Does Baptism Save by Matt Ward
Does baptism save? Depending on whom you ask the importance of baptism will vary widely. It is commonly taught among Christians that baptism is an outward expression of an inward change, symbolic of being buried with Christ and rising as Christ rose from the tomb. Other Christian organizations contend that baptism is a necessary component of salvation, with out which salvation is unattainable. Even still other Christian organizations teach that only through baptism in their church will one become saved, making second baptisms not an uncommon practice. More importantly than what any organized institution teaches about salvation is what the bible teaches about salvation. Jesus asserts that true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth (Jon 4:21) and that God’s word is the truth (Jon 17: 17). Analyzing baptism against man’s teaching falls short of merit. The word is truth and the basis of our judgment, making it’s teaching on salvation of highest importance.
In addressing this issue let’s start at the most note able verse of the bible “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (Jon 3:16). This verse alone seems to answer the question without any ambiguity. Interestingly enough the most commonly known verse indicating that belief saves falls in the middle of a chapter that many interpret as stating the necessity of baptism. John chapter 3 records the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. In Nicodemus’ inquiry about the kingdom of God Jesus states that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again ( John 3:3). So what does it mean to be born again? In the first chapter of John, John writes what it means to be born of God “ Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husbands will, but born of God” (Jon 1:12-13). Notice how the verse reads that those who believe in his name will be called children of God, there is no mention of baptism. On another side note the conversation with Nicodemus is the first of two places in the bible that uses the phrase “born again”. The second location is 1 Peter 1:23 where the context is not baptism, but the word of God. Nowhere in the bible is the phrase “born again” associated with baptism. Back to the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus continues in saying “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh but spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jon 3:5-6). The interpretation of the word “water” is critical in this investigation. If water equates to baptism then it would sound as though Jesus requires baptism for salvation. More traditionally it is taught that being born of water implies a physical birth. Further evidence for this argument is found in verse 6 when Jesus says “flesh gives birth to flesh, but spirit gives birth to spirit.” One could imply that water matches up with flesh and spirit matches up with spirit. It should be noted that the word baptism is not even mentioned in the entire chapter. If Jesus implied baptism when speaking of water one might expect to see the word used at least once for clarity, however this is not the case. Later in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus Jesus states verse 16 which seems to seal the case. If baptism were necessary for salvation one might expect that both baptism and belief be mentioned when speaking of eternal life.
The purpose of John’s writings yields further insight. John testifies to the life of Jesus so that through him all men might believe (John 1:7). John does not use the word salvation here but it could be rationalized that John is concerned with man’s salvation and thus in his book would clearly state how one becomes saved. If Jesus meant baptism when he told Nicodemus he must be born of water and spirit, it would contradict at least 15 verses elsewhere in the book of John (1:12, 3:15,18,36, 5:24, 6:35,40,47, 7:38, 8:24, 11:25-26, 12:36, 46, 20:31). Additionally, baptism is only mentioned in chapters 1, 3 & 4 and in no case is baptism mentioned in the context of salvation. John makes no attempt to establish the importance of baptism as being necessary for salvation. If John knew baptism to be a requirement of salvation it would be assumed that this point would be made evident in his writing, however it is not.
. The story of Cornelius, found in Acts chapter 10, is paramount in the study of baptism. Cornelius was a God fearing man who gave generously to the poor. An angel spoke to him and told him to send for Simon Peter. Simon came to Cornelius and spoke to him about Jesus and the salvation that comes through Jesus’ name. As Peter spoke the Holy Spirit came down upon all that heard the message. After the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family Peter says “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the holy spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10: 47-48). The key element in this story is that Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit upon believing, not after being baptized. . In fact verse 43 states “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. Notice the use of the word belief without any mention of baptism. This should be balanced by the fact that nowhere either before or after the baptism was the salvation of Cornelius’s family ever mentioned.
At least twice in letters written to the church, Paul states that the gospel is for the salvation of all who believe (Romans 1:16 and 1Corinthians 15:2). Paul clearly defines the gospel as being that Christ died for our sins, rose again and appeared to many (1Corinthians 3-8). In defining the gospel that saves, Paul does not mention baptism. Perhaps baptism is not part of the gospel, making it unnecessary for salvation. Paul separates baptism from the gospel further in writing “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1Cor. 1:17). Here Paul makes a clear separation between the gospel and baptism. If baptism were necessary for salvation it would be absurd for Paul to state that he wasn’t sent to baptize but to preach the gospel. One might expect that after Paul states that he wasn’t sent to baptize he would warn the church to make sure that they are baptized because otherwise they would not be saved. If nobody goes to heaven without baptism then Paul has dangerously downgraded the function of baptism by first separating it from the gospel that saves, and second stating that he wasn’t sent to baptize.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul writes “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). The million dollar question now becomes, is baptism a work? Perhaps baptism should not be associated with works on the grounds that it is a spiritual act of obedience. Is baptism a physical act or a spiritual act? Is baptism meant to be an outward expression of an inward devotion, or the event that grants one their salvation? The account of Cornelius and his family in the book of Acts showed that the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his family upon believing- not after baptism. The Bible never says that Cornelius was saved at any point before or after baptism, however one might reason that he was at the time of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. What more was going to change by him becoming baptized? The bible doesn’t speak of Cornelius or anybody else for that matter, entering into a second stage of holiness where he has advanced from not just having the Holy Spirit but also being saved. Furthermore it should be stated that baptism is never presented in the bible as having saved anybody. The bible never states that anybody was ever saved or declared righteous by having been baptized, however Jesus does tell a humble woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”(Luke 7:50). On these grounds it could be argued that baptism is meant to be an act of association, not an act in order to obtain salvation.
It is dangerous to take a legalistic approach to addressing the issue of salvation. “If one must be legalistic and simply add up all statements made with regard to salvation why stop at baptism? It also says we have to eat Christ's flesh, drink His blood, leave our family, hate our lives, etc.
The Bible also says that belief saves (Mark 16:16, Romans 10:9), confession saves (Romans 10:9), repentance saves (Luke 13:3), hope saves (Romans 8:24), words save (Acts 11:24), preaching saves (1 Corinthians 1:18) . . . even childbirth saves (1 Tim. 2:15)!
“The problem with just doing a word search on "saved" and adding up every requirement is that it leads to confusion and contradictions. Using an "additive" methodology we'd all be in trouble! Context must be checked to see what "saved" refers to, or who is being told to do what and why. We must not take particulars and make them into universals, for instance:
And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him . . . if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” . . . The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:16-23)
Now here is an example where Christ made selling possessions a "requirement" for eternal life. So why not add that to the list as well? The point is that for that man selling his possessions was a requirement - how we explain why is one thing, universalizing that requirement is another. Still, other verses are brought up in this debate that must be addressed.” (Doug Beaumont)
Some of the citations that are thought of as proof texts for the necessity of baptism for salvation are: Mark 16:16, 1Peter 1:20-21, Acts 2:38, John 3:5 and Romans 6:3-4. I will not attempt to dispute these verses because they do not contradict the argument that belief saves. Additionally I find it futile to dispute proof texts. I can make any argument I want by picking out individual verses and asserting that what happened in a verse is a global truth. “For example - speaking in tongues. Extreme Pentecostals view the situation in Acts 2 as normative for every conversion experience. But why do they leave out the tongues of fire on people's heads? Why is it not always in an upper room? Why doesn't it only happen in Judea? You can't just pick one small part of a narrative and make it normative for all people at all times and in all places and ignore the rest. The fact that something occurred does not make it normative for anyone else.” (Doug Beaumont) Using the same chapter I can make the argument that baptism is necessary for salvation because of what Peter says in verse 38, “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the holy spirit”. Speculation must be made in order to conclude from this verse that baptism is necessary for salvation, because the verse does not say this. In fact we already know that you don’t get the Holy Spirit by being baptized, Acts 10.
The bible is so clear in teaching that belief saves that I find it hard to miss. At least 15 times in the book of John alone it is written that we are saved by our belief. As a final thought, if baptism is essential for salvation then what Jesus did on the cross was not the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus would have simply prepared the way so that by our own accord we could earn our own salvation by a work.