Is Water Baptism essential for Salvation?

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Some religious groups that claim to be Christian, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, teach that in addition to professing faith in Jesus Christ, one must also be physically baptized for salvation.

This belief, also called “baptismal regeneration,” forms the basis for a works plus faith doctrine that requires physical water baptism to be performed upon a new convert by authorized personnel within the religious institution before members consider the convert “saved.” There are several problems with this belief. First of all, when Scripture expounds on the salvation process, rarely is physical water baptism even mentioned. Instead, emphasis is given to faith (belief/trust) in Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection and repentance (confessing and turning away from sin) to make Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. Secondly, as the following Scriptures explain, salvation is said to be “by faith” alone, apart from the works of human righteousness. Notice that baptism is not even mentioned in any of these verses:“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” —John 3:16

“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, so that no one may boast.”—Ephesians 2:8-9

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”—Romans 5:1

“That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” —Romans 10:9

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” —1 John 1:9

“And after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” —Acts 16:30-31

“Therefore they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ ”—John 6:28-29

Thus, if one adds the work of physical baptism to the salvation process, this would invalidate Scripture’s emphasis upon justification by faith alone and fall under the condemnation of Scripture that explains:

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” — Titus 3:5

“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” — Galatians 5:4

Thirdly, when physical baptism is mentioned in Scripture, it is given in the context of Christian discipleship and used as a sign of true saving faith (Matthew 28:19; Acts 10:47). Since there is a difference between what Christians “do” in obedience to Christ after salvation and what is given as a necessary requirement for salvation, we believe that the first act of obedience a true follower of Christ should participate in is baptism, but it is not an essential part of the salvation process. This can be clearly seen when we examine the passages that speak of baptism:

JOHN 3:3-7:

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and 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. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” ’ ”

In this passage, Jesus clearly articulates what he means by proclaiming that one must be “born again.” In response to Nicodemus’ question about how a person can be physically “born” twice from his “mother’s womb,” Jesus explains that the first birth is “of water” by being “born of the flesh” (i.e., out of the womb), while the second birth is “of the Spirit” which is the making alive of one’s “spirit” through a spiritual baptism. Titus 3:5 explains:

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”

Here we see that the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” is a reference to the spiritual birth or baptism spoken of by Jesus when He told Nicodemus that he must be “born of the Spirit.” This spiritual baptism occurs at the moment a person places his faith in Christ, just as Jesus promised that He would send His Holy Spirit to indwell His followers:

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. …But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” —John 16:7, 13

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvationhaving also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” —Ephesians 1:13-14

“However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” —Romans 8:9-11

It is noticeable that in none of these passages is the physical act of water baptism given as a prerequisite to the spiritual baptism of being “born of the Spirit” during salvation. Rather, emphasis is given to the indwelling and sealing of the Holy Spirit immediately upon trusting Christ for salvation.

1 PETER 3:21:

“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves younot the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Here the term “baptism” is clarified as “not of the removal of dirt from the flesh” (i.e., water baptism), but rather “an appeal to God for a good conscience” —that is, baptism by the Holy Spirit who regenerates and renews the spiritual side of a person so that they can have a “clear conscience” through Christ before God. Thus, this passage does not support baptismal regeneration.

ROMANS 6:3-4:

“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

Here again, we see “baptism” being used as a symbol of the spiritual baptism that occurred when one died to the sins of his old life and made Jesus Lord and Master (Romans 10:9). This is the picture that physical water baptism gives. Falling backward into the water (releasing the whole body to be submersed into the water) is the picture of a person who spiritually dies to the sinful pleasures of his old life, just as Jesus physically died to pay for mankind’s sins. Then, when the person is physically raised up out of the water, it pictures the spiritual renewal of the Holy Spirit given to help the person “walk in newness of life,” just as Jesus rose from the dead through the power of God’s Spirit. 2 Corinthians 5:17 explains:

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

Next, consider the example of the thief who died next to Jesus at Luke 23. Although he was not baptized when he placed his faith in Christ, Jesus promised him:

“…today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” —Luke 23:43

Finally, consider that Paul excluded water baptism from the preaching of the Gospel when He said:

“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” —1 Corinthians 1:17

ACTS 2:38:

“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ ”

While this verse is often used to support baptismal regeneration, the real dispute in this verse is over the use of the word “for” in the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins.” There are two ways one can interpret this word:

  1. “For” can mean “to cause” the “forgiveness of your sins.” OR
  2. “For” can mean “on account of” the “forgiveness of your sins.”

Reconciling this passage with the rest of Scripture, we would hold to the second meaning of the word “for” being applied here so that the verse in essence would be saying: “…be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ [on account of] the forgiveness of your sins.” Thus, Acts 2:38 would be viewed as proclaiming that because one’s sins are already forgiven through faith and repentance, one should also become baptized.

Another way to interpret this passage is to view the word “baptism” used in this passage as a reference to the spiritual baptism described at Titus 3:5 where the “gift of the Holy Spirit” regenerates and renews the spiritual side of a person. This would also fit with the context of this passage where it proclaims that one would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” upon being baptized. If baptism in this occurrence is a reference to the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit that occurs at the moment that a person places his faith in Christ and is saved, it would also agree with the testimony of Acts 10:44-47 where we read that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given before physical water baptism took place:

“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’”

Thus, either interpretation of this passage fits with the context of Scripture that demonstrates that salvation occurs by faith in Christ alone, prior to water baptism.

ACTS 22:16:

“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

Notice that this passage describes the washing “away” of sins. The only question is whether this occurs with the act of being “baptized” or the act of “calling on His name.” We would view it as being connected to the latter phrase, “calling on His name.” Thus, the washing away of sins would occur the moment a person calls upon the name of Christ for salvation, not at the moment of physical, water baptism.

MARK 16:16:

“He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”

While Mark 16:16 comes the closest to teaching baptismal regeneration, it still falls short when one considers the second part of the verse that proclaims that the only person who is “condemned” is the person who does not believe. Thus, a person is “condemned” for failing to believe in Christ, not for being un-baptized. So, even with this passage, one can argue that the baptism mentioned in the first part of the verse is a reference to the act of obedience that occurs after the “belief” that saved the person is professed.


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