Some believe that salvation occurs, not when we believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but when immersed in water. Granted, many of the early church fathers did embrace baptismal regeneration. Even though we cherish their teachings, they were fallible…some taught that the Holy Spirit was a created being, the salvation of all (including Satan), infant baptism, purgatory, and so on; therefore, we must look at what the scriptures say.
The theme throughout the New Testament is clear: Only believers are baptized. If baptism was the final saving mechanism then we’d be guilty of baptizing unbelievers. But the Bible is clear that faith in Christ alone saves. Romans 10:9 states, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The famous passage, John 3:16, is clear here as well—“whosoever believes will be saved.”
Granted, I appreciate the heart of those desiring to honor Jesus’ command to be baptized, but we need to review a few misunderstood passages:
1. Acts 2:38, “Peter said, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…’.” Repentance is the key to remission (forgiveness), not baptism. Baptism identifies the believer with Christ much in the same way that circumcision identified the relationship that God had with the Old Testament saints. Circumcision did not save; believing did: “Abraham believed in the Lord, and God counted it to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3). Baptism does not save; it reflects what has already been done in the heart.
The Jews knew of John’s baptism and the baptism of the Gentiles into Judaism, but not necessarily baptism in the name of Jesus. Peter was clarifying that there is a distinct difference, “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” To be baptized “in the name of Jesus” was a radical step. Unlike today in America, it often resulted in the loss of family, association, and employment. A person who was baptized was serious about their conversion. They truly understood Jesus’ words, “But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
2. Another misunderstanding is found in 1 Peter 3:21, “There is also an anti-type which now saves us—Baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God)…” The “good conscience toward God” signifies that we have turned from our sins and have turned to God. John MacArthur adds, “Peter is not at all referring to water baptism here, but rather a figurative immersion into union with Christ as an ark of safety from the judgment of God.”
Again, I’m in no way minimizing baptism; Jesus Himself instituted this important ordinance (Matthew 28:19). We are baptized because we believe. If the Bible taught baptismal regeneration I would embrace it, but this teaching minimize the sufficiency of Christ’s death, it devalues the call to repentance by suggesting that repentance is not enough, and it lowers God’s redeeming work by adding “our” work. Instead of stating what Christ has done, salvation is link to what “we” did (got baptized).
Think this through: Is the cross enough? Is Jesus’ sacrificial death enough? The answers is either “yes” or “no.” Baptismal regeneration says “no,” albeit subtly. Please don’t misunderstand, my heart is not to spark an argument, its to give Christ His rightful place in salvation. Christ plus baptism equals salvation is a dangerous formula. If baptism is vital for salvation why did Paul say, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…”
Additionally, where does our desire for baptism come from since unbelievers don’t desire it? It comes from a right relationship with God “after” conversion.
3. Another misunderstood passage is Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Here Jesus links damnation with unbelief, not baptism. The word “believe” appears in the Book of John 43 times, with hardly a mention of baptism. If both were required for salvation both would be mentioned consistently and uniformly.
Additionally, Matthew 11:20 says, “Then [Jesus] began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done because they did not repent.” And Luke 13:3 confirms, “I tell you…unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Repentance (turning from sin and turning to God) is the key. Just ask anyone who has truly experienced God’s redeeming work—they are filled with God’s Spirit and love His word even before being baptized…these are not characteristics of unbelievers.
Another misunderstood passage is Acts 22:16. Paul was instructed to “be baptized, and wash away [his] sins, calling on the name of the Lord,” it was his repenting and “calling on the Lord” that washed away his sins, not immersion in water. Why did Peter neglect to mention baptism if it was essential to salvation when he said, “Repent, therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).
What about the thief on the cross; he wasn’t baptized? What if a person turns to God minutes before a devastating car crash, or as they lay on their deathbed, or seconds before a plane crash? Are they lost eternally? Of course not. Recall Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” His finished work on the cross, was, and is sufficient.