As a confessional Reformed Baptist, who holds to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, I believe that baptism is a sign of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, of union with Him, of remission of sins, and of new life in Him. Baptism is a visible word, the gospel in visible form. Thus, just as the gospel is a means of grace to the believer, so also is baptism a means of grace to the believer. In baptism, just as in the gospel, the believer’s faith is led to Christ in whom there is forgiveness of sins and complete salvation. Baptism is “a meeting place” for the grace of the gospel and the faith of the believer. But baptism in water does not regenerate or justify the one who is baptized.
In different ways, Roman Catholics, the Churches of Christ, Lutherans, Anglicans, and proponents of the Federal Vision, all say something different, that water baptism is ordinarily necessary and effectual for initial salvation, for regeneration and justification. There are about six main New Testament passages these groups use to support their position. This post will suggest different readings of those passages.
1. Mark 16:16. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Many regard this text as clear evidence that baptism is necessary for salvation. The textuality of this passage is in question, but assuming it is original, it only teaches that baptism ordinarily follows faith. Ordinarily, believers will be baptized, and they “will be saved” finally 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 and the necessity of baptism for salvation. It’s claimed that this passage teaches that repentance and baptism are both necessary in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins. But the GK word translated “for” can be taken in two ways, either “unto” or “because of.”
If the sense is “unto the forgiveness of sins,” then the word “forgiveness” does not refer to the procurement of forgiveness of sins, which was done by Christ on the cross (Rom 5:7); rather, it refers to the subjective termination of forgiveness upon the soul of the believer who repents and is baptized. Commenting on this verse, John Gill says, that by the baptism of believers, “their faith might be led to Christ, who suffered and died for their sins, who left them buried in his grave, and who rose again for their justification from them.”
But the word “for” can also be translated “because.” If that is what it means here, 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. See this article on Acts 2:38 for a fuller explanation.
3. Acts 22:16. “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”
John Gill’s comments here are helpful. In his commentary on this passage, he writes, “…not that it is in the power of man to cleanse himself from his sins; the Ethiopian may as soon change his skin, or the leopard his spots, as a creature do this; nor is there any such efficacy in baptism as to remove the filth of sin; persons may submit unto it, and yet be as Simon Magus was, in the gall of bitterness, and bond of iniquity; but the ordinance of baptism, may be, and sometimes is, a means of leading the faith of God’s children to the blood of Christ, which cleanses from all sin.”
4. Romans 6:3-4. “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.”
Paul’s argument in Romans 6 is about the implications of justification by faith alone. He is dealing with the objection of those who ask, “If we are justified by faith alone, are we free to live sinful lives?” Paul’s answer in verse 2 is “May it never be!” Then he discusses the significance of water baptism and how it set our faith upon Christ to strengthen us to “walk in newness of life.”
John Gill is helpful once again. His commentary says, “It designs a being baptized, or a being brought by baptism into more communion with Christ, into a participation of his grace and benefits; or into the doctrine of Christ, and a more distinct knowledge of it: the power of which they feel upon their hearts, and so have really believed in Christ, heartily love him, and make a sincere profession of him; … without laying any stress or dependence on it for salvation.”
5. Galatians 3:27. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Some say this passage teaches that water baptism clothes us with Christ for our salvation. But when Paul says “as many of you as were baptized into Christ” he implies that not every one of them has been baptized into Christ. But every member of the Galatian churches would have received the sign of water baptism according to Christ’s command in Matthew 28. Therefore, it seems doubtful that this passage refers to water baptism, but to baptism into Christ Himself and His covenant by the Spirit through faith alone.
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.”
This says that baptism saves “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” That is, the washing of the water of baptism doesn’t save. Rather, baptism corresponds to Noah and others being delivered through the waters in that they are both signs of the gospel, which saves “you,” i.e., “the elect” (1 Pet 1:1). All of God’s elect are completely saved from God’s wrath through the blood of Christ. Thus, when one of God’s elect receives baptism in faith, he makes an “appeal to God for a good conscience” based on the gospel, which saves him. Baptism, which is the visible word of the gospel, effectually saves every believer who receives it.