If Jesus advocated baptism, then how can it not be essential for salvation?

Email Received:

In your writings, it appears as though you do not believe that water baptism is essential for the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. Yet Jesus said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). Furthermore, in Matthew 28:19 He tells the disciples to go make disciples and baptize them. Then a few days later Peter tells the people at Pentecost to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sin. Paul and Ananias said to be baptized and wash your sins away in Acts 22:16.

Then again, in 1 Peter 3:21, Peter says that the flood water symbolizes baptism that now saves you. "Not the removal of dirt from the body" implies that he's talking about water baptism here instead of Spirit baptism. If water baptism doesn't have anything to do with salvation then wouldn't that mean all these guys were liars? It sounds to me like there are a couple of "To Do" lists for you before the big Day.

Ted's Response:

You must be referring to the water baptism section of my online book. Personally, I was raised in a Baptist church. Every church I've ever attended, for any length of time, has had public baptisms. At age 7, I chose to be baptized in water. I am glad that I did, and I strongly recommend that every Christian be baptized in water, as it is an outward, public, tangible representation of our belief and faith.

The first high priest, Aaron, was washed with water—in essence, baptized—and anointed with oil to consecrate him for service to God (Leviticus 8:4,10). The same thing happened to Jesus, with the anointing of the Spirit of God coming on Him, along with the Father's approval, after He came up out of the water (Matthew 3:16,17). Then He began His earthly ministry as the ultimate High Priest in service to God (Hebrews 2:17).

So Jesus demonstrated the importance of water baptism as a precursor to becoming a servant of God. The purpose of Jesus' baptism was not to obtain salvation from sin, since He never sinned; it was to show us a vitally important step in beginning our service to God the Father and our ministry to others, on His behalf. As such, I am a firm advocate of water baptism, and I strongly urge all believers in Jesus to be baptised publicly as an example for others to do the same.

Peter spoke to the people and told them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38). I do not believe that the act of being baptized was what led to God's forgiveness of their sins. Rather, they were forgiven by repenting of their sinful ways of life and striving to imitate Jesus, the perfect model of sinlessness. Their salvation was followed by being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ as a demonstration of their conversion, in their minds and hearts, from darkness (spiritual death) to light (spiritual enlightenment).

Being immersed in water in Jesus' name is a public confirmation that the person is "dying" to a sinful nature and confessing Jesus as Lord. Coming up out of the water corresponds to Jesus' resurrection, and it signifies that the person believes Jesus was raised from the dead. So being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ demonstrates that a person acknowledges Jesus as Lord and believes in His resurrection from death; this is the foundation of salvation:

"The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:8-10)
So the foundational tenets of salvation are: What if these applied to a person who died before being baptized by water immersion? That person's spirit and soul would still enter heaven and he/she would have eternal salvation.

It is belief and faith that actually save a person, not the act of going in and out of the water. Good works, alone, do not save anyone; this includes undergoing physical baptism. Rather, one must believe, with one's mind and in one's heart, that Jesus shed His blood for the remission of our sins and that He rose from the dead so that we can attain eternal life. This faith is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which is imparted supernaturally into our minds and hearts by the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Water baptism is a beneficial action, especially when observed by others. It is a public demonstration of our belief and faith in Jesus and in what He has done for us. Hopefully, it will motivate others to adopt the same belief and faith and, perhaps, also to be baptized in water. However, that physical act does not save us. God already is aware of our belief and faith in His only begotten Son, Jesus, and that is what saves us.

Non-believers simply stating the "sinner's prayer" and going through the process of water baptism—perhaps due to being urged by family members or friends to do so—will not be saved unto eternal life merely by those actions alone. They need to acknowledge their innate sin nature, ask for God's forgiveness and understand that salvation is attainable only by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and understanding that He rose from the dead, enabling us also to rise from death to eternal life. Only the Holy Spirit can bring this perception and comprehension into our internal spirits and souls.

Water baptism (Mark 16:16) is a common byproduct of belief, just as good deeds are a natural result of faith (James 2:14-26). However, one is not saved by baptism and good deeds. Confession that Jesus is Lord and belief that He rose from the dead comprise the basis of salvation. Note that the last portion of Mark 16:16 says that "whoever does not believe will be condemned." It does not say that "whoever does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned."

For instance, consider a person who is saved unto eternal life during a church service by understanding the importance of repentance from willful sin, acknowledging and confessing Jesus as Lord and believing that He rose from the dead. Then that person is invited back the following week to be part of a public baptism. But if the person dies of a heart attack during the week, failing to be baptized in water will not negate the person's salvation.

Nicodemus told Jesus that someone cannot re-enter the womb to be born a second time (John 3:4). In Jesus' response (3:5), the phrase "born of water" was a referral to the water involved in the natural birth process of every person—that is, the water in the birth bag from which each fetus emerges. His reference to being born again of the Spirit was pointing not to water baptism but to a baptism by the Holy Spirit, which is what enables one to enter the kingdom of God. There is nothing in John 3:4-8 about the requirement of water baptism for salvation.

Jesus advised people to be baptized by water, since He Himself had been baptized by John the Baptist. Obviously, He was a supporter of water baptism. Many of those who wanted to become followers of Jesus also chose to be baptized, as an expression of their discipleship. And, yes, during a water baptism, the phrase "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is used. But in Spirit baptism (which is the baptism that saves), one is acknowledging and accepting Jesus as Savior, Lord and Master, as well as recognizing the supremacy and sovereignty of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Pertaining to Peter at Pentecost, presumably you are referring to Acts 2:38. Some will argue that the baptism that Peter was advocating was Spirit baptism, since Peter indicated that those who would be baptized would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This may or may not be the case.

However, Peter said, "Repent and be baptized." My view is that it was repentance that led to the forgiveness of sins, and then those who repented chose to be baptized in water as a public display of this repentance and of their faith.

Note that later, speaking of Jesus, Peter said, "God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel" (Acts 5:31). Here, there is no mention of baptism because it is repentance, not water baptism, that is required for the forgiveness of sins.

Paul said that it is repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). In fact, Paul baptized only a few people in water (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). He even affirmed, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." (1:17). Would not Jesus have sent out Paul specifically to baptize everybody who repented if water baptism were a requirement for salvation? If that were the case, I believe that He would have; yet He did not.

In Acts 22:12-16, Paul was describing his previous experience with Ananias to others. In the original experience with Ananias (9:10-19), Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid his hands upon him (9:17)—that is, he was baptized with the Holy Spirit. Some will say that Paul was referring to Spirit baptism in 22:16. I disagree, because it was after the scales fell off of Saul's eyes that Saul was baptized (9:18), presumably in water.

Nevertheless, this was no different from any other water baptism. A person "sees the light" (figuratively, "scales" fall off of that person's eyes), repents of his/her sins, and then is baptized as an expression of his/her belief and acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior. As in any case, the water baptism was a symbolic washing away of Saul's sins; but it was the Spirit baptism that actually had washed them away. Why would Saul need to have his sins washed away, by water baptism, if they already had been washed away by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when Ananias had placed his hands on him? He would not have.

I've never said that "water baptism doesn't have anything to do with salvation." Baptism is an outward, public demonstration of repentance, but it is the repentance that leads to salvation. Baptism, in and of itself, is not a prerequisite for salvation. If it were, then the remorseful thief crucified with Jesus, who feared God and acknowledged his evil deeds (Luke 23:40,41)—that is, repented of his sins—would not have been saved, because he had not been baptized in water. Yet, Jesus told him that he would be with Jesus in paradise (23:43). Knowing that the thief had not been baptized in water, was Jesus telling the truth when he said this? Yes, of course he was.

It sounds like it definitely is on your "to do" list to inform as many people as possible, before the "big Day" of His coming, that unless they experience water baptism, they will remain unsaved from their sins and condemned for eternity. It also appears that you want to believe that, and I think you should believe whatever you choose to believe. I do agree that urging people to be baptized publicly in water, after they have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, is a good thing.

In any case, if you are serious about reaching as many people as possible with your message, then I think that what you should do is to create a website and post your primary message, about salvation by water baptism, on the internet for multitudes of people to see. Consider that if your message is true, but if you have not done all that you can do to reach the world's masses with that message, then when you meet the Lord face-to-face, you may not hear these important words: "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Return to Email Questions and Ted’s Responses

Go to Ted’s Bible Commentaries and Other Links

View the New International Version of the Bible

Go to Ted’s Homepage