But he says that it saves them only as a counterpart. That is, water baptism is the counterpart of the reality, salvation. It can only save as a counterpart, not actually. The Old Testament sacrifices were counterparts of the reality, the Lord Jesus. They did not actually save the believer, only in type. It is not argued here that these sacrifices are analogous to Christian water baptism. The author is merely using them as an illustration of the use of the word “counterpart.” So water baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a type….Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he defines what he means by salvation, in the words “the answer of a good conscience toward God,” and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” in that he believing sinner is identified with Him in that resurrection.

So, to conclude this section, despite your false contention that there are “hundreds of other verses” to support your position, ample exegetical scholarship exists to correct the common misreading of the three proof texts you did offer. Not a single New Testament author argued in favor of baptismal regeneration.

And that leads us to the primary question brought about by your statement “that Baptism is necessary for us to be a member of his church.” To wit: How does one become a member of Christ’s own church? Is it through our will, our decision and our works? Well, the answer is in this same passage from Acts 2 from which you drew one of your proofs –

“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. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:38-47)

This is the consistent testimony of the New Testament. Salvation is God’s gracious work, played out in the lives of those He called and predestined to that end. It is the Lord God who adds people to His assembly. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Mat. 16:18)

So, who decided on the membership of Christ’s church? Was it us? Or, was it God? Paul argued that it was God –

“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” (Eph. 1:4-6)

If we were chosen to be added to the body of Christ before the worlds were formed, then God was not depending on our actions, choices or wills to bring us into the Church. God adds to the church. Christ builds the church. Our baptism, or lack of it, does not qualify or disqualify us from what God eternally ordained.

Q – It is a very popular belief that salvation comes just because God loves us, but the truth is that we have to take action. James 2 teaches faith without works is dead. The popularity of this belief alone should scare any believer.

Jim – What are you promoting is called “synergism.” It means, “combined action or operation.” In other words, it is the idea that God does His part in salvation, but man must also do his part. Salvation results from the cooperative efforts of both parties.

But, the Bible teaches “monergism.” God is the sole actor in salvation and He accomplishes all His good pleasure for His own glory and in accordance with His own good and sovereign will. Salvation is God’s work. He is the actor. We who are saved are the recipients of His grace. But, we are not the actors. We are passive.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:28-39 NIV)

Try as we may, there is simply no way to add any man’s works to that equation, including our baptism. Salvation is God’s work.

As for James 2:17, it is an argument completely in line with what I have said. Yes, Christians will perform good deeds. Our faith in Christ will result in Christian living. I agree completely that faith without works is dead, being alone. But, that does not mean that works are the cause of faith, or that faith is the result of good works. And, more to the point, James is not discussing baptism in this passage, so I fail to see how it supports your contention.

And, far from scaring me, the popularity of the belief “that salvation comes just because God loves us” is a great comfort. I would that all men believed that. I have spent the better part of my adult life promoting the doctrine of God’s salvation by grace through faith, with the primary cause being God’s great love. I have no fear at all of this precious truth.

“The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” (Jer. 31:3)

Q – Matthew is clear that the gate is narrow that leads to salvation and broad that leads to destruction.

Jim – Yes, Jesus did say that. But, the implication here is that anyone who does not agree with your position is in danger of going down that broad path. However, the Bible simply does not support your contentions and there is more than sufficient Biblical proof to conclude just the opposite.

So, let Scripture judge between our two positions. I feel quite comfortable that I am on that straight and narrow path.

Q – So I challenge you to find an example of someone who died under the new law that was proven to be saved without baptism.

Jim – And finally we get to the crux of the matter. Here you are contending that, while the thief might well have been saved under the Old Covenant, had he been under the New Covenant he could not have been saved. In other words, the New Covenant brought in an even more rigid standard of performance in order to be saved. Rather than seeing freedom in the New Covenant, you see even more bondage.

That’s the paradigm you have (perhaps inadvertently) created:

Thief under the Old Covenant = possible salvation without baptism

Thief under the New Covenant = no possibility of salvation without baptism

What I contend is that if I can produce even one example of someone being saved without baptism then it is axiomatic that baptism is not a universal prerequisite for salvation. For something to be a rule there must be no exceptions. And the thief on the cross is that exception, having his eternal security granted by the mouth of Jesus Himself. Whether the Old Covenant or New Covenant was in effect at that moment is immaterial.

Salvation comes by the finished work of redemption and atonement that Christ fully accomplished at Calvary. Everything we do, every good work we perform, every offering we offer, is the result of our salvation, not the cause.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:8-10)

To say that baptism is a prerequisite for salvation is to leave the result of Christ’s work up to the individual sinner. If he performs adequately, God will save him. If he fails to live up to some particular act, God will damn him eternally. But that simply is not the Biblical paradigm, nor the message of the gospel.

If we were saved as the result of our baptism we would have a good reason to boast. God started the work, but we finished it. But, even our good works are those that God before ordained that we walk in. We get no credit at all.

Q – p.s. The thief could have been baptized by John’s Baptism… you can not prove he was NOT baptized… just that he may not have been.

Jim – This is a truly sad addendum to an already confused position. Now you have equated John’s baptism with baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, as though simply being dunked under some water would qualify someone for salvation.

You are so convinced that baptism is absolutely essential that you are grasping at straws attempting to get that reprobate thief wet. But, Paul did not allow that John’s baptism was “good enough.”

“He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:2-5)

So, in the end, this argument tumbles down into silliness. Even if the thief had been baptized by John, it simply was not equitable with baptism in Christ.

So, I conclude that baptism is not essential to salvation. It is a type, or picture, of our alignment with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. It is an open declaration that we are trusting in His finished work of atonement for our salvation. It does not save us, nor does failure to be baptized condemn us to eternal separation from God.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.