Is Baptism Essential for Salvation?

To establish where we are going the answer in a word is: NO.

Some who believe in works salvation assert it is an essential act of obedience in order to receive salvation.

Scripture declares salvation is by the grace of God not of works (Ephesians 2:8,9). We are not saved by works but to work (Ephesians 2:10). We are not baptized in order to be saved but because we have been saved.

There are more than 150 verses in the New Testament that assert salvation is based on God’s grace and it efficacious when man responds with a faith commitment. Some texts are:
Matthew 26:28; John 1:12; 3:15-18, 36; 5:24; 6:35, 47; Acts 16:31, Ephesians 2:8,9; II Timothy 1:12; Hebrew 9:14; Revelation 1:5.

These and other texts eliminate all human efforts to earn, merit, or deserve God’s favor.

If in studying Scripture there is a verse the meaning of which is cloudy turn to a text on the same subject which is clear and interpret the unclear one in light of the clear one. That is, when a passage standing alone seems to have one or two meanings always accept the one in harmony with other texts.

Persons insisting on baptism being essential to salvation group unclear texts and select their personal preference without regard for the clear ones on the subject. They often take an additional step and disregard the clear passages or at best misinterpret them.

There are some passages that standing alone appear to support the position that baptism is essential to salvation. These when properly understood in relation to salvation by grace through faith and not of works become clear. Some such are:

MARK 16: 16
“He that believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

The last phrase of verse 16 makes it clear not being baptized is not what causes a person not to be saved, but not trusting in Christ is.

ACTS 2: 38
“Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins….”

The Greek word translated “for,” eis, can be translated “because” and often has the meaning of “because of.”

One may say, “I am going to the mall for a pair of shoes,” meaning to get a pair of shoes. Used in this way “for” means to obtain a pair of shoes.

One may say, “I am going to jail for shoplifting a pair of shoes.” Used in this manner “for” means “because of” stealing a pair of shoes.

This verse does not teach a person is baptized in order to obtain salvation but because of being saved.

ACTS 22: 16
“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

A bit of understanding of the meaning of the Greek from which this is translated helps.

“Arise” and “wash” are two Greek imperatives.

“Baptized” and “calling” are two Greek aorist participles.

The participles “baptized” and “calling” are thus to be understood at the same time as the action of the main verb. The washing away of sins is thus seen as a result of having called on the Lord. This harmonized this passage with the many teaching salvation is by grace alone.

JOHN 3: 1,5
Water as mentioned here refers to water involved in physical birth not baptism.

Physical birth is referred to as being born of “water” and spiritual birth, the second birth, is the reference of being “born of the Spirit.”

“For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body—….”

As an act the word “baptized,” baptizo, meant to immerse. It was used to speak of being identified with a person or thing. Persons were spoken of as being “baptized unto Moses” (I Cor. 10:2). Such did not mean they were immersed in Moses but rather identified with him. Hence, by the Spirit we are identified with the body of Christ.

The “body” referenced here is not the local church but the spiritual body of Christ” (Ephesians 1:22,23).

This passage does not refer to water baptism but to the baptism of the Spirit into Christ.  

I PETER 3:21
“There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  

Bottom line: salvation is possible because Christ is risen from the dead not our putting away the filth of the flesh.

Verse 20 helps understand this verse. The eight saved in the days of Noah were saved “though water” not by the water. “…were brought safely through the water” is the translation give by “The New Testament in Modern Speech.”

Baptism is the answer “of a good conscience toward God.” The Greek word translated “answer,” eperotema, is a technical business term. In a business contract there is a time of question and answer: “Do you understand and accept the terms of this contract and agree to abide by them?” With the answer of “yes” the contract becomes binding.

This verse means God wants to know if you accept His terms of salvation and service in my Kingdom and will you abide by them? If so, signify it by being baptized. Baptism is intended to be a “Yes” answer to the question. Baptism is an act which is intended to say, “I accept the terms of God, that is, that I have been saved by faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is my good conscience pledge that I have accepted Christ and His terms.”

The idea of the effectiveness of baptism is contingent upon the resurrection of our Lord and the grace it provides. It is His grace not baptism that saves a person. Baptism is our pledge of commitment to the resurrected Lord.

ROMANS 6:1-8
This reference is not to water baptism but Spirit baptism. Persons thinking it to refer to water baptism find no encouragement in the text to support such a concept.