I am studying with someone who believes that we are saved by faith alone, and that baptism is just an outward sign to people but he does not see it as a saving act. What would be some scriptures that make clear that baptism is essential for salvation, and what do you think would be a good approach to explaining the scriptures?
To be honest, I do not think simply listing competing scriptures to a person who believes in “faith only” salvation will generally be sufficient with such people. They have their own competing scriptures which they have always interpreted in a certain way which will make it difficult for them to view the passages which, to me, very clearly teach the necessity of baptism. This is because they have generally been trained to think in a certain way and to view the Bible through a certain lens for a long time before we ever engage in this discussion. For this reason, you will need to provide reasons for people with this belief to reconsider their presuppositions.
Let me list the scriptures I would use to answer your question, but then also at least briefly address the larger question. Passages which seem to point rather strongly to the fact that salvation occurs at the moment of baptism:
Acts 22:6-18 esp. v. 16
1 Cor 12:13
I would say that there is no indication in the Bible of the point in time of anyone being saved (ie receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins) except at baptism. There is no passage of scripture, for example, which indicates that we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit and forgiveness when we believe. We are baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:26-27) we do not believe into Christ.
The problem is that people have been trained from their spiritual youth on two false assumptions:
- We are totally depraved, and completely unable to respond to God for salvation. Therefore, not only are we not saved by works (which all of us agree with) but no work we do can have any conceivable connection with our salvation.
- Baptism is a work done by us which would fall into the category described in point 1. above.
This Calvinistic presupposition of total depravity and predestination is something which needs to be addressed. The presupposition is that God causes us believe, that God causes us to repent and that God does all the work in our salvation. On balance, this is simply not supportable in the Bible, but it is the lens through which people tend to read the Bible if they were spiritually raised in an evangelical church. In most cases (and there will be exceptions) you will need to help a person to understand the false underpinnings of total depravity which denies our free will. A historical perspective on this doctrine and how it arose will be helpful as well. A power point on this at my web site may be helpful. https://evidenceforchristianity.org/preservation-and-predestination/
What is interesting is the fact that baptism itself is certainly not a work done by human beings. The very word construction in the Greek makes this clear. Baptism is something done to us, not something we do. Consider the phrase “repent and be baptized” in Acts 2:38. Repent is something we are called to do in order to be saved, but “be baptized” is in the passive voice and it is literally something done to us. We do not baptize ourselves, and, by definition, it is not a work, so the objection to baptism as a work for salvation is ironic. Colossians 2:9-12 makes it absolutely clear that baptism is a work done by God, not by man. Besides, Jesus himself was asked the question, what work we must do to be saved. The typical evangelical would respond: “Nothing. We are save by faith alone.” Well, this is not what Jesus said. In John 6:29 Jesus responded to this question by saying “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” This, too is ironic in view of the common false doctrine of salvation by “faith alone.” The one thing that these folks do agree is required on our part is to believe the message (with the proviso that belief is a gift of God and not something we do), yet they claim no work is required. Jesus says that believing is, at least in a sense, a work. This is true, of course because believing in Jesus and putting our trust in him is something we do. It is not done to us, as baptism is done to us.
This is a very short analysis of the question you raised. My suggestion for deeper study is to read the book “Troubling Questions for Calvinists” by F. Legard Smith. I find a few copies available on amazon.com If you are really fortunate, your friend might be willing to look at the power point I referenced above and, even better, at LeGard Smith’s book. If he/she will do so, then the baptism scriptures above may come into clearer perspective.