Sadly, one of the biggest conflicts in the church today surrounds baptism. Is it required for salvation? If so, sprinkled or dunked? Must a priest perform it to be valid? From what church? Is the water consecrated or not? Mention baptism and these are just some of the issues to be addressed; baptism can be a highly charged topic. Unfortunately, it has led to the division of many churches and people in Christianity — this ought not to be (some of the nastiest email we get is from Christians on this very subject).
Then Peter said unto them, 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 Spirit. (Acts 2:38 KJV)
That’s it! You MUST be baptized to be saved. If you haven’t been baptized, you are not saved. Is this the correct interpretation of this passage? Does the Bible teach baptism is required for salvation?
Bible Interpretation Rules
In order to understand the Bible’s teaching on baptism, we must first lay out a few “ground rules” for Bible interpretation. We must always consider the Bible in context. This means to consider the whole counsel of God — Genesis to Revelation. If we come to a verse and believe we know the interpretation of it, yet it contradicts teaching elsewhere in the Bible, our interpretation of it must be in error.
Second, we must understand our English translations do not always provide the exact meaning of the Greek text. People who make their stand on a certain wording in a passage frequently see their position crumble when looking at another translation or consulting the original Greek.
One method of analysis we can use is borrowed from the field of mathematics — that of indirect proof. That is, you assume a statement and then follow logically from that assumption. If you reach a contradiction, your original statement MUST be in error.
For the moment, let’s assume baptism is required for salvation. If we find anything that contradicts the assumption baptism is required we must admit our original assumption is wrong (since the Bible is inerrant and never contradicts itself). Any other position is illogical — it assumes the Bible contradicts itself.
Example Proving Baptism Isn’t Required
During the crucifixion, two thieves were crucified alongside Jesus. But the heart of one changed during those hours, and he asks Jesus “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom..”(Luke 23:42 KJV). Jesus’ response? “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise..” (Luke 23:43 KJV). No mention of baptism.
It’s difficult to believe this thief could have been baptized before he died (the Romans wouldn’t be ones to let him down, be baptized, then put him back up). Does that make Jesus a liar since he wasn’t baptized, yet was saved?
Since the thief was not baptized, and yet was saved, we must conclude baptism is not required for salvation. Some people will claim this thief was a special case — since Jesus Himself forgave his sins, he was allowed to be saved without being baptized. But is that logical? To assume so requires two different means to salvation and has no biblical proof. Not only is there no Biblical proof for that position, the Bible makes it clear there is only one way to salvation (we are saved in the same manner as the thief) — through faith in Jesus Christ.
So we have already reached a contradiction with the position that baptism is required for salvation. In effect, we need go no further.
Paul Says Baptism Isn’t Required
Consider what Paul said in Ephesians 2:
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. (Ephesians 2:8–9 KJV).
But what are works? Once again, look at the context of the New Testament where works are mentioned — Matthew 7:21–23, Romans chapters 3, 4, 9 and 11, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3, Ephesians 2:4–9, and 2 Timothy 1:9 (among others). Many of those passages use the same word for “works” (Strongs 2041) which Zodhiates defines as “the result or object of employment, making, or working. Labor, business, employment, something to be done. Work, deed action, something done” (Zodhiates The Complete Word Study Dictionary page 649–650).
The act of baptism is a work, and Paul makes clear works do not (and can not) save us (see previous references). We play no part in our salvation; even the faith we have is a gift of God. By ourselves we would never seek out God. Since works cannot save us, baptism plays no part in the salvation of the believer.
What About Acts 2:38?
The passage in Acts that seems to imply baptism is required. We must consider the original Greek — Zodhiates “The complete word study New Testament” page 397 — speaking about Acts 2:38.
The main verb in this verse is metanoesate (3340), meaning “repent”. This refers to that initial repentance of a sinner unto salvation. The verb translated “be baptized” is in the indirect passive imperative of baptizo (907) which means that it does not have the same force as the direct command of “repent”. The preposition “for” in the phrase “for the remission of sins” in Greek is eis (1519), “unto”. Literally, it means “for the purpose of identifying you with the remission of sins”. This same preposition is used in 1 Cor 10:2 in the phrase “and were all baptized unto [eis] Moses.” These people were identifying themselves with the work and ministry of Moses. Repentance is something that concerns an individual and God, while Baptism is intended to be a testimony to other people. That is why baptistheto, “to be baptized”, is in the passive voice indicating that one does not baptize himself, but he is baptized by another usually in the presence of others.
Paul to Corinth — Baptism Not a Priority
Finally, consider what Paul taught the Corinthian church.
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2 KJV)
Paul doesn’t mention baptism as a priority. If it was required, don’t you think he would have stressed it in a church he founded? Wouldn’t he have spent many chapters (perhaps an entire letter) teaching such an important doctrine? Yet Paul says only Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
When you consider all the evidence, it’s clear baptism is not required. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation. Anything we attempt to give to God to show we’re deserving of salvation is worthless (Isaiah 64:6).
But baptism is important. As Paul teaches in Romans, it’s a way of identifying ourselves with Jesus and is symbolic of the new birth in Christ. New Christians should be baptized as a way of identifying with Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, you frequently see baptism along with a new claim of faith, which is perhaps how the “baptism is required” error creeps in. But just because they appear together does not mean you can jump to the conclusion baptism is required for salvation.
Its tragic baptism has become such a point of contention in the church. Considering the whole counsel of God several points become clear:
- Baptism is important for the Christian. Every Christian should be baptized as a proclamation of their faith, and to identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- The thief on cross was saved, yet not baptized. The idea he was a special case has no scriptural support.
- Baptism is a work, and the Bible is clear works to not save us.
- If baptism is required, in what state is a person between accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and their baptism? Half-saved? If a proclamation of faith is insufficient for salvation, why do it? Assuming baptism is required requires answers to these questions.
- Any time salvation is predicated on Jesus plus something, there is an error. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone. There is nothing we need to add (nor can add) to His finished work. To imply something exists we must do to complete our salvation diminishes His work on the cross and implies His death was insufficient for salvation.
Baptism is absolutely, positively NOT required for salvation.