January 18, 2014

The Necessity of Baptism

While we recognize that Jesus commanded baptism (Matt. 28:19), as did the apostles (Acts 2:38), we should not say that baptism is necessary for salvation.

(The Roman Catholic teaching as well as the teachings of several Protestant denominations teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Although there are different nuances to their teaching, such a position is held by many Episcopalians, many Lutherans, and by the Churches of Christ.)

To say that baptism or any other action is necessary for salvation is to say that we are not justified by faith alone, but by faith plus a certain “work,” the work of baptism. The apostle Paul would have opposed the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation just as strongly as he opposed the similar idea that circumcision was necessary for salvation (see Gal. 5:1-12).

Those who argue that baptism is necessary for salvation often point to Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” But the very evident answer to this is simply to say that the verse says nothing about those who believe and are not baptized. The verse is simply talking about general cases without making a pedantic qualification for the unusual case of someone who believes and is not baptized. But certainly the verse should not be pressed into service and made to speak of something it is not talking about.

(Moreover, it is doubtful whether Mark 16:16 should be used in support of a theological position at all, since there are many ancient manuscripts that do not have this verse or Mark 16:9-20, and it seems most likely that this verse was not in the gospel as Mark originally wrote it.)

More to the point is Jesus’ statement to the dying thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The thief could not be baptized before he died on the cross, but he was certainly saved that day. Moreover, the force of this point cannot be evaded by arguing that the thief was saved under the old covenant (under which baptism was not necessary to salvation), because the new covenant took effect at the death of Jesus (see Heb. 9:17), and Jesus died before either of the two thieves who were crucified with him (see John 19:32-33).

Another reason why baptism is not necessary for salvation is that our justification from sins takes place at the point of saving faith, not at the point of water baptism, which usually occurs later. But if a person is already justified and has sins forgiven eternally at the point of saving faith, then baptism is not necessary for forgiveness of sins nor for the bestowal of new spiritual life.

Hat Tip: Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith

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