I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe that baptism is so much more than a symbol of our faith, and that it is an actual participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. However I have family/friends that believe they may pray Jesus into their heart. I read your explanation on baptism and greatly appreciate the clarity. I do have a question that I hope you will be able to make clear. What is your take on John 14:13,14? If a person asks for the Holy Spirit will God not deliver? Obviously I believe that God keeps his promises, so is it possible at this point he would lead the believer to baptism? If so does a person have to completely understand what baptism is in order to receive the Spirit? Is there biblical answers to these questions, that I am missing? So is it possible that since many of these church leaders are in fact, teaching baptism as a mere symbol that these believers could still posses the Holy Spirit and learn the importance of baptism later in their walk?
You ask a very good question. I am afraid that John 14:13-14 is not particularly helpful toward answering your question, however. Such passages ought not to be taken out of context. Other passages on God’s answer to our prayers ought to be consulted. For example, it is true that Jesus said "whatever you ask in my name, I will do it." (Jn 14:14). However, the scripture also says in James 4:1-3 that ask but do not have because we ask with wrong motives. Also, 1 John 5:14-15 says that if we ask according to his will, we will have what we ask of him. The Bible does not promise that if we ask God to do things which break his promises we will receive what we ask. We should not use John 14:14 as a proof-text that if we simply ask for salvation that we will have it, when the Bible clearly teaches something different. This is an abuse of the text.
I can see from your comments that you already understand the biblical teaching that salvation/forgiveness of sins and the granting of the Holy Spirit is received after repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38, for example). You ask the next logical question. What if a person has accepted the message of Jesus, has become a disciple–making Jesus Lord of his or her life, has repented of his or her sins and then been baptized, as commanded by God, but at the time of his or her baptism was not aware that this is the point in time of salvation? If a person is not taught correctly on the point in time of salvation, yet does all God asked us to do in order to be saved, will the lack of clear understanding of the purpose of baptism cause that person to not be saved? My answer is that I am not absolutely sure, but I tend to think that a full, heart-felt faith and obedience to the commands ought to be sufficient, even if we do not understand every fine point of doctrine.
This takes us back to the pray-Jesus-into-your-heart doctrine. Obviously, this is not a biblical teaching. No one is saved by saying some prayer. We participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism, not through some sort human "work" such as a prayer. Let us never even consider compromising on this absolutely essential doctrine. Salvation is not gained by a prayer. Those who pray Jesus into their heart (supposedly), but who never make him Lord, do not repent and then get baptized in water are not saved. Period. However, we might need to consider the possibility that people who were not taught this doctrine, yet who have fully obeyed the biblical commands may be saved.
What should we do about this? We should continue to teach people biblically the doctrine of salvation. I assume that you would never baptize a person who had not repented and made Jesus Lord. I assume that you would not consider someone saved who has not been baptized for forgiveness of sins. The only issue which arises is when a person comes to us to be a member of our church who was taught incorrectly in the past, yet was baptized after repentance and confession. Can they place "membership" in our church? I say that this should be handled on a case-by-case basis. In addition, we should not accept as members those who do not agree with the biblical doctrine on when people are saved. However, I do not believe we ought to demand that such people be "rebaptized." If they will accept the clear biblical doctrine of baptism and have obeyed the command, then they ought to be considered a Christian, and can be a member of the local church.