Courtesy of Grace To You

Is baptism necessary for salvation? No. Let’s examine what the Scriptures teach on this issue:

First, it is quite clear from such passages as Acts 15 and Romans 4 that no external act is necessary for salvation. Salvation is by divine grace through faith alone (Romans 3:22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4:5; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:9, etc.).

If water baptism were necessary for salvation, we would expect to find it stressed whenever the gospel is presented in Scripture. That is not the case, however. Peter mentioned baptism in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). However, in his sermon from Solomon’s portico in the Temple (Acts 3:12-26), Peter makes no reference to baptism, but links forgiveness of sin to repentance (3:19). If baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sin, why didn’t Peter say so in Acts 3?

Paul never made water baptism any part of his gospel presentations. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul gives a concise summary of the gospel message he preached. There is no mention of baptism. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul states that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel,” thus clearly differentiating the gospel from baptism.

Those passages are difficult to understand if water baptism is necessary for salvation. If baptism were part of the gospel itself, necessary for salvation, what good would it have done Paul to preach the gospel, but not baptize? No one would have been saved. Paul clearly understood water baptism to be separate from the gospel, and hence in no way efficacious for salvation.

Perhaps the most convincing refutation of the view that baptism is necessary for salvation are those who were saved apart from baptism. The penitent woman (Luke 7:37-50), the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2), the publican (Luke 18:13-14), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) all experienced forgiveness of sins apart from baptism. For that matter, we have no record of the apostles’ being baptized, yet Jesus pronounced them clean of their sins (John 15:3–note that the Word of God, not baptism, is what cleansed them).

The Bible also gives us an example of people who were saved before being baptized. In Acts 10:44-48, Cornelius and those with him were converted through Peter’s message. That they were saved before being baptized is evident from their reception of the Holy Spirit (v. 44) and the gifts of the Spirit (v. 46) before their baptism. Indeed, it is the fact that they had received the Holy Spirit (and hence were saved) that led Peter to baptize them (cf. v. 47).

The New Testament does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is the analogia scriptura, the analogy of Scripture–we must compare Scripture with Scripture in order to understand its full and proper sense. Since the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, any interpretation of a specific passage that contradicts the general teaching of the Bible is to be rejected.

Since the general teaching of the Bible is, as we have seen, that baptism and other forms of ritual are not necessary for salvation, no individual passage could teach otherwise. Thus we must look for interpretations of those passages that will be in harmony with the general teaching of Scripture.

With that in mind, let’s look briefly at some passages that appear to teach that baptism is required for salvation.

In Acts 2:38, Peter appears to link forgiveness of sins to baptism. But there are several plausible interpretations of this verse that do not connect forgiveness of sin with baptism. It is possible to translate the Greek preposition eis–“because of,” or “on the basis of,” instead of “for.” It is used in that sense in Matthew 3:11; 12:41; and Luke 11:32.

It is also possible to take the clause “and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” as parenthetical. Support for that interpretation comes from that fact that “repent” and “your” are plural, while “be baptized” is singular, thus setting it off from the rest of the sentence. If that interpretation is correct, the verse would read “Repent (and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins.” Forgiveness is thus connected with repentance, not baptism, in keeping with the consistent teaching of the New Testament (cf. Luke 24:47; John 3:18; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Ephesians 5:26).

A third possibility exists, as Wallace explains in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:

It is possible that to a first-century Jewish audience (as well as to Peter), the idea of baptism might incorporate both the spiritual reality and the physical symbol. In other words, when one spoke of baptism, he usually meant both ideas–the reality and the ritual. Peter is shown to make the strong connection between these two in chapters 10 and 11. In 11:15-16 he recounts the conversion of Cornelius and friends, pointing out that at the point of their conversion they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. After he had seen this, he declared, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit…” (10:47).

The point seems to be that if they have had the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit via spiritual baptism, there ought to be a public testimony/acknowledgment via water baptism as well. This may not only explain Acts 2:38 (viz., that Peter spoke of both reality and picture, though only the reality removes sins), but also why the NT speaks of only baptized believers (as far as we can tell): Water baptism is not a cause of salvation, but a picture; and as such it serves both as a public acknowledgment (by those present) and a public confession (by the convert) that one has been Spirit-baptized.

Mark 16:16, a verse often quoted to prove baptism is necessary for salvation, is actually a proof of the opposite. Notice that the basis for condemnation in that verse is not the failure to be baptized, but only the failure to believe. Baptism is mentioned in the first part of the verse because it was the outward symbol that always accompanied the inward belief.

I might also mention that many textual scholars think it unlikely that vv. 9-20 are an authentic part of Mark’s gospel. We can’t discuss here all the textual evidence that has caused many New Testament scholars to reject the passage. But you can find a thorough discussion in Bruce Metzger, et al., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 122-128, and William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, pp. 682-687.

Water baptism does not seem to be what Peter has in view in 1 Peter 3:21. The English word “baptism” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse.” Baptizo does not always refer to water baptism in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; 7:4; 10:38-39; Luke 3:16; 11:38; 12:50; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Corinthians 10:2; 12:13).

So Peter is not talking about immersion in water, as the phrase “not the removal of dirt from the flesh” indicates. He is referring to immersion in Christ’s death and resurrection through “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” or repentance. Again, it is not the outward act that saves, but the internal reality of the Spirit’s regenerating work (cf. Titus 3:4-8).

I also do not believe water baptism is in view in Romans 6 or Galatians 3. I see in those passages a reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). For a detailed exposition of those passages, I refer you to my commentaries on Galatians and Romans, or the transcripts my sermons on Galatians 3 and Romans 6.

In Acts 22:16, Paul recounts the words of Ananias to him following his experience on the Damascus road: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” It is best to connect the phrase “wash away your sins” with “calling on His name.” If we connect it with “be baptized,” the Greek participle epikalesamenos (“calling”) would have no antecedent. Paul’s sins were washed away not by baptism, but by calling on His name.

Water baptism is certainly important, and required of every believer. However, the New Testament does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.

Related Posts:

What hinders you from being baptized?

The problem that I have with baptism testimonies

  1. Great teaching. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jacob says:

    Gotta disagree with you man — I think you’re talking in circles here. Your basis seems to be that baptism can’t be necessary because it’s not mentioned every time salvation is referenced. Neither is faith. Neither is confession. Neither is repentance. I could isolate scriptures that indicate that I’m saved by faith, confession, repentence, love, obedience, etc. So to take ONE idea — faith — and isolate THOSE verses, and say THIS and NOTHING ELSE saves me, is not the solution. (Particularly when the phrase “faith alone” is only mentioned once in the entire bible — and that’s in James, when Paul explains that salvation is NOT by faith alone.) Now, as to the question, how come EVERY time salvation is mentioned, Paul doesn’t mention every single thing necessary for it? Answer: it was completely unnecessary. Paul’s letters weren’t being written to the unsaved. They were being written to established Christians. They knew how they were saved. They didn’t need a full summary of everything contributing to their salvation every time the word was mentioned. I’ll also take issue with the idea that no external act can contribute to our salvation. Jesus emphasizes in John chapters 14-15 the absolute necessity of obedience (of Jesus) toward salvation. If I don’t obey Him, I’m not saved. Salvation isn’t just a mental acknowledgement of truth, it’s a commitment to trying to LIVE that truth. Jesus makes it clear that to see Him in Heaven, an entire LIFETIME of “external acts” will be required. (Also see Hebrews 10:26.) So how about the thief on the cross? Christ could forgive the man’s sins because (a) Christ hadn’t been killed, buried, and resurrected yet, and (b) the New Convenant hadn’t yet been revealed to us at Pentacost. Thus the New Covenant had not yet taken effect. Hebrews 9:16-17 explains that a Testament cannot come into effect until the death of the Testator. It’s “valid only when men are dead”. So where does all this leave us? At Pentacost, the apostles revealed a New Covenant. They gave the first gospel sermon, and told the crowd, “repent and be baptized for remission of sin”. What does “baptize” mean? It literally means “immersion”. It should have been translated thusly, except that didn’t conform to what the Catholic church was doing with their sprinkling — so king James had to transliterate it (create a new word). Peter tells the crowd to become a part of the “church” they must repent of their sins, then be immersed in water in obedience to the new covenant. At that time they also will receive the Holy Spirit. The water isn’t what saves us of course, nor is the water what gives us the Holy Spirit. (Otherwise anyone who’s ever had a bath is both saved and spirit-filled.) The water is merely the time and place at which salvation is granted by grace. And certainly, this is an act of faith, and all of it prompted by faith. The belief in baptism doesn’t invalidate faith, but in fact confirms it. Following in the book of acts there are about 10 individual instances of someone getting saved. ALL involve immediate baptism. I believe if you were an alien, and came to earth with no prior exposure to Christianity, and read the Bible cover to cover, you would conclude that baptism is a part of salvation.

    • Alan Higgins says:

      I have to disagree. Salvation is based on the finished work of Christmas and nothing else. Even faith and repentance is a gift so that we can take no credit for it. Baptism should be done as an act of obedience after salvation but it is not something you do in order to get saved. By your definition, if someone is in their death need with no water in sight, they cannot be saved

      • jac0vny says:

        I would respectfully counter that scripture is telling is otherwise. Repentance is something I must do. Confessing my sins is something I must do. Living a life of obedience to the word is something I must do (daily). That’s why James tells us that faith without works is dead. Regarding your deathbed conversion example, its an excellent point that I won’t try to dodge. A couple of thoughts: (a) you may be entirely correct. If I try to convert at the moment of death after living a 70-year life of selfish, flesh-based idolatry, its quite possible that I DID waste my chance to become a Christian. I don’t believe that grace and forgiveness are intended to be a blank check for me to sin all I want until I’m too old to carouse. I wouldn’t blame God expecting a little more from me during my lifetime. So when I try to have my cake and eat it too, I can certainly imagine God saying “no deal, jack”. (B) Supposing it were possible that someone came to true, honest faith just before the moment of death. I don’t mean they realized they were about to die so they quickly PROFeSSED faith, as if it were a quick incantation to be used like an ejector seat when you see the plane is going down. I mean something occurs during this window of time that causes an individual to genuinely have an “oh my, they were right all along, it really is true” moment. I don’t believe God punishes us for an inability to obey. God is a just God. However (c) I tend to believe that if such a scenario were possible, God would make a way for water to be available. I’ve seen elderly men on hospice care taken off of their machines just long enough for them to be baptized. And we can’t forget that God knows in advance who will sincerely seek Him out, and who will ignore Him to live for themselves.

        In summation, I respect your opinion and used to share it, but I can’t find any scriptural justification for the notion that baptism is just “a good idea”. Thanks for the response, God bless

        • Alan Higgins says:

          Thanks for the respectful dialog. I do not believe that baptism is just a good idea. I believe that Jesus commanded that when we should be baptised AFTER we are saved and not IN ORDER to be saved. I just wanted to make sure that you do not misunderstand what I am saying. Yes we know that there will be people who just want a ‘get out of hell card’ at death but there is no true repentance. Only God will know the heart of that individual. On your comment ” I wouldn’t blame God expecting a little more from me during my lifetime”, that seems to suggest that my salvation is partly based on my good works. This is false. My salvation is purely based on the finished work of Christ (in every situation) as any good works that I do is filthy. If salvation is based on baptism in every situation, then what about the theif on the cross. God did not as you stated make water available for baptism. What happens when someone may be dying in the middle of a car accident or if they are about to die on death row?

          James does not teach that my good works is necessary for salvation but that good works is a product of my salvation. There is a distinct difference as we know that many people say that they are christians but their fruit does not show it.

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