Some believe that salvation occurs, not when we confess Jesus as Lord, but when immersed in water. They believe that the dead condition of the church is because of failure to embrace baptismal regeneration. In reality, its because so few actually turn to Jesus; baptism isn’t the answer–genuine repentance is: “Repent, therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out…” (Acts 3:19).
Granted, many of the early church fathers did embrace baptismal regeneration. Even though we cherish some of 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, not the church fathers.
The theme throughout the New Testament is clear: 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.”
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).
Is it the moving of our lips when we confess Jesus as Lord that secures redemption, or is it the condition of the heart? It’s the heart. In the same way, 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, 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 I 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 should desire it. 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: Where does our desire for baptism come from? It comes from a right relationship with God “after” conversion. If baptism indeed saved, then unbelievers are baptized (since they are not saved until “after” immersion). But scripture proclaims just the opposite–baptism follows, not proceeds 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.
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.” Revelations 2:21 adds, “And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality and she did not repent.” And Luke 13:3 confirms, “I tell you…unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Repentance is the key. Just ask anyone who has truly experienced God’s redeeming work.
In Acts 22:16, when 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 (Acts 2:21).
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….” Why did Paul say, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (I Corinthians 1:17) if baptims was the means to salvation?
What if a person turns to God minutes before a devastating car crash, or as they lay on their death bed, 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.