By Dr. Tony Garland
Q. I recently had a conversation with someone from the Church of Christ. He said that they believe that a person needs to be baptized and believe in Jesus to be saved. I know we are saved by grace alone, but how would you refute this argument? The Scriptures he used are Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, and Romans 6:3-4.
Is Water Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
A. Proponents of the teaching that baptism saves almost always base their argument on verses isolated from the more complete context of Scripture. The problem with this approach is that it can be (and has been) used to support all manner of errant doctrines at the hands of careless Christians and zealous cults. It would seem that almost any belief can be propped up by finding a couple of verses somewhere in Scripture and emphasizing a phrase or two out of balance with the context of the passage.
In a similar way, it would be possible to appeal to a verse such as Romans 10:9 to teach “confessional salvation”—the idea that a person cannot be saved until they verbalize their belief in Jesus.
... that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9, NKJV).
Of course, we know that Romans 10:9 is but a small part of the overall teaching of Scripture concerning the way of salvation. When all related passages are taken in concert, it becomes clear that salvation does not hinge upon a spoken statement.
Let's take a look at the verses cited in support of baptismal regeneration during your conversation.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
In isolation this verse might at first seem to teach the sequence: 1) repent; 2) baptism; 3) remission of sins; 4) receive the Holy Spirit. But right away we see that attempting to interpret the verse in a strictly sequential manner has some problems because doing so would infer that sins are remitted prior to receiving the Holy Spirit—when just the opposite is the case. We must be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6,8) before our sins are forgiven. So this should tell us that pressing the sequence of phrasing in a verse is not a good basis to reach doctrinal certainty.
When we examine the Greek behind the verse, we notice an interesting pattern in the number (singular vs. plural) of the verbs employed. A more literal translation might be:
Then Peter said to them, “You all [plural] repent, and you [singular] be baptized, each of you all [plural] calling upon the name of Jesus Christ into the forgiveness of the sins of you all [plural] and you all [plural] shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Although it is possible to put too much emphasis on grammatical subtleties, we notice that while each individual is urged to be baptized, the verbs associated with repentance, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit are all plural in number. This might indicate that Peter is advocating to the entire group the essentials of salvation (repentance, forgiveness, receiving the Spirit) and indicating that the appropriate individual response is that of baptism.
Notice too that this verse says nothing explicit about faith! Does this mean that salvation can be attained without faith? Hardly! We know from many other passages that it is faith, not baptism, which is the requirement for salvation. But this should warn us against placing too much emphasis on just a few verses rather than the comprehensive whole of what Scripture has to say on the subject.
For example, when Jesus' teaching in Matt. 28:19 is taken into consideration, the sequence is clearly teaching (which elicits faith in the hearer) followed by baptism as an act of identification and obedience. In a parallel passage to Matt. 28:19, Mark writes:
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, NKJV)
Although baptism is coupled with belief, it is not the ingredient that determines eternal destiny: he that “believes not” (regardless of baptism) is the one condemned.
1 Peter 3:21
There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Pe. 3:21, NKJV)
This verse actually teaches just the opposite of what the Church of Christ suggests. Peter is making an analogy between the physical salvation of 8 persons aboard the Ark and spiritual salvation. Even here, it is clear that baptism is “the answer [response] of a good conscience toward God,” In other words, the conscience initiates salvation (exercising repentance and faith) and only afterwards does baptism answer. The verse is teaching that baptism follows faith.
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4, NKJV)
A foundational phrase in this passage is “baptized into Christ” which speaks of the spiritual unification of the believer into the Body of Christ as taught by Paul (1 Cor. 12:13):
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12-13, NKJV)
This same idea is found in Paul's letter to the Galatians:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:26-27, NKJV)
Thus, the baptism in view in Romans 6 is primarily Spirit-baptism, the event which began on the Day of Pentecost and continues during our age whereby believers are spiritually united into the Body of Christ. This is what Jesus meant when he promised the coming of the Spirit and said that believers would be united with Him, “you in Me, and I in you.” (John 14:20). Although Romans 6 probably also alludes to physical baptism (especially immersion and rising from submersion as an allusion to being buried and rising again), it is teaching that Spirit-baptism is what defines believers in this age, not physical baptism which follows.
Numerous expositors share this view:
The spiritual reality Paul spoke of is that by faith believers are “baptized (placed) into Christ” and thereby are united and identified with Him. This spiritual reality is then graphically witnessed to and pictured by believers’ baptism in water. The one baptism (by water) is the visible picture of the spiritual truth of the other baptism (identification with Christ; cf. Gal. 3:27, ‘baptized into Christ ... clothed with Christ’).—John A. Witmer in John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 2:461 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).
This does not refer to water baptism. Paul is actually using the word “baptized” in a metaphorical sense, as we might in saying someone was immersed in his work, or underwent his baptism of fire when experiencing some trouble. All Christians have, by placing saving faith in Him, been spiritually immersed into the person Christ, that is, united and identified with Him (cf. 1 Cor. 6:17; 10:2; Gal. 3:27; 1 Pet. 3:21; 1 John 1:3; see note on Acts 2:38). Certainly water baptism pictures this reality, which is the purpose—to show the transformation of the justified.—John Jr MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed., Ro 6:3 (Nashville: Word Pub., 1997, c1997).
This is not water baptism, but rather that work of the Holy Spirit by which the believer is organically united to Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12; Gal. 3:27). This act of God joins us to Jesus so completely that His death and resurrection become our own.—Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., 742 (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996).
One of the sources of confusion we encounter when interpreting this verse is brought about by Pentecostal/Charismatic teaching which fails to convey the historical significance of Spirit-baptism which began on the Day of Pentecost. They mistakenly hold that it is all about power and a second work beyond salvation—even in our day. But this does not square with the historical transition recorded in the Book of Acts where the “promise of the Father” found fulfillment in the giving of the Spirit (John 7:38-39).
Spirit-baptism is all about the formation of a new spiritual entity unknown prior to Pentecost: the Body of Christ. Thus every believer receives this baptism or else they would not be joined to Christ. It is this truth which Paul is emphasizing in Romans 6, not the act of water baptism which is a response to the fact of salvation.
During your discussion, it is somewhat surprising that Acts 22:16 wasn't used in the attempt to support baptismal regeneration.
And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord. (Acts 22:16, NKJV)
Ryrie sheds light on this verse:
[Ac 22:16] contains four segments: (a) arise (which is a participle, arising), (b) be baptized (an imperative), (c) wash away your sins (another imperative), and (d) calling on the name of the Lord (another participle). To make the verse teach baptism is necessary for salvation necessitates connecting parts two and three—be baptized and wash away. But rather than being connected to each other, each of those commands is actually connected with the participle. Arising is necessary before baptism and calling before sins can be wash[ed] away. Thus the verse should be read this way: Arising, be baptized; washing away your sins, calling on the Lord. The verse correctly understood does not teach baptismal regeneration.—Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Press, 1987), p. 337.
Spirit-Baptism Not Water-Baptism
It is Spirit-baptism rather than water baptism which is universal to salvation since the Day of Pentecost. This is the “promise of the Father” mentioned by Jesus (Acts 1:4-8). Notice that when Cornelius and his household were saved, they received the Holy Spirit (as evidenced by speaking in an unknown language, probably Hebrew) prior to baptism. It is clear from Peter's recollection of the events that the baptisms that took place were in response to that which God had already initiated—granting the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles—something which surprised the Jews then in attendance (Acts 10:44-45,47; 11:15-18). Peter referred to this as “repentance unto life”—and made no mention of the subsequent baptisms when recounting the events before his skeptical brethren.
We should be careful to note that the means of salvation has always been regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Spirit-baptism in the Church Age does not substitute for this work of the Spirit. However, following the Day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38-39) Spirit-baptism is concurrent with regeneration placing all believers into the Body of Christ.
Water Baptism Not Emphasized
We also see from numerous other passages that it is Spirit-baptism which is emphasized over water baptism. We note that although John the Baptist's ministry centered on repentance and water baptism, he indicated that a Greater would follow and baptize with the Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8). Jesus Himself echoed these priorities (Acts 1:5) and did not water baptize any of His followers (John 4:2). In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul also indicated that baptism was not an essential element of his ministry (1 Cor. 1:17).
Would it not be extremely strange for water baptism to be essential for salvation, yet John, Jesus, and Paul all downplay its importance? Yet we could point to many more passages which make it plain that it is faith which is the essential ingredient for salvation, not an external rite such as water baptism.
The Way of Salvation in the Old Testament
If water baptism is essential for salvation, why is it not emphasized in the Old Testament? Although ritual cleansing is practiced in the Old Testament, far more emphasis is placed upon circumcision and other observances as indicators of obedience to God's commands. Since it is evident that water baptism was not the means of salvation in the Old Testament, for it to be so today would indicate a change in the way of salvation from Old Testament to New Testament.
But we know that salvation has always been by faith involving spiritual regeneration, a work of the Holy Spirit (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Eph. 2:8).
Silence of Galatians
If water baptism is the means of salvation, it is difficult to understand why Paul's letter to the Church at Galatia is silent on the matter. In this tour-de-force upholding the purity of salvation by faith alone, it is circumcision which Paul targets—and no mention is made of any attempt to teach that baptism plays a part in salvation. Again, we see a clear indication 1) circumcision was held to be essential to salvation by some, not baptism; 2) it is faith alone which brings salvation—no other external rite (whether circumcision or baptism) can be added to that which the Spirit has wrought.
To all of the above we could add the impracticality and unsuitability of any external rite being the determining factor in eternal salvation.
For one thing, it is simply too easy to feign an external rite: we all know people who have been baptized but could hardly be considered to be genuine born-again Christians.
For another thing, there are salvation scenarios where it is impractical to complete an external ritual such as water baptism. Examples include a soldier coming to faith minutes before being struck by a bullet, a person on a doomed airliner during descent, and the thief on the cross.
Advocates of water baptism offer the explanation that God is practical and would make exceptions in these situations—just as he does with children under the age of accountability. But these situations involve consenting adults. And if they enter eternal life without water baptism, then they are saved by faith alone which is the very position Scripture upholds.
I've touched on a number of reasons why water baptism is not essential for salvation. I've focused on the passages mentioned in your conversation with members of the Church of Christ and also on reasons why water baptism cannot be part of salvation.
A much larger treatment could be undertaken on the matter of salvation by faith alone—I've barely touched on this important truth which completely undermines the idea that baptism or any other external rite contributes toward salvation.
In closing, I should note that water baptism is an important step in spiritual growth for the obedient believer. It is a public identification with Christ which is rich in significance (washing; death, burial and resurrection; newness of life). Believers are to be encouraged to follow the example of Jesus and be water baptized.
- How were people saved before Jesus died for our sins? • GotQuestions.org
- The Ministries of the Holy Spirit • Ariel Ministries (Arnold Fruchtenbaum)
- Is water baptism necessary for salvation? • ChristianAnswers.net
- 101 Reasons Why Water Baptism Is Not Necessary to Be Saved • FaithFacts.org