Is baptism necessary for salvation?

A number of groups teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Roman Catholics, the Churches of Christ, Lutherans, Anglicans, and proponents of the Federal Vision, all say that the water-rite of baptism is necessary and effectual for salvation. While there are many biblical and theologial reasons to deny their position, including justification by faith alone, the efficacy of Christ’s atoning work, the biblical limitations of church power, the sovereignty of God, the perseverance of the saints, etc., consider the six main passages these groups use to support their position. I will argue that its a misunderstanding of Scripture to say that the Bible teaches baptism is necessary for salvation.

1. Mark 16:16. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Many regard this passage as clear evidence that baptism is necessary for salvation. But it only teaches that baptism is ordinarily part of our salvation in the sense that baptism is part of our sanctification. Normally, believers will be baptized, and they “will be saved” on the last day.

The second half of the verse seems to confirm this reading. It says “whoever does not believe will be condemned.” The passage says nothing about a lack of baptism leading to condemnation. People are condemned because they do not believe, not because they are not baptized. If baptism were necessary for salvation, then why would baptism be omitted from the last part of this text?

2. 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.'”

This text is often produced as a primary support for various forms of baptismal regeneration. It’s claimed that this passage teaches that repentance and baptism are both necessary in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins. But consider the following:

The GK word translated “for” in verse 38 can also be translated “because.” Peter was telling these men, who had already been convicted by the message of the gospel, to repent publicly of participating in the murder of Jesus as the Christ, and to accept public baptism in His name, because their sins had already been forgiven. For these men, baptism was necessary public proof of their repentance and forgiveness of sins.

3. Acts 22:16. “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”

Some argue that this verse teaches that water baptism washes our sins away. But the word “and” divides this verse into two distinct parts. First, Paul commands the crowds to “rise and be baptized.” Second, Paul says to “wash away your sins, calling on his name.” It’s only when a sinner calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that his sins are washed away.

It’s not difficult to imagine Paul preaching the gospel to a large crowd and calling on the whole crowd to come for baptism on the condition that they call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

4. Romans 6:3-7. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Advocates of baptismal regeneration say that Romans 6:3-7 teaches that water baptism effectually unites its subjects to Christ. They point to the words “baptized into Christ” and “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.”

But when we examine other passages of Scripture, we find that to be “baptized into” a person is often a way of depicting a previous union with that person. For example, 1 Cor 10:2 says that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” when they crossed the Red Sea. Of course, the Israelites were already associated with Moses, and under his headship, well before they crossed the Red Sea. Their baptism in the Red Sea didn’t cause their union; rather, it symbolized a union that already existed. The same is true in Romans 6.

Furthermore, the main thread of Paul’s argument in Romans 6 is not about water baptism, though he mentions it here to highlight its significance. The argument is about the implications of justification by faith alone. If we are justified by faith alone, are we free to live sinful lives? Paul’s answer is “May it never be!” It’s at that point that Paul launches into a discussion of the significance of water baptism as a metaphor of our sanctification: death to self and new life in Christ. Those who teach baptismal regeneration from this passage are missing Paul’s primary point about the sanctification of the believer, who has already been justified by faith alone.

5. Galatians 3:27. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Some argue that this passage clearly teaches that water baptism clothes us with Christ so that we have a saving relationship with Him. But consider two points in response to that interpretation.

First, if that is the correct reading of this verse, then it contradicts everything else Paul has said in this letter. Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians in order to refute the Judaizing heresy, which taught that justification and union with Christ came through the rite of circumcision (Gal 2:12). Paul condemned that teaching as a legalistic heresy (Gal 3:1-7; 5:3-4). Was Paul really saying, “The Judaizers were wrong to try to circumcise you for justification. What you really need is baptism for your justification!”? No, Paul’s answer to the Judaizers is that sinners must be justified by faith alone in Christ alone (Gal 2:15-16, 21). Those who say that the rite of baptism unites us to Christ for our justification are actually advocating the same heresy that Paul refutes in this letter.

Second, it seems clear from the context that Galatians 3:27 is looking back to the time when the Galatians first believed. Verse 26 says that the Galatians are “sons of God through faith.” Verse 27, therefore, means that you were baptized into Christ when you put on Christ through faith. Paul is speaking of the water-rite of baptism in conjunction with the substance of faith and union with Christ that stands behind it. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ [as a symbol of union with him; see above] have [already] put on Christ [by faith].”

6. 1 Peter 3:21. “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Here is another major proof text for those who believe that baptism causes salvation. They argue that this passage plainly teaches that the water-rite of baptism saves.

In fact, it teaches quite the opposite. The passage explicitly says that baptism saves “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” That is, the water of baptism doesn’t save anyone. Rather, the “appeal to God for a good conscience” is what saves. When a person asks God, or appeals to God, for forgiveness of sins by faith, he is saved. This is similar to Acts 22:16. Water baptism is merely the outward manifestation of a person’s appeal to God for a purified conscience through faith. In that sense, baptism is a part of salvation.