Ask ten of your religious friends about the meaning of baptism, and you’re most likely to get ten different answers. You’ll hear things like “It’s an outward sign of an inward grace,” “It identifies you with the family of God,” or maybe even, “so someone I love that is now dead can repent after I’m baptized for them.”
Regardless, the common theme among most people’s perceptions of baptism is that it reflects a salvation that has already taken place, not one that happens when you are actually baptized. Since salvation comes by faith, it can’t possibly also come by baptism…right? (side note: Wes McAdams has a fantastic article on the word “for” in Acts 2:38).
If that’s the case, then why is baptism the most often repeated commandment in the book of Acts concerning salvation, occurring in nearly every single conversion experience?
The truth is, baptism is a fundamental part of salvation; I contend from the Scriptures that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to take place. The reason most people refuse to accept it is because of its perception as a work that earns salvation, rather than as one that accepts the conditions of salvation (Luke 17:10)
I don’t deny faith (Rom. 5:1)
I don’t deny grace (Eph. 2:8)
But I also don’t think they are mutually exclusive to baptism. In fact, the Bible’s pretty clear that they all work perfectly in harmony with one another (Eph. 4:4-6).
I’m not earning anything through baptism, and those that claim I claim that we claim otherwise are misrepresenting us; it would be no more appropriate for us to walk around claiming that they claim that someone claims that nothing is required for salvation.
But I digress. That’s enough about what you or I claim, what does the Bible actually say concerning baptism and its role in salvation?
The Bible Says That Baptism Saves Us
1 Peter 3:21 is pretty clear when it says, “Baptism now saves you;” you’d have to do some pretty intense mental gymnastics to get around that statement.
But the verse itself qualifies that statement: “…not the removal of the dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience.” In other words, there’s something more going on here than just dunking yourself in a big tub of water. There has to be something deeper that takes place, something spiritual on my part that happens during baptism.
There is: an appeal to God for a good conscience (Rom. 10:17; Acts 22:16).
The conversions in Acts were preceded by the person claiming faith in God, wanting to be saved by Him, but the only way that relationship works is if the person has their sins washed away; a Holy God cannot commune with a sinful person (Isaiah 59:1-2). Baptism is the way in which those sins are washed away (Acts 2:38; Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1-6; John 3:5), and the way we start our relationship with Him.
The Bible Says That Baptism is Only the Beginning
Where brethren go off the rails in regards to baptism is when we hyper-focus on that singular act at the expense of a life of obedience. It’s a position the Catholic Church took for centuries (and still does, to a certain extent): “get them in the water; that’s all that counts.” And while no one would actually come out and say that, our lives sometimes bear out this assumption.
This emphasis on baptism is where calvinists accuse us of being “works-only” folk. They’re wrong in principle, but sometimes in practice, I fear they may be right.
Repeat after me: baptism is only the beginning. You must hear the Word, believe on the Word, repent according to the Word, confess His Name, and be baptized into His death, but you also must still live faithfully. Ignore the last part, and the others don’t count.
Simon’s error (Acts 8:18-24) and Peter’s hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11) both came after their baptisms, and carried the penalty of condemnation. Lest we believe that baptism is a “once-saved, always-saved” proposition, these texts prove otherwise.
The Bible Says That Baptism is a Statement of Faith
Faith and baptism go together like peanut butter and jelly: without both, you ain’t got yourself a proper sandwich. They’re not at odds with each other; in fact, as stated above, you can make the argument that they are actually one and the same.
Mark’s version of Jesus’ last commands to the Apostles includes the cause and effect relationship between belief and baptism: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” Notice how baptism is a result of belief, whereas in the second line, a lack of belief obviously implies that baptism won’t follow.
For this reason, baptism can be described as a declaration of the faith that you already have. You’re not saved at the moment of belief, but your sins are washed away as a result of that faith through baptism.
Paul reveals this about his own salvation in Acts 22:16. He relays the “road to Damascus” story to the Jews, filling in some of the dialogue that Ananias had told him when he arrived. Amongst this was the phrase: “Why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
Paul had faith on the road to Damascus, that much is sure (Acts 9:5), but Ananias’ statements reveal that he still had sin. His faith, as great as it was on the road, didn’t wash away his sins – only baptism can do that.
No one is going to be baptized into Jesus that doesn’t already have faith, but a faith that stops with mere mental assent doesn’t accomplish anything (James 2:14-17). Baptism is the fulfillment of a faithful heart, the natural conclusion to a voice that cries out for redemption (1 Peter 3:21).