Baptism is Essential for Salvation

In this series of articles, emphasis has been given to the Bible’s command to “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). The most fundamental area in which one must prove all things is most certainly in the area of one’s salvation. Many people have taught and continue to teach a “plan of salvation” completely foreign to the Scriptures. In so doing, they suggest that water baptism is not essential for salvation when the Bible plainly says otherwise. Consider the following questions in relationship to this issue:

If baptism is not essential for salvation, then how can one be saved from sin? Sometimes a person may run into an acquaintance or someone he or she might work with and have them declare, “I got saved yesterday.” After asking the person of the particulars of this “getting saved” what usually follows is some account of the person praying a prayer to invite Jesus into one’s heart as a personal savior. A legitimate question for someone who advocates this idea is: Where in all of the Bible did anyone EVER do that in order to be saved? Upon examination of the Scriptures it is clear that no one ever “prayed their way” into salvation.

When Peter stood up with the other apostles on the Day of Pentecost and preached the gospel to the lost, upon hearing of their lost condition the Bible says of those folks, “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). According to the doctrine espoused by many denominations, Peter’s response should have been:

Say this little prayer . . . O God, I acknowledge that I have sinned against You. I am sorry for my sins. I am willing to turn from my sins. I openly receive and acknowledge Jesus Christ as my Savior. I confess Him as Lord. From this moment on I want to live for Him and serve Him. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Graham 169)*

If praying the above words is what one is to do to be saved from sin, then the occasion described in Acts 2:37 was most certainly the time to say it. Was this Peter’s response? Not at all. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized. . . .” Why? “For the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Remission or forgiveness of sins is based upon the conditions that an individual repents and is baptized. Some have suggested that Peter is actually saying that they were to repent and be baptized because they had the remission of sins. However, this argument easily collapses under scrutiny. The phrase, “for the remission of sins” also appears in Matthew 26:28, where Jesus in instituting the Lord’s Supper stated, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Notice that Jesus was going to shed his blood “for the remission of sins” just as the Jews in Acts 2:38 were told to repent and be baptized “for the remission of sins.” Did Jesus shed his blood at Calvary because men already had the remission of sins? The answer is a resounding no (1 Cor. 15:3). Thus, Jesus shed his blood for the remission of sins and those who would be saved must repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. The phrases “for the remission of sins” in Matthew 26:28 and Acts 2:38 are practically identical in the Greek New Testament.

If baptism is not essential for salvation, why was there such an urgency to be baptized? When one considers the ten instances of conversion recorded in the book of Acts, it is interesting to see how that baptism was immediate. In other words, men and women did not delay being baptized, but rather they were baptized as soon as they understood the message of salvation. Consider what happened on the Day of Pentecost after the Jews understood what they were to do, “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” (Acts 2:40-41). When Peter told those folks, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” they did not put off being baptized. The text says the same day there were added unto them three thousand souls.

If one considers the conversion of the Philippian jailor in Acts 16, one finds another instance of the urgency to be baptized. When the jailor asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul and Silas’ response was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Since the Philippian jailor was a Gentile and did not have the background knowledge of the Old Testament as the Jews of Acts 2, he first had to
believe in the God of the Bible and thus believe on his son Jesus Christ. Paul described the process in Romans 10:13-14, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” The Philippian jailor had not “heard of the Christ” at least in the sense that he had not heard the saving Gospel message. That is why after Paul and Silas told him to believe that they taught him what to believe, “And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house” (Acts 16:32). Upon hearing the message, the jailor repented and was baptized as indicated by the next verse, “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes [showing repentance (cf. v. 23)]; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway” (Acts 16:33). Notice that the washing of the stripes of Paul and Silas by the jailor and his baptism occurred “the same hour of the night.” Surely it would have been more convenient to wait till the morning to be baptized, and if baptism was not essential for salvation why was there such an urgency? It is interesting to note what the text says in the next verse, “And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God” (Acts 16:34 ASV). At the outset of this record, Paul and Silas told the jailor that he had to believe in order to be saved (Acts 16:31). However, the Bible does not say that the jailor and his household had believed until after they had repented and were baptized. This instance shows that biblical belief means obedience. One cannot truly say he or she believes in God if they do not obey him (James 2:19-24). Therefore, again, it is clear that baptism is essential for salvation as demonstrated by the need to be baptized immediately once one hears and understands the saving Gospel message (Acts 22:16).

If baptism is not essential for salvation, why did Jesus and the apostles say it was? The aforementioned questions and answers have demonstrated that baptism is essential for salvation given that one cannot have the forgiveness of sins without baptism and that baptism is to be done immediately upon understanding one is lost without forgiveness of sins. However, what is perhaps the most puzzling of all is how some folks will make the statement, “A person does not have to be baptized in order to be saved” when Jesus and the apostles said the very opposite. Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). The salvation of a person’s soul begins with belief and ends with baptism just as was seen in the instance of the Philippian jailor. In other words, there is a process that must take place in order for a person to be saved. One must first believe that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 8:37; 16:30); Confess this belief (Romans 10:9-10); Repent of sins (Acts 2:38; 17:30) and then be baptized (Acts 2:38; 16:33). Some call attention to the last part of Mark 16:16 where Jesus said, “He that believeth not shall be damned.” Some might say that this part of the verse indicates one only must believe in order to be saved. To argue this way only contradicts the first part of the verse. The point is that in order to be condemned there is no process (“he that believeth not shall be damned”). If a person does not believe they have done nothing in order to prepare themselves for eternity. However, in order to be saved, one must undergo the process (“he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved”).

Finally, the words of the apostles plainly state that baptism is essential for salvation. Can it get any clearer than, “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)? Surely one must have help to misunderstand what the apostle Peter is saying.

By Spencer Strickland

* Works Cited: Graham, Billy. How to be Born Again. Waco: Word, 1977.

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