Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

How Did Jesus Baptize?

Baptism is one of the most divisive theological issues in the church today. Some churches practice infant baptism while many only use “believer’s baptism.” Many will only baptize by immersion while some will sprinkle or pour as an act of baptism. These are all good questions in regard to what the Bible teaches and are discussed elsewhere on this site.

The issue that has been bothering me lately is the question of whether baptism is necessary for salvation. It is not up for debate as to whether baptism is a command. We are told to baptize and to be baptized. The deeper question is whether this is necessary for salvation or any other command such as do not lie. Lying is forgivable and will not keep a person from heaven. If a person does not follow the command to be baptized, will it keep them from heaven?

Repentance and baptism are tied together on the day of Pentecost. When Peter preached, the people responded by asking what they should do. Peter tells them that they should repent and be baptized. Jesus tells the disciples about belief and baptism in Mark 16:15-16 in a passage that is similar to the Great Commission of Matthew 28.

“He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Those who hold that baptism is necessary will note that it says “and” as in both belief and baptism are necessary for salvation. In the second part of the sentence baptism is dropped however. Those who do not believe will be condemned. Nowhere in scripture does it say those who are not baptized will be condemned.

Perhaps an even greater question than the necessity of baptism is the nature of baptism that takes place. Pentecostals and charismatics contend that a spiritual baptism as evidenced by the speaking in tongues is necessary for salvation. This is a conclusion that is drawn however. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that speaking in tongues is required for salvation or that those who do not speak in tongues will be condemned.
But this does bring up a good point. Should baptism be understood as spiritual or physical with water? Those who say it is necessary for salvation contend that the physical is required. However, it is worthy of note that Jesus never baptized anyone with water. John the Baptist tells us about Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:16.

“John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’”

This would lead us to believe that Jesus’ baptism is not one of water at all. If Jesus required water baptism for salvation He most likely would have practiced it within His own ministry. While it could be argued that baptism is a picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection and wouldn’t have been valid until after Jesus’ ministry, this is a false argument because John the Baptist practiced water baptism.

The baptism of Jesus is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is a baptism that takes place immediately upon belief in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Peter Unlocks the Kingdom

In Matthew 16:15-20 Peter and Jesus have this exchange:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

In Acts 1:8 the disciples are told, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This divides the world into three areas that must be “unlocked” by Peter.

On Pentecost Peter opens the kingdom to Jerusalem as he preaches. In Acts 8, the disciples are scattered after the death of Stephen. Philip goes to Samaria and preaches there. People believe and are baptized but do not receive the Holy Spirit. It is because Peter has not unlocked the kingdom for them yet. When Peter arrives and prays for them, they receive the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 10, the kingdom is opened to “the ends of the earth” as Peter visits a gentile, Cornelius. As Peter is preaching to them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After they believe and receive the Holy Spirit, Peter asks, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” It is apparent that Peter considered water baptism important but his reason for doing so was because he had witnessed that they had received the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is an outward symbol for spiritual baptism.

Peter must explain to the other disciples why he went to the Gentiles in Acts 11. In verses 15-17 he explains, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

It is evident that the baptism of Jesus is a spiritual baptism and not one of water. Water baptism is still an important part of the Christian life however as it is a testimony for others. It is a symbol of the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit which we have.

Baptism should not be a divisive issue for us. Paul addressed the division that baptism caused in the Corinthian church by saying he was glad he had not baptized many of them. Paul’s mission should be our mission as he summarizes it in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “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.”

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