Editor’s Note: This response comes from Kedron Jones, a member of the board of Apologetics Research Society
Thanks for following up about my baptism issue I brought up. Basically it was an article on the question as to whether “baptism” is necessary to be saved/go to heaven? The article went through many scriptures and concluded that baptism is not necessary. I have been a Christian for 16 years and never had doubt or question on this doctrinal issue so I am in pursuit of solidifying my conviction. When I google this topic there are so many different studies that go either way. On one hand there is a school of thought that says you cannot be saved by works and baptism is an act. But if it’s a symbol then how do you ever get baptized and is it required or optional? I just wanted to get your feedback from an apologetics/church of Christ perspective. I want to be able to write a persuasive article with scriptures that counters the notion baptism is just a symbol. I know this will require further study and cross referencing scriptures. Thanks!
Thanks for sending us your question on baptism. When discussing the doctrine of baptism, it can be an emotional issue for some for the following reasons: 1) Most people do not understand the doctrine and think we are preaching salvation by works (i.e., they think we’re preaching false doctrine) instead of salvation by grace and 2) Since the implication is that if one has not been baptized then one is not saved, many become offended at the thought that their loved one who perhaps was/is religious or “good” but never baptized (e.g., a grandmother who taught you about the Bible) would go to hell, they see it as unfair and conclude that baptism must not have anything to do with salvation.
My encouragement when discussing baptism is always be prepared to answer (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:6) those who have questions by studying God’s word, studying other resources (books, videos and etc.) and learning how to answer questions/objections in a winsome way.
In my experience, if you start by educating people on the doctrine of baptism by refuting many common misconceptions and talk about what you DON’T believe I find that it clears the “debris” so you can actually have a good civil conversation. I tend to start with the following scripture (especially with the religious) to show that we have common ground.
Saved By Grace Through Faith:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).”
A few items of interest when reading this scripture:
- “For it is by grace you have been saved.” The basis of our salvation is the grace of God, without God giving us grace (e.g., through Jesus dying for our sins on the cross) salvation could never be obtained by anyone. Notice we are saved BY grace (the basis of salvation) and NOT BY faith (the MEANS of salvation). Salvation is not merited; it cannot be earned or deserved.
- “through faith- and this is not from yourselves.” Faith is the SOLE MEANS by which justification is received. Here “means” refers to the entry point through which justification enters one’s life. We are saved “through” (or by means of) faith (Ephesians 2:8). This is the Bible’s clear and consistent teaching. Faith is the only instrument by which justification is received.
- The problem with most, in addition to not understanding the doctrine of baptism, is that it is typically assumed that since faith is the SOLE MEANS of salvation that it must also be the SOLE CONDITION for salvation. But this isn’t true (as we will further see).
What We Don’t Believe About Baptism:
- That there is something magical in the water to save an individual.
- That baptism ALONE saves.
- That Christian baptism is the New Testament version of Old Testament Circumcision (which is another study all on its own).
- That baptism is a work (of the law or merit).
Conditions for Salvation:
In addition to needing God’s grace and faith in Him for salvation, He has placed the following conditions (not to be taken as exhaustive) on us if we want to be in a saving relationship:
- Repentance (Acts 2:38; 11:18)
- Confession (Romans 10:9; 1 John 4:2)
- Baptism (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21)
Notice something, about these conditions, none of them MAKE US RIGHTEOUS (only Christ does); but we must have faith, repent, confess and baptism so CHRIST WILL MAKE US RIGHTEOUS. The only saving power is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation isn’t an either/or (e.g., either faith or baptism) it’s a both/and (e.g., one needs to have faith, repentance, confession and baptism).
Baptism is simply the time or occasion when God bestows salvation upon the one being baptized (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21). Grace, faith, repentance, confession and baptism each has its own role in the plan of our salvation.
While corresponding with Dr. Jack Cottrell, the author of Baptism: A Biblical Study, he had this to say about Christian Apologist Matt Slick’s article, “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation.” I believe you may have been referring to his article (if not his arguments are very typical of many Protestants): “First, he begins with the framework of Zwinglian covenant theology, the new approach Zwingli created in 1523-1525 in order to provide a new rationale for infant (and also adult) baptism. In this theological system, the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12 is the same covenant we are under today (the key error of this system). Also in this system, baptism is simply the replacement for circumcision, and thus shares the meaning of OT circumcision: It is a sign that a person already belongs to the covenant. Thus the meaning of baptism is settled before even examining the relevant NT texts. Secondly, Slick then preaches the common “sola fidei” (i.e., Faith Alone) doctrine, which as interpreted by Zwingli and most Protestants is taken to mean that faith is not only the sole MEANS for salvation, but is also the sole CONDITION for receiving salvation. The idea of means is equated with the idea of condition. This implies that salvation is then present as soon as faith is present. This ignores the fact that there can be other conditions besides means, such as time or occasion. Third, then Slick gives a cursory survey of the NT texts that do in fact assign a saving significance to baptism, but he has already eliminated this possibility in points one and two. So by necessity he must find some other way to interpret these texts. I prefer my own exegesis, found in my book, ‘Baptism: A Biblical Study,’ where I give a thorough exegesis of 12 NT texts on baptism.”
Dr. Cottrell also wrote a great in-depth article on his second point that I would encourage you to read entitled, “The Tyranny of the Paradigm.” If we do our best to avoid making bad assumptions about the Bible, theology and the doctrine of baptism we will correctly interpret scripture in light of the truth. Like Matt Slick many individuals make the same bad assumptions, especially when it comes to baptism.
Are We Saved By Faith Alone?
Someone at this point may say “What about passages which use faith in regard to salvation and don’t mention baptism?” Sometimes the Bible uses “packaged words” (called a synecdoche according to linguists). For example, the word “faith (belief)” is sometimes used as a packaged word: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever BELIVES in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John. 3:16). Notice that the scripture does not teach that a sinner needs to repent or confess either. However the word “believes” includes everything involved in the salvation process (faith, repentance, confession and baptism). Consider the following:
- Other scriptures in which faith is used as a packaged word (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 5:1-2;1 John. 5:1, 5, 10-13)
- Scriptures in which faith is not used as a packaged word (John. 12:42-43; James. 2:17-26).
- Repentance as a packaged word (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; 2 Peter 3:9).
- Confession used as a packaged word (Hebrews. 3:1; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 8:37).
- Confession not used as a packaged word (John. 9:22; Philippians. 2:11).
- Baptism used as a packaged word (1 Pet. 3:21; Mark 16:16).
- Some verses in which “baptism” is NOT used as a package word are: Acts 2:38; 8:38
- Baptism is the last step of the process of coming to Christ and salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27).
Packaged words are helpful tools of language to prevent any awkwardness by communicating every part of every process. Remember that the word “faith” (the Greek word pestuo) is not merely intellectual belief, it means to trust with all your might; to rely upon with all your heart; to depend upon with your very life; and to receive fully everything that is offered. This is why true saving faith includes doing all of what God requires from us (faith, repentance, confession and baptism). We are not saved by faith alone (the Bible never mentions this), we are saved by obeying God, putting our faith in him, repenting of our sins and by being baptized. Read all of Hebrews 11 to grasp a better understanding of faith (it is always put in action). Nowhere does the Bible say are saved by faith alone.
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
There is a lot that can be said to defend baptism being the occasion when a sinner receives the “double cure” (i.e., forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit) of salvation but I will bullet point a few thoughts:
- When Peter said, “Repent and be baptized” the Greek word “kai (and)” unites both words “Repent and baptism” meaning that a person has to do both in order to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- The statement “be baptized FOR (the Greek word “eis”) the forgiveness of sins” tells us that baptism is part of the plan of salvation. The word “eis” has been a very controversial word because many mistakenly think the word “eis” can mean “because of” so if people are baptized “because of the forgiveness of sins” it appears that people are being baptized in Acts 2:38 because their sins were already forgiven (at what point who knows). However, the Greek word “eis” isn’t as flexible as the English word “for” according to many standard Greek lexicons. “Eis” is “defined as expressing ‘purpose,’ with the sense of ‘in order to,’ rendered the same phrase: ‘for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven.’” So basically Acts 2:38 is saying that people are baptized “in order to obtain” forgiveness of sins. If Luke wanted to truly say “because of” he could have used any of the following Greek prepositions “dia (by, because),” “epi (upon),” “henaka (for the sake),” “Karin (for this cause, for cause of), or “dioti (because that).”
- The individual you mentioned who said that people didn’t get baptized to be saved doesn’t make sense. If God forgives you of your sins then by definition you are saved. Remember that Peter even told the crowd to, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” and those who did save themselves repented and got baptized. One cannot argue that they were saved when they were “cut in the heart (Acts 2:37)” because after their statement, “brothers what shall we do (Acts 2:37),” Peter tells them in verse 38 (“Repent and be baptized”). Why would Peter say, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” if they were already saved?
- Acts 2:38 as well as Romans 6:3-4 clarify the meaning and purpose of baptism. It is not a work of the law which Paul preached against, it is a work of God’s righteousness. We are totally passive when it comes to receiving the Spirit and forgiveness of sins. It is something God alone does for us. God’s part was providing us with a way out of His wrath by the death of Jesus (grace). Our part is to have true saving faith (which includes being obedient to God and meeting all requirements He demands of us such as repentance, confession and baptism).
Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
In light of what has been said, if you study Christian history, especially the early Church Fathers who were either disciples of the Apostles or a disciple of a disciple of an Apostle, they all held the same conviction that true faith includes being baptized. Baptism was seen as a work of faith (not a work of merit). Consider the following quotes (these should not be treated as authoritative as scripture, but they do give us some of the best insight on what the Apostles taught):
- 110-165AD Justin Martyr: “There, the one who refuses to be baptized is to be condemned as an unbeliever, partially on the basis of what Jesus told Nicodemus…. “He that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever, and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. For the Lord says: ‘Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ And again: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved but he that believeth not shall be damned.'” (Justin Martyr “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, pg. 456-457.)
- 140-230 AD Tertullian: “The prescript is laid down that ‘without baptism, salvation is attainable by none’ chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, ‘Unless one be born of water, he hath not life.'” (On Baptism, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, pg. 674-675)
- 120-205 Irenaeus: “This class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole faith.” (Against Heresies, bk. 1, chap. 21, sec. 1, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 345.)
- 150-200 AD CLEMENT “Now God has ordered everyone who worships Him to be sealed by baptism; but if you refuse, and obey your own will rather than God’s, you are doubtless contrary and hostile to His will. But you will perhaps say, ‘What does the baptism of water contribute towards the worship of God?’ In the first place, because that which hath pleased God is fulfilled. In the second place, because, when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so at length you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus hath the true prophet testified to us with an oath: ‘Verily I say to you, That unless a man is born again of water, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Therefore make haste; for there is in these waters a certain power of mercy which was borne upon them at the beginning, and acknowledges those who are baptized under the name of the threefold sacrament, and rescues them from future punishments, presenting as a gift to God the souls that are consecrated by baptism. Betake yourselves therefore to these waters, for they alone can quench the violence of the future fire; and he who delays to approach to them, it is evident that the idol of unbelief remains in him, and by it he is prevented from hastening to the waters which confer salvation.” (Clement, “Recognitions of Clement,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, pg. 155)
These are only a few quotes but based on the Bible and Christian history it is clear that baptism is connected with salvation (i.e., it’s necessary for salvation).
Exceptions to the “Rule?”
Since God does make exceptions to the rule (Because He is God and not bound by baptism), I believe there are four categories of people who will be saved without Christian baptism:
- “In the Day of Judgement, God will not hold anyone accountable for a RULE (law) IF he was UNABLE to KNOW it (see Romans 4:15). But once anyone knows the rule (i.e., the true Biblical teaching on baptism), he becomes accountable for following it, believing it, and teaching it.” Basically God will judge them according to their conscientious response to the available light received.
- The same rule applies to those who desire and intend to be baptized but it is physically impossible through no fault of their own (e.g., a person is on his way to get baptized and is somehow killed before his/her baptism). Throughout Christian history such people were regarded as having been baptized with the “baptism of desire.”
- Infants, or those who have not reached the age of accountability (I think people who are severally developmentally delayed fall into this category).
- Old Testament saints or all believers of God prior to the Day of Pentecost.
One must understand that, as one person stated, “Pointing at exceptional cases doesn’t nullify the general rule.” Just because God makes exceptions doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t necessary. Baptism is “necessary” in a NORMATIVE SENSE, meaning that under “normal circumstance” (i.e., that water baptism is physically possible), we must be baptized; it is not “necessary” in an ABSOLUTE SENSE (like faith and repentance) meaning that God will never make an exception.
Dr. Cottrell again helps us to understand this concept when he states:
“In this connection we must be careful to guard against an error that is quite common within Protestantism, namely, a glossing over of the distinction between absolute and relative necessity as it refers to baptism. It is common practice to cite a situation in which water baptism for a believer is impossible (e.g., lost in a desert) and to conclude from such that baptism has NO necessary connection with salvation at all. That is to say, an example that proves at most that baptism is not ABSOLUTELY necessary is used to prove that it is not necessary even under ORDINARY [normal] circumstances. This is a non sequitur: it does not follow. In any normal situation where water baptism is at all possible, it is a condition for salvation: ‘He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved’ (Mark 16:16).”
Second, “normal circumstances” means that the sincere believer has had a genuine opportunity to understand the true Biblical teaching about baptism and has conscientiously acted upon that knowledge. The problem here is that there is so much false doctrine about baptism that is innocently accepted as truth (e.g., sprinkling instead of immersion) that many sincere believers THINK they have “done the right thing” with baptism when in fact they have not. Even though these folks cannot be accepted now as members of the body of Christ (since we finite beings cannot know their hearts), it is possible that they may finally be saved anyway, as I have explained in my book, “The Faith Once for All,” p. 373:
“In the final judgment we can expect God to judge all persons who have received baptism improperly in the same way that he will judge everyone else, namely, in accordance with their CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT. No one will be condemned for failing to meet some particular requirement as long as he is conscientiously responding to whatever light is available to him (see Rom 4:15). It is obvious that human traditions have seriously distorted and limited the light of Scripture concerning baptism, and many sincere people have responded in good conscience to what light they have. For this reason we may hope to see such people in heaven.”
“This last point does not permit us to give anyone false assurance about his present state of salvation, however; nor does it give us the right to change the clear teaching of Scripture on believers’ immersion for salvation. The ‘available light’ principle applies only to future judgment, and it can be applied only by the omniscient God. For us today, as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, we must continue to believe and proclaim the clear Biblical teaching about baptism without cowardice and without compromise.”
I hope all of this helps to clarify the doctrine of baptism in a nutshell. Below are good beginning resources for further study (again, not to be taken as exhaustive). If you have additional questions or want additional resources feel free to email us.
Baptism: A Biblical Study, by Jack Cottrell
Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, by David Bercot
Born of Water: What the Bible Really Says About Baptism, Rex Geissler