My friend has argued that needing to be baptized with water to receive salvation is a false doctrine. Her argument is based on the idea that the baptism Jesus established is entirely spiritual- a baptism of the Holy Spirit- and baptism with water is only a “work” one does out of obedience after one is saved. She cites Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, and Luke 3:16, as proof of her position and Acts 1:5 as the moment Jesus transitions water baptism to spiritual baptism. How should these verses be understood? Is there any validity to her argument? Thank you for your insight.
It seems to me that your friend is confused. If her argument is that baptism is “entirely spiritual”, then it could not be a work almost by definition. So, she should either state that baptism is entirely spiritual, in which case water baptism is simply not even a Christian teaching or act at all, or she should abandon her statement that baptism is entirely spiritual, admit that water baptism is an act which is taught and practiced in Christianity, but then argue that it is not for salvation because it is a work.
The first contention is rather easily disproved as we have plenty of examples of people actually being physically baptized. For example, in Acts 2:38-41 we have an account of 3000 “being baptized” that very day. If this baptism was entirely spiritual–an non-visible thing, then this account does not really make sense. Beside, there is the fact that we know John baptized people by going down into water and baptizing them. Also, there is Acts 8 in which the Ethiopian Eunuch went down into the water with Phillip and was baptized in that water. Add to this the historical fact that the early church practiced immersion baptism, as is testified to by multiple sources, including the Didache, a writing of the very late first century. The idea that baptism is “entirely spiritual” is completely insupportable from biblical and historical sources. There is not a single example in any early Christian writing of anyone saying that baptism is “entirely spiritual.” This claim is dismissed rather easily. Now, it is true that the apostles were “baptized in the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit fell on them and they began to speak in tongues. This is what Matt 3:11 and Mark 1:8 are referring to. However, the fact remains that those who were baptized in Acts 2, in Acts 8 and several other examples were very clearly immersed in water. No early Christian writer would agree with this bogus idea that baptism is “purely spiritual” and that immersion baptism is not part of Christianity.
The second claim deserves more attention. This claim, although you do not fully describe it above, is that Christian baptism is indeed immersion in water, but that the act of baptism, although in fact commanded in the Bible is not related to one’s salvation. The typical statement in this regard is that baptism is merely a symbol of what has already occurred when a person “prays Jesus into their heart.” It is sometimes called “an outward expression of an inward faith.” It is helpful to note that there is not a single Christian writer before Ulrich Zwingli in the sixteenth century who stated this doctrine. In other words, if this doctrine that baptism does nothing with regard to our salvation, then all Christian writers for 1500 years were completely wrong about the meaning of baptism, including the New Testament writers, who clearly taught that salvation occurred at baptism. For example there is Acts 2:38-41 in which people are told that they should repent and be baptized in order to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Also, there is the statement of Ananias to Paul in Acts 22:16 that he should “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away.” If sins are not washed away at baptism, then why would Ananias tell Paul that they are, unless he was wrong, in which case it would not be in the Bible?
This goes back to the doctrine of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli in the Protestant Reformation in which they taught salvation by “faith alone.” In other words, they taught that our salvation is entirely based on God choosing us and that we have absolutely no part to play whatsoever in our salvation. It is not us who choose to follow God. It is not us who repent, but instead it is God who forces us to believe, to repent and therefore to be saved. Never mind that this kind of predestination is the worst kind of false doctrine, in any case, baptism is not a work. Belief in God and in the gospel is something we do. In John 6:29 Jesus said that the thing we must “do” in order to be saved is to believe in Him. In other words, Jesus himself declared belief a work. The claim is that no work on our part can be related to our salvation, but Jesus himself said that belief is a work. Repentance is obviously also something we do as well. Therefore, by definition, repentance is a work, and it is necessary in order for us to be saved. The one aspect of salvation which certainly is not a work is baptism! This is where your friend’s argument falls apart.
Baptism is not a work because it is something done to us. Even the grammar tells us this. Repent and be baptized. In this case, repent is in the active voice, but be baptized is in the passive voice. Baptism is not something we do. It is something done to us. This is literally true. It is interesting to note that the Jews baptized themselves. I was in Israel just this Fall and saw Jewish baptisms, in which they immersed themselves. Right next door were Christian baptisms. Of course, these baptisms were done to the people by someone else. It is no accident that the Church changed baptism from something we do to something done to us, because God wanted the act that occurs at the point of our salvation be something done to us. Besides, in Colossians 2:11-12 we are told that baptism is a spiritual sort of circumcision, not performed by human hands–that in baptism it is God working, not human beings. It is a work of God, not of people.
This idea that baptism is a work is just plain false. Besides, the teaching that salvation is by “faith alone,” that our decision to believe, obey and repent is done to us, rather than us choosing to trust God is false doctrine. It makes God the one who decides that we go to hell or to heaven. It means that there is no free will. This is a terrible false doctrine which makes God the author of evil as well as of good. This is not the God of the Bible who calls to choose who we will serve.
Baptism in and of itself does not save us, obviously, but our baptism is the point in time of our salvation. No teaching in the New Testament is more clear than this.