Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Let’s start this week with a couple of questions: When Jesus taught the importance of putting new wine into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17), was he mostly concerned with preserving literal wine? When Jesus told Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people [Matthew 4:19]” did he mean they would go out with literal, physical nets and scoop up new converts?

We all know the answers to these questions because these kinds of references are common in Scripture. All through the Bible, God uses physical illustrations to convey spiritual truths. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about “living water” (John 4:10-14), we know he wasn’t referring to some specially-infused literal water; he was speaking of spiritual life and using water to illustrate and contrast it with the woman’s natural life. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again” (John 3:3-4), and Nicodemus responds: “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” every reader understands that Nicodemus is missing the point (probably intentionally).

Some become confused when Jesus says of the bread “This is my body” and of the wine “This is my blood [Matthew 26:26-28].” They assume this must be meant literally. (Of course, that would be a problem since Jesus was still standing there in front of them with his body and blood intact!) But we use this kind of language all the time. If I take out a photo, hand it to you, and say, “This is my wife,” have I just literally handed you my wife? As with baptism, communion is a physical act illustrating a spiritual truth.

One of my favorite passages to show how this works is John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Peter resists Jesus, questioning what he’s doing. Jesus responds with an interesting comment: “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.” Peter understood all too well that Jesus was humbling himself, but there was a spiritual truth Peter was not yet getting. The continuing exchange confirms this deeper spiritual dimension:

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”

Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus replied, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not all of you.” For Jesus knew who would betray him. That is what he meant when he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Notice, Jesus is using physical elements and acts to communicate spiritual realities. If we miss this in Scripture and over-interpret the physical elements, we’ll end up with erroneous ideas about the Christian life.

Scripture uses physical actions to illustrate spiritual truths.

Baptism as illustration
Why is all of this important? Because there are many passages that use the physical act or water of baptism to illustrate specific spiritual truths. We want to make sure we don’t misunderstand what the Scriptures are teaching. For instance, many passages speak of baptism in the sense of the person being ‘washed.’ Some have assumed it’s the physical act of baptism that washes our sin away. In Acts 22:16, Ananias tells Saul (aka Paul):

What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.

I appreciate the way this translation (NLT) makes it clear that one’s sins are not washed away by being baptized, but by calling on the name of the Lord. Baptism is a physical act that illustrates this spiritual truth. If you read each passage carefully, you’ll see the primary spiritual truth and the way it’s being symbolized. Here’s another example from Titus 3:5:

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Notice again, the emphasis is not on some physical act of washing, but on rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, thus making us spiritually clean.

But what about . . . 
There are three passages some use to claim that baptism is necessary for salvation. The most common one is Mark 16:16:

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.

Now we could point out that this passage says the ones condemned are those who refuse to believe, not those who refuse to be baptized. But there’s a bigger problem with using this verse. All current translations have a note after Mark 16:8 explaining that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts don’t include this section (16:9-20). For hundreds of years, Bible scholars have known that these verses are almost certainly not found in the original text of Scripture. (Interestingly, this is the very section that speaks of handling snakes!) We just shouldn’t base an important teaching on such a highly questionable passage.

1 Peter 3 describes how Noah’s family was saved through the water of the flood, and then continues in verse 21:

. . . and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

Notice how the passage itself takes the emphasis from the physical act and the physical element and places it instead on the believer’s faith toward God. Peter is comparing two different examples of how water illustrates God’s saving work in our lives.

The third passage is from Acts 2:38:

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Some have taken advantage of a certain ambiguity in this passage. We can use the word “for” in a couple of different ways. I can say ‘I’m going to the store for some milk;’ I can also say ‘I’m going to the store for my wife.’ I’m using the same word, but in quite different ways. If I’m going to the store for some milk, I’m going in order to acquire the milk. But if I’m going to the store for my wife, I’m not going for the purpose of acquiring my wife, am I? I’m going to the store because of or in response to my wife.

Which way is this passage using the word? It’s helpful to see similar wording in John’s comment in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” We don’t have to think long about this before we realize it doesn’t make sense for them to be baptized in order to repent. If they weren’t already repentant, they wouldn’t be willing to be baptized! The fact they would humble themselves and be baptized was powerful testimony to the authenticity of their repentance. So they were being baptized because they had repented.

Why is this important?
We need to be clear about this. If Peter was telling the people they needed to be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of their sins, then there is something other than faith that is required for salvation. And this flies in the face of all the passages that connect salvation and forgiveness of sins with faith alone. We could give scores of such references, but here are two examples:

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Acts 10:43

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.”

Acts 16:30-31

Salvation and forgiveness come simply through placing our faith in Christ. If baptism is necessary for salvation, then there is something—in addition to faith—that we must do. There is a good act we must perform. But this idea contradicts the vital truth taught in Ephesians 2:8-9:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

So, in Acts 2:38, Peter was saying that the people must be baptized not in order to be forgiven, but because they had been forgiven.

We aren’t baptized to be saved;
We’re baptized because we are saved.

We must be careful not to fall into the error we see in Galatians. These people were being drawn to the Old Covenant Jewish law, and had made circumcision a “Christian” necessity. But Paul was adamant. If they added any necessary action or law to the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only were they corrupting the gospel but they were altering it to the point where it was an entirely different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). If we add something to the gospel as an essential requirement for salvation, we’re in danger of falling away from God’s grace and being cut off from Christ (Galatians 5:2-4).

We must not take Scripture passages out of context and cobble together isolated phrases to make baptism into something God never intended. We do encourage believers to be baptized as the Bible teaches. But we must not weaken the scriptural truth that, by God’s grace, we are forgiven and saved solely through our faith in Jesus. We celebrate baptism as a public declaration of a person’s faith in Christ. And we practice the physical act of baptism in water to beautifully symbolize a profound spiritual truth: our old life of sin has been washed away from us, and we now live a brand new spiritual life in Christ.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved? [see above]

Who should be baptized?

There’s an ancient saying you may have heard, and it expresses an important principle we seek to emphasize in our church:

In essentials—unity
In non-essentials—liberty
In all things—love

This is a healthy principle for any church to follow, but it’s especially appropriate for a church such as ours. Church without Walls is the only English-speaking church in our area. Because of this, we have people attending who come from very different church backgrounds. We don’t want to compromise our commitment to the historic, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also don’t want to exclude sincere followers of Christ by being overly narrow and dogmatic regarding secondary issues. We want to major in the majors, and minor in the minors. So we don’t form official church positions on non-essential doctrines unless it’s necessary for us to function together as a church body.

I deeply appreciate groups such as the Evangelical Free Church of America who strive to keep their association open to “believers only, but all believers.” Within this fellowship of churches you can find congregations that have differing views on predestination, eternal security, speaking in tongues, the rapture, baptism, etc. It’s not that they view these issues as unimportant; they study and discuss these scriptural teachings often and in depth. But they don’t see these as essential issues over which Christians should divide, nor do they refuse to fellowship with believers of differing views.

We too strive to be as open as we can. Everyone is welcome to attend our church services, and we want any sincere follower of Christ to feel they can be part of our church family. But an individual congregation must sometimes be more definitive about these issues than an association of churches. For instance, a church may welcome Christians who believe in speaking in tongues and those who do not. But each church is going to have to decide how they will handle the issue of speaking in tongues during the church service. They don’t have the freedom to not have a clear stance. When faced with such challenges, we have resolved to not automatically fall back on any particular church tradition; we listen carefully to all traditions, but seek the clear teaching of Scripture as our supreme authority and guide.

The issue of baptism has unfortunately been a divisive one in the history of the Christian church. All church traditions believe in the importance of baptism. (Some are dogmatic about the specific mode of baptism, although our church is not. See What is baptism? for more information.) All church traditions also believe in baptizing new believers in Christ. On this, there is no debate. But some churches baptize infants, and some do not. From time to time, we’re asked, “Will you baptize our baby?” When we explain that, no, we don’t baptize infants, but that we can have a special time when the parents and church dedicate themselves to the care and growth of the child, occasionally the response is a confused, “Why don’t you baptize infants?”

The purpose of this post is not to criticize churches who do baptize infants. It’s not to convince them they’re wrong, or to call into question those Christians who were baptized as babies. This is simply to explain why we don’t baptize infants. Why do churches such as ours not follow this long-standing church tradition?

We don’t find it taught in Scripture
There is no place in the Bible that directly teaches the baptism of infants. If the normal means of people entering the church community is to be baptized when they’re babies, it’s very surprising to see no mention at all of this in Scripture. Think about the incredibly important place the baptism of a child holds in certain church traditions, and then compare this to the silence of the Bible on the subject. Something doesn’t seem to fit, and throughout history many have questioned whether this practice comes from clear biblical teaching or from church traditions.

In the section below, I list passages describing baptism, some of which describe the baptism of whole households. Now, some assume these households would have included infants who, therefore, would have been baptized. The problem is the text doesn’t tell us this. Does every household include babies? Think about all the households around you. How many have infants? We need to be careful not to fall into circular reasoning. We can’t speculate that the households who were baptized in these passages included infants, and then try to use these passages to establish that infants were baptized!

So we don’t find any clear teaching or examples of baptizing infants in Scripture. But there’s an even more important reason why we don’t see the baptizing of babies in these passages.

Baptism always follows faith
Last week, we explored the significance of baptism in first century, Jewish culture (What is baptism?). We learned that baptism was a common way of publicly declaring one’s conversion to a new faith. Even with just this basic understanding, we see that infant baptism doesn’t fit the concept. Converting is something one must do for oneself; you can’t convert for someone else. An infant can’t convert.

Consistently in the Scriptures, the people who are baptized are the ones who believe:

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

Acts 2:41

But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized.

Acts 8:12

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. . . . Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. . . . and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Acts 16:30-34

Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized.

Acts 18:8

Now, again, all Christian traditions practice the baptizing of new believers. But what we need to see is that it’s not just that believers are baptized in Scripture, but that these are the only people we see being baptized in Scripture. Over and over again, baptism is tied to belief. So not only is this the common sense understanding of the practice from its historical context, but it’s also the consistent biblical teaching. For these reasons, we practice what is known as “believer’s baptism”—we only baptize people who can testify to their personal faith in Christ.

The church is made up of believers
The biblical teaching of believer’s baptism is closely connected with the biblical teaching of a believers’ church. The differing traditions not only have a different understanding of baptism, but of the church community. Some Christian traditions see much more continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. They feel there is little difference between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God. (To read more on the differences between these covenants, see Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament Law.)

The Old Covenant people of God included all the physical descendants of Israel. The sign of becoming part of this covenant people was circumcision. Every male infant was circumcised, and therefore became part of the covenant community. But while every physical descendant was part of the covenant community, not every Israelite was in true covenant relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people.” So we have the entire covenant people—of whom all the male children bear the sign of the covenant; but we also have a remnant, a people within a people, the true covenant believers and followers of God.

Now, we can see baptism as, in some ways, analogous to circumcision. It’s a physical sign that someone is entering the New Covenant people of God. But then some assume that the New Covenant community of God works the same way as the Old Covenant community. They believe there are large numbers of people who are part of the New Covenant community, but that only a remnant within this covenant people are truly saved—a church within the church.

The problem with this is, again, we don’t see it anywhere in Scripture. We don’t see anywhere in the Bible where the New Testament church includes unbelievers. The Old Covenant was established with a specific nation, Israel, but the New Covenant is not. Where people were physically born into the nation of Israel, we don’t find in Scripture where anyone can be physically born into the New Covenant community of God’s people. Quite the contrary, to become part of the New Covenant community of Christ requires a new spiritual birth. We can’t find in the New Testament any distinction between members of the church and members of the body of Christ. The New Covenant community of God is the church, and the church is made up only of believers.

With no animosity intended toward other sincere believers, we must conclude that this idea of infant baptism comes from a confusion of the New Covenant with the Old. It rests more on tradition than it does the clear teaching of Scripture.

It’s interesting that throughout the Old Testament (and even a few times in the New) people are distinguished as either the “circumcised” or the “uncircumcised”—meaning those who were part of the Old Covenant people of God or those who were not. Corresponding to this, church traditions that baptize infants have historically distinguished between the “baptized” (those in the covenant community) and the “unbaptized” (those who are not). But Scripture never distinguishes people as the baptized or unbaptized. Not even once. Instead, over and over again in the New Testament, people are described as either believers or unbelievers.

We see baptism as beautifully symbolizing the spiritual reality of our salvation. We also understand it to be a public declaration to everyone of our faith in God. It is a sign that one has entered the covenant community of God—the church; but one must be spiritually reborn to be part of this covenant community. This covenant community includes only those who have thus been regenerated. So baptism is only appropriate for people who place their faith in Christ and commit to following him. Baptism is for believers.

I love Keith Green’s old saying: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In a similar sense, I would say

If you baptize someone who hasn’t placed their faith in Christ,
all you have is a soggy unbeliever.

“But what if I was baptized as an infant?” Churches who baptize infants also take their children through some form of confirmation. The culmination of this process is usually a time when they stand before the congregation, publicly declaring to all their faith in Christ. For some this is merely a religious ritual, a traditional rite of passage; but for others this is deeply meaningful, a profound, public expression of faith and commitment. Some Christians eventually feel the need to be baptized because they have never truly made a personal, public declaration of their faith, while others don’t feel this need because they have made such a public declaration. “Let each be convinced in their own mind.”

Baptism is meant for those who place their faith in Christ, but is it necessary for salvation? We’ll tackle this question next week.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized? [see above]

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

What is baptism?

Easter Sunday is not far off, and our church typically has a baptism during our annual Easter festivities. This day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ is a wonderful time for a person to be baptized. “Why is that?” someone might ask. “What is baptism all about anyway?” Baptism certainly seems to be a very important practice. After all, it’s something Jesus specifically instructed us to do:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 

So we know we should be baptized out of obedience to Christ. But what exactly is baptism? There are many questions associated with this practice, so let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion.

Historical background
Though baptism is referred to many times in the New Testament, it isn’t really defined or explained in Scripture. The people back then didn’t need an explanation; it was a common practice. Every first century Jew understood its meaning, so it would be helpful for us to learn how they understood baptism.

The Greek word translated “baptize” can mean to wash, dip, immerse or dye (as in dyeing clothing). We find evidence in various ancient religions of this practice, and it seemed to include the same primary meaning regardless of the specific religious context. It was always a public declaration that a person was converting to a new faith. The Jews were very familiar with this ritual washing. To them, it was a public sign that a Gentile was converting to the Jewish faith.

If we understand what this action meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day, we get a better sense of how shocking the ministry of John the Baptist was. He called the people to “be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven [Mark 1:4].” What he was essentially requiring of them was to humble themselves just like a brand new convert, like a Gentile! They were publicly showing they were starting all over again with God, in the same way as someone just beginning in the Jewish faith.

In Acts 2, we see the gospel of the resurrected Christ powerfully declared for the first time. The words of Peter pierced the hearts of the people, and they asked him and the other apostles, “What should we do?” The answer was they were to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. This was a clear challenge for the people; they were to publicly demonstrate to all that they were placing their faith in Christ and committing themselves to follow him.

The people in the first century understood the deep significance of this action. And it still holds this important meaning for us today as well. Baptism is a way for us to publicly show everyone—our family, friends, community, church, even God—that we are placing our trust in Jesus Christ and committing our lives to him.

How are we to be baptized?
How should a person be baptized? Should we dunk, pour or sprinkle? The Greek word for baptize often means to immerse, but it can also mean to wash, dye, dip or flood. We tend to use the word somewhat technically, to refer to a specific religious practice, but the word wasn’t always used this way in biblical times. Sometimes it was even used just for washing one’s hands (Luke 11:38; Mark 7:3-4).

As we’ll see, there is striking imagery in Scripture that seems to best fit immersion. But there are some other descriptive passages that fit with other forms of baptism. For instance, in Titus 3:5-6, we read:

He washed away our sins, giving us new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.

This passage seems to support the pouring of water over a person (just as the Holy Spirit is “poured out”), and there are other passages that have similar readings. But then, Hebrews 10:22 says:

For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Verses such as this seem to indicate sprinkling.

Those who insist on baptism by immersion will often point to the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38-39, where the text specifies that they “went down into the water,” and then after baptizing “came up out of the water.” Similarly, John 3:23 clarifies that John was baptizing in a certain location “because there was plenty of water there.” These kinds of details might cause us to lean toward immersion, but they are by no means unambiguous.

It’s hard to find justification in the Scriptures for us to be dogmatic about any one form of baptism. A very early Christian writing, the Didache, taught that immersion was the normal, standard form of baptism, but that—if sufficient water was not available—pouring water over a person’s head was fine too. This seems to be a healthy approach, respectfully drawing as much as we can from Scripture without slavishly demanding one (and only one) method.

The passage that many of us find particularly compelling in pointing to immersion is Romans 6:3-4:

Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Being buried in baptism does seem to fit best with immersion. The whole immersion process beautifully illustrates this passage. As we step into the baptismal pool and declare our faith in Christ, we relinquish our old life (thus dying). Being lowered under the water is very reminiscent of being lowered under the ground in burial. And then being raised back upright fits perfectly with being raised to live a new life, as this passage in Romans describes.

But the specific method of baptism should not be our main focus. It’s not even the physical act of baptism itself that is most significant. We need to remember this:

The physical act of baptism illustrates a spiritual reality.

We are baptized out of obedience to Christ, and to publicly declare to everyone our faith in him. In baptism, we demonstrate that our allegiance has changed, our citizenship has been transferred. We now belong to the Kingdom of God. The physical act of being baptized in water illustrates how we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, thus making us one with Christ and one with his body, the church. The physical water washing over our body illustrates the spiritual reality that we have been washed by the Spirit of God, cleansed of our sin.

As the passage above from Romans shows us, in baptism we identify our old lives as dead and buried with Christ, and our new lives as being lived through the power of Christ’s resurrection. These spiritual truths are the profound meaning revealed in the physical act of baptism. And this direct connection of baptism with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is why Easter is a perfect time for a Christian to be baptized.

[We’ve looked at what baptism is, how it’s done and what it means. So who should be baptized? We’ll explore this question next week.]

Baptism series:

What is baptism? [see above]

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?