Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

How would Nicodemus have understood Jesus words?

Is baptism necessary for salvation? Is it necessary to be water baptized after one’s profession of faith before one can receive the gift of forgiveness and new life through regeneration? Or is baptism a proper act of obedience after one is saved? In the first case, the order would be faith, then baptism, resulting in salvation. In the second case, the order would be faith, resulting in salvation, followed by baptism.

Let’s take a moment to consider the texts. There are a number of different kinds of baptism in the New Testament. One kind of baptism is water baptism. Some Christians use Jesus’ comments in the Gospel of John as a proof text, teaching that water baptism is necessary for salvation as a Christian.

Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Or, it might alternately be translated, “Unless you were born of water, even the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (The word “and” is the Greek word kai, and can be translated either “and” or “even.” You can see right there that if it’s translated “even,” it casts a whole different light on the issue.)

Note that the text doesn’t say actually “water baptism” here. It says “born of water.” If Jesus meant that water baptism is an absolute, indispensable element for salvation, then it strikes me as odd He wasn’t more specific here.

There’s another problem. One must always interpret any reference in the Scriptures ( in this case, a reference to baptism) in light of the context in which it was written and the audience being spoken to.

Let’s presume for the sake of discussion that in this passage Jesus actually meant that water baptism is necessary for salvation. Who is Jesus speaking to in John 3? Nicodemus. Does Nicodemus have the foggiest idea what Christian water baptism is about? Not at all. The concept of Christian baptism is not introduced until the book of Acts. The only baptism Nicodemus could have known about was either the ritual washings of the Jews or the baptism of John the Baptist. However, Jesus says in the next few lines (v10), “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” Jesus chastises Nicodemus because he doesn’t understand something fundamental that he ought to have understood. This couldn’t be Christian water baptism. It must be something else.

So there are two immediate problems with reading a water baptism requirement into these verses. First, it’s a possible interpretation, given the words, but it isn’t explicitly taught here. There’s an unavoidable step of interpretation leaving more room for error. Though this may be a correct interpretation, it ought to cause us to be less dogmatic. Second, this interpretation seems unjustified because, according to Jesus, Nicodemus ought to understand what He’s talking about. Yet Nicodemus couldn’t understand about Christian baptism because it wasn’t instituted for at least another three years.

For these two reasons John 3 is not a good proof text for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Acts 2:38 would be a better example, where Peter says, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

One thing you might want to do in a case like this is to go to your Bible concordance and look up “baptize” or “baptism” or “baptized,” passages that would speak to this issue. Then write the verses out on 3x5 cards and look at them. You’ll be able to isolate all the verses which talk about this idea. Make one pile that has to do with the baptism of John. Make another pile with verses that have to do with the baptism of trial (e.g. Jesus says in Mark 10:38 “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”)—a different kind of baptism of pain and suffering that Jesus spoke about. Then there would be another pile about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, etc. (I’ve included a list of all the verses on Christian water baptism at the end of this piece.)

This allows you to construct a balanced teaching on the issue, drawing instruction from the full counsel of God on the subject. You can see the full range of teaching in the New Testament on baptism, and you can watch how the teaching takes form.

This is the way to do systematic study on a doctrine or topic. You take all the teachings and verses pertaining to a particular issue and see what they say. You then begin drawing conclusions from that broad base of research, so you don’t miss anything. When you study this way, it becomes clear that baptism—Christian baptism—is not exalted in the Scripture as a necessary element of salvation. In fact, it’s rarely even mentioned.

The book of Acts gives us a very important lesson on this issue. Before we go there, though, we need to quickly consider two texts to set the stage. First, Paul says in Romans 8:9 “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” According to Paul, if you don’t have the Spirit, you’re not a Christian. Second, Ephesians makes it clear that we receive the Spirit when we believe: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13).

We learn from these references that you must possess the Holy Spirit before you can be a Christian, and we possess the Spirit when we believe. That’s very clear. It’s not ambiguous.

With this as a foundation, we go to Acts 10 where Peter is preaching to Gentiles who are non-Christians. In the midst of his preaching, they suddenly begin to speak in tongues and to prophesy.

Why is this significant? It’s a sign to Peter, who understands that the external manifestation of spiritual power shows that these Gentiles have the Spirit inside of them. We just learned from Romans and Ephesians that they can only have the Spirit if they have believed and are now part of God’s family.

What apparently happened is that, because Peter is preaching and the “fruit” is so ripe, these Gentiles begin believing in their hearts and get transformed and regenerated right then and there. The Holy Spirit enters them and they start evidencing the Holy Spirit in their lives by manifestations of spiritual gifts.

This is a critical passage in the question of baptismal regeneration. Here we have saved people who obviously have the Holy Spirit, evidenced by the manifestations that Peter himself sees. Note the details here in Acts 10: 44–48:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Peter is saying that these people were now Christians just like he and his companions. But guess what? They haven’t gotten wet yet! Baptism comes later. Peter says because they’ve already received the Spirit, they can now be baptized.

The Acts 10 passage seems completely inflexible in its meaning. The sequence of events leaves no question, it seems, that the order is faith/regeneration/baptism (though I’m open to suggestions).

The idea that regeneration follows faith, not baptism, is reaffirmed in Acts 11:17–18 where Paul says:

“If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

Notice there is no mention of baptism here, only the salient details of regeneration: repentance, faith, and salvation. By all appearances, Acts 10 is univocal. Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.

With this truth in place, let’s go back to Acts 2:38. At the end of his sermon, Peter says to the crowd, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Those who teach baptismal regeneration say this verse means you repent and are baptized, and that brings about the forgiveness of your sins—an understandable interpretation given the translation. The problem with this view, though, is that it creates a contradiction later in Acts. In the case of Cornelius (Acts 10), his household didn’t get baptized in order to receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but after both had happened.

How do you resolve the apparent contradiction? The Acts 10 passage seems completely inflexible in its meaning. The sequence of events leaves no question (though I’m open to suggestions) that the order is faith/regeneration/baptism.

What about Acts 2? Is it possible this passage means something different than it appears to at first? On closer inspection the answer is yes. The key is in the grammar.

In Acts 2, the command to repent is in the plural, as is the reference to those who receive the forgiveness of sins (i.e., “All of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness”). The command to be baptized is in the singular (i.e., “Each of you should be baptized”). This makes it clear that repentance, not baptism, leads to salvation, since an individual’s baptism cannot cause the salvation of the entire group. Individual (singular) baptisms do not result in corporate (plural) salvation.

As it turns out, the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” modifies repentance, not baptism. A more precise rendering might be, “Let all of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness, and then each who has should be baptized.”

Any question about which translation is appropriate should be answered by Acts 10 and 11. Clearly, these people were not getting baptized in order to bring about their salvation. They were baptized as a result of the salvation. The clear teaching in Acts 10 and 11 informs the ambiguous nature of Acts 2:38.

One last verse, 1 Peter 3:21: “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.” Some quote this verse and say, “There it is, clear as day! Baptism saves you.” Well, it wasn’t the case that baptism saved Cornelius in Acts 10, and so at best we have an apparent contradiction if this is the way we must read this verse.

The problem is solved if you keep reading. The next words are, “...not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Everybody knows that baptism isn’t for the sake of washing your body. This a metaphor. What Peter is saying is that baptism now saves you in this sense: not the getting wet part, but rather the appeal to God for a clean conscience that is signified by baptism.

The appeal comes first—belief, faith, repentance towards God. And that appeal can be made without getting wet.

Of 71 references in the New Testament to some form of the word baptism, only 19 passages refer to Christian water baptism, and over half of those are simply references to people being baptized. The pattern in those cases seems to be that first someone believed, then he was baptized. Only a few verses seem to give us any theological content about the sacrament itself. Do these few verses make it clear that baptism is necessary for salvation? I don’t think so.

References to people being baptized:

  • Acts 2:41—So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
  • Acts 8:12–13—But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
  • Acts 8:36, 38—And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch *said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” ....And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.
  • Acts 9:18—And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized.
  • Acts 10:47–48—“Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
  • Acts 16:15—And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
  • Acts 16:33—And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.
  • Acts 18:8—And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.
  • Acts 19:5—And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
  • 1 Cor. 1:13—Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
  • 1 Cor. 1:14–16—I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, that no man should say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.

References to baptism that give us some theological content:

  • Acts 2:38—And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Acts 22:16—“And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
  • Rom. 6:3—Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
  • Gal. 3:27—For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
  • Rom. 6:4—Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
  • Eph. 4:5—One Lord, one faith, one baptism...
  • Col. 2:12—...having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
  • 1 Pet. 3:21—And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...