Some professing Christians and even whole religious groups believe that baptism (or some substituted ritual) is necessary for anyone to be saved. That belief is based on some events and instructional passages in the New Testament. The purpose here is to examine those scriptures as to meaning, relevance and consistency.
2. Gentiles Baptized In The Holy Spirit
When Peter the apostle preached to the household of Cornelius the centurian (Acts 10), the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word. And, the words that he was speaking are To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. Further, according to verses 47 and 48, the gentiles to whom he was preaching had not been baptized. So, either the gentiles were saved before they were baptized in water or Christ had given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to a group of unsaved people. The logical conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader. However, Peter gave his own thoughts on the matter in Acts 15:8,9:
And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
There are some occasions recorded in Acts that, without proper consideration, could be construed as teaching baptismal regeneration. We should consider some of them to show that the scriptures are not inconsistent in the matter of baptism's relation to salvation.
3. Some Other Events Recorded in Acts
In the sermon on the first day of Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:38), Peter gave the admonition:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
I would that ye all spake with tongues....
The implication is that if they all had the ability to speak in tongues, he would have known that they all were saved. Or, to put it another way, a believer's not having the gift of tongues did not indicate that he wasn't saved. The further implication is that not possessing any other gift of the Holy Spirit isn't equivalent to not having salvation. But, in every case recorded in Acts, other than where the Lord baptized the first gentile church in the house of Cornelius, those given the gift of speaking in tongues were first baptized in water. And, every case makes sense only if water baptism is taken to be the ordinance by which new believers are added to an existing church and by which they partake of the Holy Spirit as God gave it to the church.
We read in Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 that John preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Luke 24:47 states:
And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
And, those verses carry over from the Old Testament the truth of Psalm 51:16,17,
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
And, in Psalm 32:5, David said,
I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.
So, under both the Old and New Testaments, God's requirement for remission of sins is repentance. And, since John preached the baptism of repentance, it would follow that baptism is to be done after repentance for the remission of sins rather than being the instrument by which God remits sins. As John said in Matthew 3:7,8:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
John meant to baptize those that had repented for the remission of sins.
The word translated for in Acts 2:18 can have a range of meanings, from into to because of. In Matthew 12:41, Jesus said of Nineveh, they repented at the preaching of Jonas. The word translated at is the Greek word translated for in Acts 2:38 and means because of. If the word is translated because of in Acts 2:38, then there is no conflict with the passage in Acts 10 where people were baptized in the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in water. Further, this translation of the word causes the verse to emphasize the idea that believers received the gifts of the Holy Spirit as a result of being baptized into a church. Jesus was sinless and had God's spirit at all times except when he suffered spiritual death for us. But, when Jesus was baptized, John saw God's spirit descending on him in a special way and his baptism became a pattern for believers to follow.
Note that the gift of miraculously being able to speak foreign languages was given to the early churches as a sign to Jews. The sudden demonstration of that gift by certain groups of believers is also very valuable to us when we are assessing the significance of some events recorded in Acts.
In Acts 8:12-17 we read of Samaritans' being baptized and not receiving the gift of speaking in tongues until a delegation from the church prayed for them and laid hands on them. Philip had preached to the Samaritans on his own and didn't have the authority of the church to baptize people into the church. However, the delegation, consisting of Peter and John, was authorized to act for the church at Jerusalem. That church, of course, was the only one at the time.
A similar event occurred in Acts 19:1-6. In that case, Paul, an apostle, had believers baptized and laid his hands on them. With the laying on of hands, the new converts received the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4:4-12, we are told that the spiritual gifts were given for the edifying of the body of Christ. So, either the new believers were baptized into an existing church or they constituted a new church. And, since the laying on of hands wasn't done every time believers were baptized, it is reasonable to think that it was done to establish a new church by authority of an existing church.
In both cases where new believers received the gifts of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, the men performing the ritual were authorized by a church. Peter and John were authorized to act in a specific case. Paul and Barnabas were ordained by the church at Antioch to go as evangelists to the gentiles (Acts 13:1-4) as instructed by the Holy Spirit. The interesting part is that John, Paul and Peter were apostles with great authority, but the Lord chose to have his work done by them when they were sent by churches. The notable exception is the direct commission that God gave to Peter to preach the gospel to gentiles for the first time.
Another interesting aspect of the two instances of the laying on of hands is that the new believers didn't partake of the spiritual gifts even though they had believed and had been baptized. That is to say baptism was not sufficient to their becoming members of a church when it wasn't done by authority of the church. And, we saw by what happened in the house of Cornelius that baptism wasn't necessary to believers' receiving the gifts of the spirit and becoming the first gentile church. We should note also that, since Jesus did not baptize, all of the apostles except Paul were baptized only by John and at least some of them shared in the spiritual gifts that Jesus bestowed on the church on the day of Pentecost.
The disciples that Paul found at Ephesus said that they had been baptized Unto John's baptism. Paul had them re-baptized because they had been baptized without understanding that John intended to baptize those that had repented for the remission of sins.
4. Letters To The Churches
In the writing of Paul the apostle to the churches of his day, he expounded doctrine that Peter referred to as:
....hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
II Peter 3:16.
And, Paul did have somewhat to say about the gospel, salvation in particular and how believers should live.
In Romans 6:4 we read
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.
This verse is taken by some to teach that baptism brings us literally into the death of Christ to regenerate us. However, the whole chapter has to do with the way believers should live, not the salvation process. Paul was telling the believers at Rome that they should behave as though their bodies were dead to sinful desires, but he was writing because he knew that their bodies hadn't been changed by baptism. Paul continues the topic of Christian behavior in Romans 7 and makes a personal reference in verse 24:
O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
With that statement he admits that he has to keep his own body under control because it has been changed by baptism no more than their bodies were. He wrote "should walk in newness of life, not "will always walk in newness of life, indicating that baptism is symbolic of what should occur in the lives of believers. If we say that regeneration is a process that should occur when a believer is baptized, then there must be some probability that it will not occur. But, we may say with confidence that salvation is given through repentance and faith and that baptism is the ordinance that symbolizes death in Christ.
In I Corinthians 15:53,54, Paul refers to our corruptible bodies that are destined for death. To have such bodies involved in the process of salvation seems weird at best considering what Jesus had to say about worshipping in spirit and in truth.
In Romans 1:7, Paul had addressed his letter:
To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the sixth chapter, verse 3, he states,
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
Since he didn't say we were all baptized into his death, he leaves open the possibility that some of the saints at Rome had not yet been baptized. Maybe he was just allowing for those that sooner or later would be saved through baptism, but that certainly wouldn't enhance his argument that saved people should walk in newness of life. And, Paul's writings don't contain any words that he didn't consider necessary to making a point.
I Corinthians 12:13 also is used as verification that we are saved by baptism because,
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Again, observing the subject of the passage is necessary to understanding the verse and the very next verse says For the body is not one member, but many. In other words, the body spoken of is the church as an institution. In verse 13, the verb are should be were and the whole verse refers to the two-phase baptism of the church in the Holy Spirit. The Lord performed that baptism on the day of Pentecost and in the house of Cornelius. And, on both occasions, members of the church demonstrated that they had received the gifts of the Holy Spirit by speaking miraculously in foreign languages.
There are several scriptures that use the term body or body of Christ to refer to the Lord's church. For instance, I Corinthians 12:27:
Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
Here, we need to know that the is not in the original language and should be a in order to form an acceptable English sentence. The statement as translated in the Authorized Version implies that the church at Corinth was the only body of Christ, but the proper translation a body of Christ makes perfect sense.
Romans 10 is a fairly comprehensive statement concerning the preaching of the gospel and the process of salvation in particular, but doesn't mention baptism. In I Corinthians 1:17, Paul wrote:
For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
And he didn't disparage the ordinance of baptism, but strongly implied that it isn't a necessary part of the gospel as far as salvation is concerned.
Paul begins chapter 15 of I Corinthians by defining the gospel. And, that definition does not include baptism. Baptism is mentioned later in the chapter as part of Paul's often-referenced defense of the teaching of the resurrection. Verse 29 states
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
And, the idea that being baptized for the dead means baptizing a live believer to save a dead lost person is preposterous. That verse must mean the baptism of believers into the church to replace those of previous generations. Jesus said that the gates of hell (Hades) would not prevail against his church and history has shown his statement to be correct. In every generation since Jesus established his church, there have been churches that have carried on the work that he gave the church to do.
Paul makes a rather comprehensive statement as to how we are saved in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
The Greek word translated faith is the noun form of the verb that means to believe. He emphasizes the fact that God saves through faith by saying not of works and we are his workmanship.
The word translated works in verse 9 is a primitive Greek word that means physical activity. The word is ergon and is partly transliterated into English as erg, which is defined in mechanical physics as a very small unit of work. So, salvation is through our faith in God's promises based on his own very extensive works and the physical activities of men can have nothing to do with it. However, Paul makes it clear that God's people are expected to do good works after God saves them.
5. Statements By Jesus
Jesus said in John 6:47,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.
In Mark 16:16, he said,
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.
And, he said in Matthew 10:22,
...he that endureth to the end shall be saved.
We could conclude that Jesus gave three ways of salvation: belief, belief and baptism, and being able to pass an endurance test. However, we would have to ignore what Paul wrote about salvation by grace through faith. We could also say that there have been at least three ways for believers to be saved since Jesus began his ministry. Or, we could examine the passages in Matthew and Mark to determine what Jesus meant by shall be saved.
In Mark 16:17,18, Jesus tells of some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were to be given to the early churches on and after the day of Pentecost. And, other than the supernatural ability to speak foreign languages, the gifts that he mentions have to do with physical preservation of his people. But, even the ability to speak and understand foreign languages could be a life-saver in some cases. In Mark 16:16, the verbs believeth and is baptized are in the present tense. The expression shall be saved expresses future action and is in keeping with the idea that those that have been baptized will be preserved in ways that unbaptized believers won't be. The verse can't be equated with He that believeth and is baptized is saved.
The passage in the tenth chapter of Matthew has to do with the hatred of the world for God's people. Jesus told his disciples of the persecution that they would face and includes the reminder that their salvation will still be a reality at the ends of their times on the earth.
He that believes, is baptized and endures will be saved. But, he that puts all of his faith in the promises of God in Christ has everlasting life now. In John 6:53, Jesus said,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
And, that statement was made during the discourse that includes verse 47, but no rational human would argue that his listeners had to become cannibals to have eternal life. John 6:53 is a prime example of verses that might be quoted without regard to context or any other passage to support an argument. We need only to read verse 63 to get the proper meaning:
It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
In Habakkuk 2:4 God said but the just shall live by his faith. In Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38 we find essentially the same words, the just shall live by faith. In Hebrews 10:39 the writer removes any confusion that might remain with,
But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
God must have good reason to say essentially the same thing four times and to include the statement in both Covenants. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8,9,
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
In John 3:5, Jesus said,
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
If we read the statement without regard to other statements in the same passage, we might conclude that water is essential to our rebirth. But, in verse 12 Jesus said:
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
And, he had already said in verse 10,
Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Jesus literally said to Nicodemus, Are you the teacher of Israel and don't know these things?, referring to his position as the final authority on the scriptures.
Since Jesus indicated that Nicodemus should have been able to relate his comments to Old Testament passages, we can find in the Old Testament that to which Jesus was referring. But, in order to find the passages, we must read the words as Jesus meant them in reference to earthly things. The word translated water also means rain and the word translated spirit also means wind. And, in Isaiah 55:10,11, God compares his word to the rain that brings forth vegetation from the earth. In Ezekiel 37:9, God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind and cause the wind to breathe life into the corpses in the valley of the dry bones. Neither passage comes close to illustrating that baptism is essential to the rebirth. New spiritual life begins with faith in God's word and that faith is imparted by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), not a regeneration of washing.
6. Peter's Comment About Baptism
In I Peter 3:21, Peter wrote,
The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us
And the comment was in reference to the survival of Noah and his family in the ark that he had built.
The key in that statement is, of course, figure.
And, the word translated figure means just that: a figure or representation. So, baptism is a representation of our identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.
Verse 20 of that chapter ends with eight souls were saved by water. Actually, God kept the people safe through the flood because they were in the ark. And, through is one of the meanings of the word translated by. Here again, taking baptism as the way believers are brought into a church makes sense. This is because members of a church shared in the spiritual gifts that Jesus used to edify and preserve his church. As Paul prophesied in I Corinthians 13:8-10, churches no longer have supernatural gifts. But, they still have the commission to preach the gospel and be instrumental in developing spiritual babies into mature Christians.
The body of Christ is Christ's physical body in which he suffered physical torment and spiritual death for all that believe in him, and, it is his church as a body of baptized believers. The meaning of that expression in a passage depends on the sense of the passage. New believers should be encouraged to submit to baptism because it is the ordinance by which believers become members of a church.
As the word incarnate, the Lord said in John 6:51,
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
In I Corinthians 10:17 Paul wrote,
For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
The assembly of God's people as a church is to be governed by God's word and its mission is to preach that word for its own edification and to bring those that God will save into itself.
If we preach the gospel, we must provide a church for the spiritual development of converts or they will remain spiritual babies. And, we must encourage new believers to be baptized into a church to receive the instruction and support that they don't even know they need. In Acts 11:17, when Peter the apostle said that God had given to believing gentiles the same gift that the church at Jerusalem had received, he was referring to an occasion when God poured out his spirit on believers that had not experienced water baptism. We must either harmonize all scripture or ignore what doesn't agree with our preconceived notions. It is impossible to study God's word objectively while ignoring any part of it or when trying to make it fit in with what we already believe.
In Matthew 19:16, a young man asked Jesus what good thing he had to do to have eternal life. Since they were both under Old Testament law, Jesus told him to keep the law. That is, Jesus told him what is written in Ezekiel 18: refrain from sinning willfully. However, when the man indicated that he didn't believe what Ezekiel had written and Jesus had repeated, Jesus told him to do something that he wouldn't do because of his lack of faith. Today, some people say that something more than faith in the works of God in Christ is necessary to obtaining salvation. They still don't get it.
The just shall live by faith.