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The Necessity of Baptism for Salvation

ARThe Necessity of Baptism for SalvationIn championing salvation by faith alone, many Christians today view baptism to be merely symbolic. Is baptism simply a symbol of our faith, an act of obedience subsequent to salvation, or does it carry spiritual effects requisite for salvation? Find out from the teachings of Christ and the apostles.Most Christians today propound salvation by faith alone. It is commonly believed that baptism is merely a symbolic action subsequent to a person’s salvation. Yet this belief contradicts the teachings of the Bible. Baptism is necessary for salvation because it carries saving effects. It does not replace the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but is effective because of the saving grace of Christ.

Is Baptism Necessary?

Baptism and Salvation

The Saving Effects of Baptism

A common view among Christians today is that a person is saved when he or she invites Jesus Christ into their heart. This moment of salvation takes place when the person says a prayer or raises their hands to indicate their acceptance of Christ. According to this view, baptism is not necessary for salvation. It is only an outward sign that shows that the believer has already received salvation. In other words, baptism is a symbolic action subsequent to a person's salvation. It has no saving effect whatsoever. Some even claim that as long as a person puts their faith in Christ, whether they are baptized at all is not that important.

Is Baptism Necessary?

Baptism is not a human tradition but our Lord's direct command. In the Great Commission, He sent the apostles forth to preach the gospel, saying, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). The apostles obeyed this divine mandate as they brought the message of Jesus Christ to the world. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how the apostles obediently baptized those who accepted Christ (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 35-38; 47-48; 16:31-33; 19:4-5). Since the Lord Himself has given us the decree to baptize believers and we have the apostolic precedence in the Bible, how can any true Christian today deny the necessity of baptism?

Baptism and Salvation

It may not be difficult to accept that baptism is necessary, based on the Lord's command. But is baptism necessary for salvation? In other words, is baptism simply an act of obedience, or does it have spiritual effects for salvation? If we accept that baptism has saving effects, would this not constitute salvation by works rather than faith? Would not baptism replace the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

In order to uphold salvation through faith alone, many people have concluded that baptism is no more than a symbol. According to this view, baptism may be necessary as an illustration of salvation, but it is not necessary for salvation. A common argument cites the example of the robber on the cross to show that baptism is not a requisite for salvation, for the robber was saved without going through baptism.

But this claim directly contradicts the teachings of the Bible. The Lord Jesus Himself clearly stated, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mk 16:16). Baptism follows a person's belief in the gospel, and baptism is required for salvation. The apostle Peter wrote the believers, "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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21 RSV). Just as Noah and his household were saved through water, baptism now saves believers. Thus, baptism is more than a symbol. It has a direct relationship to believers' salvation.

In reality, baptism does not replace the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but is effective because of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Baptism without Christ would be ineffective and meaningless. Furthermore, baptism and faith are not opposites. Baptism is an integral part of faith and a necessary response of faith. Baptism is not of works but of faith, just as confession and repentance are not of works but of faith (see Q&A on sacraments and works). Faith means believing and accepting God's promise that He saves through baptism. Faith means trusting that spiritual saving effects accompany baptism even though such wondrous effects are beyond our rationale.

Because the Lord and the apostles have taught the efficacy of baptism, we must believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. The case of the robber on the cross does not apply to all believers and cannot be cited to nullify the necessity of baptism for salvation. Although he received salvation without being baptized, baptism is nevertheless required of all believers who have the opportunity to receive it (see Q&A on the saving effects of sacraments).

The Saving Effects of Baptism

So far, we have seen from Scripture that baptism is the Lord's command and is necessary for salvation. We will now study what the Bible teaches about the nature of the relationship between baptism and salvation. We must study these passages objectively without forcing them into our pre-established theological framework. If we take the passages for what they say, it will be evident that the Bible places great emphasis on baptism and consistently teaches its efficacy for salvation. Let us now look at the spiritual effects of baptism according to God's word.

Remission of Sins

After the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, Peter preached Jesus Christ to a crowd of thousands. When the people realized that they had crucified the Lord and Christ, they were cut to the heart. So they asked the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" They knew of their sins and their need for salvation. They wanted to know what they must do to be forgiven and saved. This was Peter's reply:

Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)

Peter did not say, "Those who want to accept Jesus Christ come forward and say a prayer with me, and the blood of Jesus Christ will cover you." Neither did he say, "Now that your sins have been forgiven, you ought to be baptized to show that you have been saved." Instead, he told them to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. A sinner who wishes to accept Jesus Christ must repent and be baptized. Baptism is for the purpose of removing sins. The remission of sins does not take place before baptism, but during baptism.

After the Lord Jesus called Saul, He sent Ananias to tell Saul what he must do. Upon meeting Saul, Ananias told Saul the mission that the Lord has entrusted to him. But before Saul could carry out his divine mission, he first needed to be cleansed of his sins. So Ananias commanded him, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:12-16). Ananias did not ask Saul to raise his hands or say a prayer to wash away his sins. The way to have Saul's sins washed away was to receive baptism. Until he received baptism, Saul remained a sinner. "Calling on the name of the Lord" means putting one's faith in the Lord for salvation. In order to be saved, Saul had to accept the Lord Jesus Christ, and that involved being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the washing away of his sins. Sins are washed away during baptism.

The New Testament also calls baptism "washing with water" (Eph 5:25-26; Heb 10:22) or simply "washing" (Titus 3:5). This term highlights the cleansing effect of baptism. This washing is not just an outward ceremonial washing, but more importantly, a washing that brings cleansing of the soul from sin:

  • Ephesians 5:26-27 reads, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word."
    Christ sanctifies and cleanses the church through baptism.
  • Hebrews 10:22 states, "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."
    The outward washing of baptism brings about the inward effect of the cleansing of conscience.
  • 1 Peter 3:21 confirms this teaching: "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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
    Baptism is not for the purpose of cleansing the body, but in order that we may receive a clear conscience from God.

But how can the washing of water wash away sins? Doesn't the Scripture teach that we receive redemption and forgiveness of sins by the blood of Christ (Rom 3:25; Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; Heb 9:12-14; 1 Pet 1:18-19; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1:5; 5:9)? Yes, indeed. It is the blood of Christ that washes away our sins. But this washing occurs not at the moment of confessing Jesus as Lord, but during baptism.

When our Lord was on the cross, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out (Jn 19:34). This was a miracle because the flow of blood and water was so distinct that it could be seen from a distance. From the body of Jesus, God opened a fountain for cleansing (cf. Zech 13:1). The apostle who saw this miracle bore witness to this event. Later, in his epistle to the church, this apostle explained that this miracle on the cross is the basis for the Christian baptism:

This is He who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son. (1 Jn 5:6-9 RSV)

Through the witness of the Spirit, the blood of Jesus Christ washes away our sins when we receive baptism in water. Thus, when we are immersed in water, we are, in fact, covered by the blood of Christ! This is why many people have witnessed the vision of blood during baptisms performed in the True Jesus Church. Such visions confirm the truth of the Scriptures.

The timing of cleansing is by God's own appointment. It is God Himself who designated baptism as that moment when Christ's blood washes away our sins, and He promises us that we will receive the remission of sins through baptism into Christ. The outward sign of immersion in water is accompanied by the inward cleansing of the conscience (Heb 10:22). This is God's doing. Who are we to reduce baptism to merely a symbol and dismiss its saving effects? We ought to submit to Christ's command and receive this grace of God for the remission of our sins. This is what true faith entails.

Rebirth

The Lord Jesus told Nicodemus, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:3). Nicodemus did not understand how this rebirth was possible. Then the Lord explained, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5). The rebirth that the Lord spoke of is a spiritual rebirth, and this rebirth is through water and the Spirit. But what does "water" refer to?

Let's look at a parallel passage. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). This verse explains what the Lord meant by being born of water and the Spirit. Spiritual rebirth for salvation comes about through the washing of regeneration, which is equivalent to being born of water. As we have pointed out earlier, the washing of water refers to baptism, for Christ sanctifies and cleanses the church by the washing of water by the word (Eph 5:26). During baptism, Christ's blood washes away believers' sins. This is the washing of regeneration.

How is a person born again through baptism? We need to first understand the meaning of being born again. When God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He warned the man, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen 3:17). Man rebelled against God, and died a spiritual death. He was driven from God's presence. The Bible tells us, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Rom 5:12). Because of our sins, we had been separated from God and His eternal life. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, conducting ourselves in the lusts of our flesh (Eph 2:1-3).

Christ came to destroy the power of sin and death. He did so by offering Himself as our propitiation and redeeming us with His precious blood. Having paid the penalty of sin and met God's righteous requirement, Jesus Christ brought life to mankind (Rom 5:17-18). Whoever believes in Him may receive the eternal life that man has once lost. This is the meaning of rebirth.

This spiritual rebirth takes place at the point of baptism. When the blood of Jesus Christ washes away our sins during baptism, it is at that moment that we receive His new life.

Paul wrote concerning the spiritual resurrection in baptism:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. (Col 2:11-13)

In baptism, Christ performs a spiritual circumcision on the sinner, putting off the body of sins of the flesh and forgiving all their trespasses. In baptism, the believer is buried with Christ and raised with Christ through faith.

Paul also elaborated on the believer's regeneration in baptism:

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Rom 6:3-6)

Through baptism, our sinful self is crucified with Christ and buried with Christ into death. Having been set free from sin, we may lead a new life. We, who were once dead in sin, are made alive. We shall also resurrect one day in the likeness of Christ's resurrection. Thus, baptism marks the point at which a believer passes from death into life.

Union with Christ

As believers are washed of their sins and born again in baptism, they are also brought into a personal relationship with Christ. Therefore, when the Bible speaks of baptism, it often indicates this marvelous union with Christ. This fact further reinforces the teaching that baptism is not merely symbolic, but also effective.

First of all, baptism is administered in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:4-5). The expression, "in the name of Jesus Christ" means "by the authority of Jesus Christ." The Lord commanded His disciples, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Mt 28:18-19). It is with the authority of the risen Christ that the disciples went out to make disciples and baptize in His name.

"In the name of Jesus Christ," or, literally "into the name of Jesus Christ," also carries a unique meaning of being identified with Christ and belonging to Christ. "Into the name" translates the Greek phrase "eis to onoma," which was a technical term used in the world of Greek business and commerce. It was used to indicate the entry of a sum of money or an item of property into the name of its owner. God has bought us to be His special possession with the blood of Christ.[1] Thus, when the blood of Christ covers us in baptism, Christ also makes us His very own.

In James 2:7, James called the name of the Lord Jesus "that honorable name which was invoked over you" (RSV). This should be an indirect reference to Christian baptism. During baptism, the sinner calls on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16). The baptist also invokes the name of Jesus Christ over the candidate of baptism, announcing that the candidate has come under the name of Jesus Christ and is now called by that name. Therefore, through baptism, the believer comes under the Lord's name, and their life belongs to Christ.

The Corinthian believers divided themselves based on their preference over particular workers of God. Some said, "I am of Paul," and others "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas." Paul corrected their misconception by reminding them of their baptism, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name." (1 Cor 1:13-15). Paul reminded those who took pride in him that they were not baptized into Paul's name but into the name of Christ. Thus, they did not belong to Paul but to Christ.

An important New Testament concept is that believers are "in Christ." Our position in Christ affords us every spiritual blessing from God (Eph 1:3), including forgiveness of sins, receiving of a new life, justification, sanctification, and fellowship with God. The Scripture tells us that it is during baptism that we are brought into this position in Christ. When Paul wrote to the Galatians about their salvation through faith in Christ, he said:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ... And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:27,29)

Paul used the term "baptized into Christ," indicating that believers come into Christ through baptism. Baptism is not just immersion in water. The believer enters into a union with Christ during baptism. If baptism is merely symbolic and has not effects, the term "baptized into Christ" would not be appropriate at all. But because God unites us with Christ in baptism, Paul could say to the Galatians that they were baptized into Christ. In fact, they were "clothed with Christ" during baptism. Through the remission of sins, Christ and His righteousness cover the sinner like a garment. Consequently, the sinner is justified and shielded from God's wrath. Paul concluded this passage by stating that the believers "are Christ's." Upon their baptism into Christ, they become Christ's treasured possessions. They also become children of God, Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise.

In Romans 6:3-6, Paul also wrote that the believers were baptized into Christ. Specifically, baptism into Christ is baptism into His death (verse 3). It is also a burial with Christ (verse 4). During baptism, we die to sin, and our old self is crucified with Christ, that the body of sin may be done away with and that we should no longer be slaves of sin (verse 6). When we die and are buried with Christ in baptism, we "unite together in the likeness of His death" (verse 5). Baptism is a spiritual union with Christ. It is not just symbolic, but also real. As a result of this union, we have a new life in Christ.

The Bible furthermore teaches that we become members of Christ's body through baptism. According to Christ's command, and as we can see throughout the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament church baptized believers to bring them into the church. A person became a disciple of the Lord Jesus and was added to the number of the saved upon baptism (Mt 28:19; Acts 2:40). Paul wrote to the Corinthians on the unity of believers: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Cor 12:13). Through baptism, the Spirit of God brings us into the body of Christ and unites us as one body. Paul reminded the elders of the church that God has purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

Whereas we were once strangers and foreigners separate from Christ, we become members of Christ's body by the blood of Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 2:11-13,19). Each member of Christ's body is brought into the church by the blood of Christ. During baptism, the blood of Jesus Christ washes the believer, making them a part of His church. Being a member of the body of Christ, they are intimately united with Christ.

Notes:
[1] Albert Oepke, "bapto, etc.," Theological Dictionary of the new Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1964), I:539.

="/believe/bb/basicbelief_Baptism3.cfm">What is the right way to be baptized?

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