Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
Many may wonder why we are addressing this issue? Recently several in our church have complained that some sacramentalists (those who believe baptism and/or the Lord’s Supper is necessary for salvation) have been trying to convince them that a person must be baptized in order to be saved. Part of me wants to say that the whole issue is really bogus. Why would anybody try to convince a Baptist that baptism is necessary for salvation? Hasn’t that person looked at the label we apply to ourselves—Baptists? We’re called Baptists because we actually baptize people. Therefore, when somebody tries to convince a Baptist that baptism is necessary for salvation, it seems to me that that person is actually saying a lot more than that.
The degree of passion targeted against Baptists for not believing baptism is necessary makes me thing a whole lot more is operating here. It is almost as if that person is saying that in order to be saved a person must believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Now that does raise some serious issues. That is almost tantamount to heresy since it definitely takes the focus off belief in Jesus Christ. To say that one must be baptized in order to be saved is not the same thing as saying that in order to be saved you must believe baptism is necessary for salvation. Let’s just hope that none of our sacramentalist brothers feel that in order to be saved you must believe baptism is necessary for salvation. Just ask them what they think about this. Ask: "In order to be saved, do you feel that a person must believe baptism is necessary for salvation?"
"How Should We Interpret Acts 2:38?"
Probably the key verse in this entire debate is Acts 2:38: "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit." According to our sacramentalist brothers—and they are brothers, this verse conclusively proves that baptism is necessary for salvation. On the surface it seems like Acts 2:38 teaches you must be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit (the one undeniable proof that a person is saved); however, Acts 2:38 can be interpreted in more than one way. The main point is what does Peter mean when he says: "be baptized for the forgiveness of sins"? The key word there is the word translated for. This Greek word (eis) can be translated for; however, it can also be translated in light of, because of, or with reference to. (So Arndt and Gingrich’s NT Greek Lexicon, and also Robertson’s Word Pictures on the NT, p. 34-36. Some of our sacramentalist brothers claim that many Baptist scholars believe baptism is necessary for salvation. Well, I’m telling you right now that A.T. Robertson who wrote Word Pictures in the NT is the greatest Greek scholar Baptists have ever produced in addition to being one of the greatest Greek scholars in the 20th century. Those who claim to be Baptists and yet teach baptism is necessary for salvation are Baptists in name only. They are not really Baptists). If the word is translated for, then Peter is saying that baptism is necessary for salvation. On the other hand, if it is translated in light of, etc., then Peter is saying that it is not necessary.
"But," someone may argue, "our English versions translate the word as for and not in light of." Remember that our translators were not the apostles who wrote the NT. They have their own agenda, and that agenda may not be the agenda of the NT writers. Nearly all of the translators of the NT come from churches which believe in sacramentalism or tends towards sacramentalism—Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc. When they are confronted with the option of translating eis either as "for" or "in light of," they naturally choose "for." Their theology is dictating their translation and not vice versa, which we are trying to do.
Well, which one is right? We can sit here all day and promote one interpretation over against the other; however, the question becomes "Which one is right?" Well, Acts 2:38 does not tell us. What we need to do is find out which interpretation agrees with the rest of the Bible. Does the interpretation used by the sacramentalists agree with the rest of the Bible or does the view Baptists hold agree with the rest of the Bible?
Scripture interprets Scripture
Whenever there is confusion about what a verse in the Bible means, Bible scholars use the following principle of interpretation to do away with the confusion: Scripture interprets Scripture. By this I mean that very seldom if at all does the Bible say one thing just once. For example, the NT does not claim that Jesus is Lord on just one occasion. Throughout the entire NT we see passages which teach the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the same way, the NT does not teach just once on the way a person is saved. Throughout the NT we see its authors describing the way a person should be saved. We’ll go to these passages to help us determine the true meaning of Acts 2:38.
First, I want to stick with what Peter taught about the way a person is saved. Peter did not preach and give an invitation for salvation just once in the Book of Acts. On 2 other occasions Peter preached on the message and salvation and issued an invitation. The first occurs in Acts 3 after he and John have just healed the man who had been lame since birth. After preaching about the life and ministry of Jesus, Peter then issues his invitation. This invitation is as important for what it does not say as for what it says. When it comes time for the invitation, Peter cries out: "Repent, therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away; in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19). We find in this invitation once more the command to repent. What we do not find is the command to be baptized. Now if baptism is so necessary for salvation, then Peter did the people a tremendous injustice by not commanding them to be baptized. Either he was being careless (which I sincerely doubt), he was being misleading (which I outright deny), or else he did not believe baptism was necessary for salvation.
The same holds true for our next episode involving Cornelius. Most of us know the story of Cornelius, how an angel appeared to him and instructed him to send for Peter to come preach to him and his household. While the messengers were on their way to get Peter, Peter receives a vision 3 times instructing him to kill and eat unclean animals. After the vision is over, Peter receives the messengers and goes back with them to Cornelius. When he arrives at the home of Cornelius, he preaches the gospel to Cornelius and the group he has assembled. While Peter is preaching and before Amazing Grace is sung, even before the invitation is given, Cornelius and the rest of the assembly start speaking in tongues. After Peter sees this happening, he asks his Jewish associates the rhetorical question of who would deny baptism to these people. When they respond that no one would, Peter then baptizes them. Now what is significant about this is that (1) Peter does not mention that a person has to be baptized in order to be saved (10:43—is he careless, misleading, or doesn’t believe baptism is necessary?) and (2) that the speaking in tongues occurred before baptism. Why is the sequence of events significant—speaking in tongues before baptism? Because a person can speak in tongues only if the Holy Spirit lives in that person. Their speaking in tongues proves that the Holy Spirit had already come into them before they had been baptized. In other words, they had already been saved before they were baptized, otherwise they would not have had the Holy Spirit living in them. (See also Acts 16:32—another important verse coming from Acts, a salvation formula which again does not mention baptism).
This sequence of events kept Peter from getting thrown out of the church. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he got into a lot of hot water with the conservative Christians. They attacked him because he had baptized someone who was not a Jew. Peter found himself on the defensive. The way he defended himself was by pointing to what the Holy Spirit had done. He informed them that the Holy Spirit had already come upon Cornelius and his household—God had already saved them! So who was he to deny them baptism? When the Jews realized that the Holy Spirit had come upon Cornelius before Peter had baptized him, they called off the dogs. They knew that if God had already saved Cornelius and proved it by giving him His Holy Spirit, then they were in no condition to deny Cornelius baptism. They didn’t like it; however, they knew they were up against God in this issue (Acts 11:1-18; see esp. verses 17 & 18).
Finally, this sequence of events also proved to be to Paul’s benefit as well. After Paul had preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Cyprus, the conservative element of the church again called Paul on the carpet. (This brought about the first great church conference). Just who was he to be bring Gentiles into the church without circumcising them? Peter once more goes back to what happened with Cornelius to prove that belief alone was necessary (Acts 15:7-11).
So how should we translate Acts 2:38. In light of the rest of the book of Acts and the other invitations Peter gave, we should probably translate it as: "Repent and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in light of the forgiveness of your sins (or because you have been forgiven), and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
An Attack on the Character of God
The worst consequence of teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation is that ultimately it is an attack on the character of God. This may seem strange in the discussion on baptism; however, it strikes right at the heart of the issue. The question is, "Did God act one way in the OT and another way in the NT when it comes to salvation?" Or "Did God save people one way in the OT and another way in the NT?" If God did save people one way in the OT and another way in the NT, then God is an inconsistent God. In that case He would be faithless; you would not be able to depend upon Him because He would then be inconsistent. If God saved people the same way in both the OT and NT—as Baptists believe, then God is consistent.
Sacramentalists basically teach that God is inconsistent. They teach that faith in God is necessary for salvation but that baptism is necessary to complete salvation. The problem with this is that God did not require the OT saints to be baptized in order to be saved; He commanded them only to have faith. Moses writes, "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Because Abraham believed God, God said that Abraham was in a right relationship with Him, that is, that Abraham was saved. Abraham’s faith saved him and nothing more! Sacramentalists teach though that the NT saints had to be baptized in order to be saved in addition to believing in God. Now if they are right, then either Abraham was not saved, or else God saved Abraham one way and saves us another way. God then would be inconsistent, or as Paul would put it, schizophrenic.
Look though at Romans 4. There Paul teaches that faith as the only right response to God’s gift of salvation is based upon the belief that God is consistent. Paul’s opponents were basically teaching the same thing the sacramentalists teach—faith in God is necessary for salvation; however, in order to complete salvation you must be circumcised! Paul’s opponents simply substituted circumcision for baptism. Paul uses Abraham—the father of our faith—as the primary reason why circumcision (and therefore baptism) is not necessary to complete salvation. Abraham was saved years before he was ever circumcised. Abraham was saved in Gen. 15 (v. 6); however, he was circumcised at least 13 years later in Gen. 17. According to Paul circumcision was nothing more than the sign that Abraham was saved. It did not save him; it simply showed to the world that he was saved (Rom. 4:9-12). Now if we are truly Abraham’s spiritual children, then we too must be saved in the same way he was saved—through faith in God. Adding anything else or subtracting any of this would disqualify us as being Abraham’s spiritual children and moreover would accuse God as being faithless or inconsistent.
Based upon such verses as 2 Cor. 5:17, certain sacramentalists will then argue that God has done away with the OT. They can claim this only by ignoring such verses as Matt. 5:17, 18; 1 1 Cor. 10:11; and Rom. 15:4. If God has done away with the OT, then it is strange that the NT writers quote the OT hundreds of times in order to show (1) that the NT fulfills the OT and (2) that the NT is consistent with the OT. The NT writers never taught that God had done away with the OT. Just the exact opposite. Everybody agreed that the OT was God’s Word. The Jews claimed that Christianity was heresy because it did not harmonize with the OT. By showing that Christianity harmonized with the OT, the NT writers and early Christians were able to defend themselves against this charge and show that Christianity was from the same God who gave the world the OT.
Neither Jesus nor Paul Engaged in Baptism
In 2 passages in the NT, we are told that Jesus did not baptize (John 4:2) and that Paul was glad that he did not baptize many of the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Paul goes on to say that God did not send him to baptize but to preach the gospel. If baptism is so necessary, then why didn’t Jesus baptize? Can you imagine any Christian believing that baptism was necessary for salvation and then glad that he did not baptize? This is totally inconsistent if baptism is truly necessary.
Where Did This View of Baptism Come From?
According to Robert Baker, one of the foremost of Baptist Church Historians, the early church did not believe that baptism was necessary for salvation. Instead, after 100 AD, Christianity saw a large influx of pagans into its ranks, bringing with them their beliefs in magic. Before they became Christians, they had believed in magical spells, rituals, and objects. It was easy then to transfer this to both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The water in baptism became necessary for salvation, while the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper actually became the body and blood of Christ (A Summary of Christian History, 36,37).
The Danger of Legalism
Finally, the sad thing about this episode is this: most sacramentalists do not leave it at this. They are not content with bringing in rules and laws when it comes to salvation; instead, most of them tend to live a life of legalism. Some of the sacramentalists go on to say that not only is baptism necessary but that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is necessary for salvation. Not only that but a person must also be confirmed, go to confession, either get married or enter a monastery or convent, and must receive the last rites before dying. Other sacramentalists then say you can’t have musical instruments in your church or even eat a meal in the Fellowship Hall. They tend to reduce the Christian life into being nothing more than following a bunch of man-made rules and regulations, thereby robbing Christians of the joy of the abundant life Christ died to give us. The Christian life is nothing more and yet nothing less than responding obediently to what God is saying to me. What happened at the point of salvation set the tone for the Christian life. When we were saved, God spoke to us about our need for Jesus. We heard and responded in obedient faith. Well, that is the essence of Christianity—hearing God’s Word and responding in obedient faith.