It still comes up today—the question of whether baptism is a necessary part of being saved.
Those who champion the argument for the necessity of baptism for salvation often bring up these verses and others:
Mark 16:15 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Acts 22:16 And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name.’
John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”
Nevertheless as the adage goes, “Two can play at that game.” There are many verses that mention salvation without implying that baptism is necessary for being saved.
But doing that dance back and forth doesn’t seem to help us gain any ground in figuring out what’s correct. This can happen when we lift Bible verses out of their complete contexts. To help us I’m going to call on Norman Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie who address this topic (also known as Baptismal Regeneration) in a book titled, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.
While space is limited here to present an entire case expounding on the contexts of the scripture in dispute, I believe they make some very clear and concise points on the issues. These come from pages 480-483 (These are not all direct quotes. For exact phrasing go to the book):
1) People are “born again” by receiving God’s word (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23), and Peter’s audience “accepted” his word before they were baptized (Acts 2:41).
2) In Acts those who believed Peter’s message clearly received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized. Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” (Acts 10:47).
3) Acts 2:41 speaks of “those who accepted his message” (i.e., believed) as having been baptized later on. Receiving (believing) the message is the means by which one is saved (John 1:12; 12:48; Rom. 1:16). And verse 44 speaks of “those who believed” as being constituents of the early church, not all of whom were baptized. Likewise, Mark says “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16), because baptism should follow belief. Nowhere does it say, “whoever is not baptized will be condemned.” Yet Jesus said emphatically that “whoever does not believe has already been condemned” (John 3:18, emphasis added). If belief is the means of the condemnation, belief is the issue at hand not baptism.
4) Paul separates baptism from the gospel, saying, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). But it is the gospel that saves us (Rom. 1:16). Therefore, baptism is not part of what saves us. If baptism is so important why wasn’t Paul more concerned about it?
5) Jesus referred to baptism as a work of “righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), but the Bible declares clearly that it is “not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us” (Titus 3:5). Hence, we are not saved by baptism.
6) The Gospel of John, written explicitly so that people could believe and be saved (John 20:31), cites only belief as the condition of salvation. It simply states over and over that people need to “believe” and they will be saved (cf. John 3:16, 18, 36). If more were necessary, then the entire Gospel of John misleads on the central purpose for which it was written.
7) The word “for” (Gk: eis) can also mean “with a view to” or even “because of.” In this case, water baptism would be called for because they had been saved, not in order to be saved. Even in the broader sense of “with a view to” the view could be backwards to the fact that they had been saved, baptism being a later outward manifestation of it.
8) Even if “for” is taken in the sense of “in order to” this text does not prove baptismal regeneration for two reasons: first, the apostles were already believers by this time (cf. Matt. 16:16–18; John 20:30–31). It was not a question of their getting saved; they already were saved. What they were promised here after water baptism as Christians was “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” not the gift of salvation or eternal life (cf. Rom. 6:23) which is received only by faith (Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5–7).
SUMMARY: The doctrine of baptismal regeneration is at odds with the true nature of salvation. It’s clear that, “people have to ‘repent’ or ‘accept the message’ in order to be saved. Baptism is merely an outward sign of an inward reality that came ‘by grace through faith’ and not by any ‘works of righteousness,’ including baptism” (RCE:AD, 483).
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