Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:16 (ESV)
For many years people have debated the question of whether water baptism is a requirement for salvation. The passage quoted above is one passage that is used as proof that it is, and another very popular passage is Acts 2:38.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Acts 2:38 (ESV)
Proponents of those who believe baptism is essential would say that God has established a biblical formula for the bestowal of salvation. That process goes like this:
2. Be baptized
3. Receive forgiveness
4. Receive the Holy Spirit
At least that's the way it's laid out in Acts 2:38, right?
I will wholeheartedly agree that water baptism is "closely tied" with salvation in the New Testament, but the question still remains, IS IT REQUIRED?
In other words, if someone, lying in a hospital bed, prayed to receive Christ, but died just moments later before being baptized, would they be refused acceptance into God's presence because they had never been baptized in water?
I would like to give four reasons why I believe that water baptism is vitally important, but not a requirement for salvation.
Reason 1: The Formula Turned Upside Down
Those who believe that baptism is a requirement to be saved love to quote Acts 2:38 which I've cited above. They believe that passage reveals the formula for how a person is saved.
The only problem is that the formula is reversed a little later on in the book of Acts. In chapter 10 when Peter goes to the home of a Roman Centurion, we see that people believe and receive the Holy Spirit before getting baptized in water. The passage goes like this:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)
Reason 2: Other Passages
The fact is, there are several passages in the New Testament that speak of how a person is saved, and most of them make no mention of water baptism. Here are just a few:
Acts 2:21 (ESV)
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Romans 10:9-10 (ESV)
... if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
John 3:16 (ESV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Reason 3: The Apostle Paul's Statement in 1 Corinthians
One of the most significant reasons I can cite is Paul's incredible statement to the Corinthian church that God did not call him to baptize:
1 Corinthians 1:17 (ESV)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The fact is, Paul actually thanks God in this chapter that he didn't baptize most of the people of Corinth! (1:14) Would the Apostle make such a reckless statement if baptism were required for salvation?
Reason 4: The Testimony of Grace
The most important statement securing our belief that water baptism is not a requirement for salvation is Ephesians 2:8-9, which says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
The Apostle Paul reminds us in this passage that our salvation is not our own doing. It is entirely a gift, by grace through faith. Grace means without merit—apart from anything we might otherwise do to earn that salvation. The fact remains that to require water baptism is to demand an act that the recipient must perform before salvation is bestowed. That takes the gift of eternal life out of the realm of grace, and firmly into the realm of works.
The salvation given us through Jesus Christ removes all boasting. That means there is nothing I can ever point to of my own doing that has helped to secure my salvation. Nothing.
So, should a believer be baptized in water? Absolutely! Not for salvation, but because of salvation. The waters of baptism are a beautiful, public declaration of our faith in Jesus, and our identification with Him in His death, burial and resurrection.