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]