Does Water Baptism Save?

An Evangelical blogger and prison chaplain named Jeremy Myers wrote a post called “Don’t Get Baptized. Cut Your Hair!” His argument was that since Baptism was only symbolic, we should substitute for a symbol that we find more meaningful, like cutting our hair, or changing our names. From a Christian perspective, this is some of the worst advice you could ever give a person. That’s not an exaggeration.  Jesus Christ tells us to get Baptized, and explicitly ties it to inheriting eternal life in Mark 16:16 and in John 3:5.  So this is a call to disobey Christ.  I don’t care how clever the reasons are, that’s astonishingly reckless advice.

Victor Vasnetsov. Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890)

I confronted him about this, saying:

I understand that you view Baptism as strictly symbolic, and probably think it’s fine to replace one symbol with another. But given how often Scripture speaks of Baptism as something that actually saves us by washing away our sins (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, John 3:5, Titus 3:5, etc.), shouldn’t you at least defer to the ancient practice?

After all, if there’s even a slim chance that you’re wrong, you may have just told people to violate Scripture and avoid the life-saving waters of Baptism. And what does it get them, or you, in return? A haircut? Or are you so confident that all of those Scriptural references really mean “Baptism is a symbol” that you’ll stake other peoples’ salvation on it?

His sole response was:

Much of Scripture says that water baptism saves? 2-3 difficult verses at most. And in the context, “saves” from what?

I first answered the idea that there were “2-3 difficult verses at most” by sharing this video with him:

I then rephrased my original questions to him: “(a) why should anyone ever take your reading of Scripture over the overwhelming consensus of Christians throughout history? And (b) given that, if you’re wrong, people may end up in Hell (while if you’re right, it’s irrelevant), shouldn’t you at least not urge people to avoid water Baptism?”

He responded to this by saying:

I have never denied that baptism saves. I have denied that we get eternal life through water baptism. The two are very different. Baptism does “save.” But “saves” from what?

From the response, I’m not sure if he’s saying that Baptism saves us (but not from our sins), or that Baptism saves us from our sins (but not water Baptism). So I addressed both points:

Pietro Longhi, The Baptism (1755)

Baptism saves us from our sins. Jesus, in John 3:5, says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

St. Peter describes it like this in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In the context, this is clearly a reference to water Baptism (see Acts 2:41). Peter is also referring to water Baptism in 1 Peter 3:21, as 1 Peter 3:20 makes clear, with its reference to those who “were saved through water.

Ananias similarly describes the role of water Baptism as the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). And he says this to St. Paul after Paul has already come to faith (cf. Acts 9:17-19). Paul will later say that Christ “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; other translations: “washing of regeneration”). And in Hebrews 10:22, “having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” is expressly tied to “having our bodies washed with pure water.

Besides all of these direct references, there are countless prefigurements of water baptism washing away sins, from Noah’s Ark (which St. Peter explains in 1 Peter 3, mentioned above), to the Israelites passing through the Red Sea (which St. Paul compares with Baptism in 1 Cor. 10:1-2) to the healing of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5 (he also thought that the water element was pointless: cf. 2 Kings 5:12), to the healing of the blind man in John 9:1-11, etc., etc. Your earlier claim that there are “2-3 difficult verses at most” that describe water Baptism saving just isn’t accurate.

Johann Lucas Kracker,
St. Francis of Solano Baptizing Indians (1770)

Likewise […] there’s absolutely nothing in Scripture that says that the waters of Baptism are merely symbolic, so we should feel free to replace them with another symbol, like “getting a hair cut, or changing your name.” In fact, even on a symbolic level, cutting your hair or changing your name doesn’t preserve the washing imagery found in every single one of the Scriptural passages I referenced above. So even if you think Baptism is just symbolic… you’re ruining the symbol, the “symbol” specifically chosen by Jesus Christ.

Finally, let’s assume we can’t come to agreement on this issue: what then? Hopefully, even assuming you’re not 100% convinced that Christ established water Baptism, and didn’t make it optional (even for those who have already been filled with the Holy Spirit — Acts 10:47), you can at least see that there’s a distinct possibility that water Baptism is an important thing for salvation and that as a follower of Christ, you shouldn’t directly contradict Christ’s orders by telling people, “Don’t get Baptized.

So my suggestion is this: even if you’re not wholly convinced, at least stop being cavalier and reckless on this issue, since if you’re wrong, you’re potentially doing a world of damage, and that’s not something you want on your conscience. God bless.

I mention this publicly for two reasons: first, Myers’ post remains public, so it seems important to address it head-on; and second, because I think plenty of Evangelical Protestants have never seriously examined the question of what exactly Baptism does (focusing instead on the age for Baptism, and its external form:  whether it should be by sprinkling, partial immersion, or full immersion).

One of the reasons that I think many Evangelical Protestants haven’t looked at the issue very seriously is that the evidence is overwhelming.  Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that on many of the issues dividing Christians, there’s some degree of Scriptural ambiguity, and both sides can point to convincing-sounding passages to support their side.  That’s the hazard of sola Scriptura: on many of the big issues, you’re left guessing.  But this just isn’t the case on the question of whether Baptism saves.

Noah’s Ark (from an altar in Friesach)

On this issue, I don’t see a way that Scripture could be much clearer than saying that on Noah’s Ark, “a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Peter 3:20-21).  So the Baptismal imagery in Scripture is particularly rich, and quite unambiguous that Baptism is more than a symbol.

This fact is made more apparent by contrasting it with the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance than didn’t impart the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).  In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters about a dozen men, headed by Apollos, who had received John’s baptism (Acts 19:3).  He then gives them a Christian Baptism, at which point the Holy Spirit descends upon them (Acts 19:5-6).  Yet we’re to believe that Christian Baptism is just symbolic, that it’s less than John’s baptism (Matthew 21:25)?

So the problem doesn’t seem to be ambiguity in Scripture.  Rather, it appears to be (1) some sort of dogmatic rejection of the whole idea of sacraments, or (2) a presupposition that saving faith is a formless thing that Baptism would somehow detract from.  Given the clear Scriptural evidence, then, it may be time to revisit and correct those faulty assumption.  Finally, to those claiming that Baptism is just a symbol, what is the Scriptural support for this?


  1. Well done Joe. I think your direct but irenic response struck precisely the correct tone. I am greatly dismayed by by his cavalier attitude towards disregarding the Lord’s command.

  2. The issue of baptism was one of the key issues that opened by mind & heart to start looking into the Catholic Church. While still solidly in the Evangelical Protestant camp, I started wondering why, if baptism was just a symbolic act, Jesus and the primitive church of the NT seemed to have this OCD with baptism & water. In light of how it is underplayed in evangelical circles, it didn’t jive with the prominence it has in the New Testament. I kept thinking, if baptism was just supposed to be an outward sign or testimony to the world that we’ve decided to follow Jeuss, then why didn’t He tell us to put a fish tatoo on or foreheads or something? I decided to work through all the verses I could find in the NT on baptism, washing, water, etc., and was stunned to discover, that just based on Scripture alone, it was clear that that baptism actually does something to us and is the locus of regeneration – which is the basic perspective of sacramental thinking. Damn! Those Catholics were right! Great post.

  3. I recently came across a street apologetics web site which was not Catholic, but I was interested in learning what techniques they were employing to convert people. To my great surprise, the owner of the site was employing his rhetoric into convincing people that baptism was only symbolic, and conferred nothing. It was pretty disappointing, since I am inspired by seeing brave people get up on a soap box in the middle of the city proclaiming the good news. I think sometimes people look at the scriptural evidence for baptism of desire and blood in situations of distress and wrongly conclude that baptism by water must be symbolic because a person was saved without it. i.e. St. Dismas

    1. When I first got to D.C. and saw people handing out tracts or preaching in the street, I was thrilled by it — like you said, it seems like that takes real courage, and a real love of the Gospel.  But so often, the messages being proclaimed weren’t even recognizably Christian.  Earlier this month, I crossed paths with the racist Black Hebrew Israelites, who were preaching black supremacy outside the Chinatown Metro station.

      Then, last week, I ran into a guy passing out tracts in Old Town Alexandria, but when I took one, I realized that it was telling me to leave my Church.  I asked him who he was with, and who was responsible for the tracts.  He admitted that it was Family Radio, the group that twice falsely predicted the Apocalypse last year.  He didn’t want to discuss the details of their failed prophecies (or why he stayed with a group that had two really obviously false prophesies), and wouldn’t agree to read anything I sent him, so I just threw his tract away and moved on.

      And while that’s D.C., I did undergraduate in Topeka, Kansas, home of Fred Phelps’ crazy Westboro Baptist Church.  So I definitely share your lament that the people representing Christianity in the public square (literally) are often the single worst representations of the faith that we could find.

  4. One counter argument is citing Acts when the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (the Gentile “Pentecost”) _before_ they are baptized. Protestants use this to claim that baptism doesn’t regenerate and lead to reception of the Holy Spirit, so it is just symbolic.

  5. You do realize that these books were written for and by people 2,000 years stupider than us, don’t you? Must we be married to their quaint little practices when we can think of way more meaningful ones?

  6. Very nice job Joe! Baptism had a huge impact on my decision to seek communion with the Catholic Church. You can read my reflection at my blog as well.

  7. I like the article and the comments that followed. One thing that struck me during this article was the way that we may approach Baptism. A modern American view, which is sadly driving the chaplain blogger, comes at Baptism and asks “What can you do for me?” This mentality will see “Christians” acting like the rest of the members of our society, so he or she can accurately say that Baptism does nothing. A person seeking the Messiah, like the first disciples, would come to Baptism and ask, “What can you do to me?” It might be too subtle, but a seeker of the Messiah wants to come to Christ with an contrite heart to be changed and given new life. What can it do for me? Not much. What can it do to me? Heaven only knows!

  8. I read all the posts and comments here and at the blogger’s site. Jeremey, the blogger, has a rather idiosyncratic belief that being “saved” is not equivalent to “eternal life.” Then rereading the post here, I could see why he was not convinced. Also, all the talk of people possibly being damned without Baptism plays directly into his fears and objections to traditional teaching and practice. Making headway with him will require a sympathetic understanding of his situation and a commitment to at least read his exhaustive writings on baptism and theology in general and address his idiosyncratic questions, I think.

  9. Baptists and evangelicals are absolutely correct…there is no SPECIFIC mention in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants. There are references to entire households being converted and baptized, but we orthodox cannot prove, just from Scripture, that these households had infants, and neither can Baptists and evangelicals prove, just from Scripture, that they did not.

    One interesting point that Baptists/evangelicals should note is that although there is no specific mention of infant baptism in the Bible…neither is there a prohibition of infant baptism in the Bible. Christians are commanded by Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations. No age restrictions are mentioned. If Christ had intended his followers to understand that infants could not be baptized in the New Covenant, in a household conversion process as was the practice of the Jews of Christ’s day in converting Gentile households to the Covenant of Abraham, it is strange that no mention is made of this prohibition.

    So, the only real way to find out if Infant Baptism was practiced by the Apostles is to look at the writings of the early Christians, some of whom were disciples of the Apostles, such as Polycarp, and see what they said on this issue.

    And here is a key point: Infant Baptism makes absolutely no sense if you believe that sinners can and must make an informed, mature decision to believe in order to be saved. Infants cannot make informed, mature decisions, so if this is the correct Doctrine of Justification/Salvation, Infant Baptism is clearly false teaching. But the (arminian) Baptist/evangelical Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is unscriptural. Being forced to make a decision to obtain a gift, makes the gift no longer free. This is salvation by works.

    Baptism is a command of God. It is not a work of man. God says in plain, simple language, in multiple locations in the Bible, that he saves/forgives sins in Baptism. We orthodox Christians accept God’s literal Word. We take our infants to be baptized because God says to do it. Our infants are not saved because we perform the act of bringing them to the baptismal font…they are saved by the power of God’s Word pronounced at the time of the Baptism. Christians have believed this for 2,000 years!

    There is no evidence that any Christian in the early Church believed that sinners are saved by making a free will decision and then are baptized solely as a public profession of faith. None.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  10. So how can intelligent, educated Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians read the same Bible and come up with completely different interpretations? I would like to compare our two different approaches to interpreting the Bible with a non-biblical quote as an example.

    How does one interpret this phrase: “All men are created equal” from the US Bill of Rights?

    Baptist approach: Let’s look at the original language at the time that this phrase was written in the late 1700’s and see what the original meaning of each of the words in the phrase was: So…the word “men” meant “the plural of one adult male human being”. Therefore, this phrase means that all men, every adult male human being on earth, is created equal. That is the meaning in the original language. Any other interpretation of this phrase is false.

    Lutheran approach: Let’s look at the original language of this text and the cultural context in which it was written. Also, let’s look at the writings of contemporary writers of that period to see that they believed that the writers of the Bill of Rights meant to say in the phrase in question. So…when comparing the original language of the text with the documented, known cultural context, verified by the writings of other contemporary writers of that time period, we reach the conclusion that the phrase used by the writers of the US Bill of Rights “all men are created equal” did NOT mean that all adult, human males on planet earth are created equal, but that only WHITE European males are created equal.

    Does any educated person today really believe that the Southern signers of the US Constitution believed that adult black males were created equal to them?? (Most Northerners did not believe that either.)

    Do you see how easy it is to arrive at a different interpretation of any “ancient” document if you are unwilling to look at contemporary evidence from that time period to confirm your interpretation?
    There is NO evidence of any early Christian believing the Baptist/evangelical position of Symbolic, adult-only Baptism; that in Baptism God does NOT forgive sins. The Baptist/evangelical interpretation of Scripture is very logical and reasonable, but as in the case of the “Baptist” interpretation of the Bill of Rights…it is completely wrong!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    Why do men fictionalize Scriptures rather than reading them and believing them? I will let you reach your own conclusion as to the answer. What is is purpose of water baptism according to Acts 2:38?

    1. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and each of you bebaptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (New American Standard Bible)

    2. Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible New International Version 1983)

    3. Acts 2:38 The Peter said unto them,Let each of of you repent and be immersed, in the name of Jesus Christ, in order to the remission of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. ) The Better Version of the New Testament by Chester Estes)

    4. Acts 2:38 Peter told them, “You must repent and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, so that you may have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips)


    1. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized because your sins have already been forgiven. (Fictional Account)

    2. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized as a testimony of your faith. (Invented Version)

    3. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized as an act of obedience. (Fantasy Translation)

    4. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized because you were forgiven the minute you believed. (The Version of Unfounded Truth)

    5. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized with Holy Spirit baptism; because water baptism is not a New Covenant requirement. (The Version of Spurious and Erroneous Quotes)

    6. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, for the forgiveness of sins; but water baptism is optional, because the thief on the cross was not baptized in water. (The Counterfeit Version of Truth)

    7. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Rent and be baptized in order to join denomination of your choice. (The Creed Bible By Men)

    8. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized as a symbolic jester, pointing to the fact that your sins were forgiven when you said “The Sinner’s Prayer.” ( The Book of Stuff Men made-up)

    9. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized to indicate the outward sign of the forgiveness you received the very minute you believed. ( The Fabricated Book of Fantasy Verses)

    10. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent and have your committed sins forgiven by faith only. And then be baptized to be forgiven of the sin Adam committed. (The Denominational Revision of Fictional Truth)



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  12. Your comments reflect a major misconception that evangelicals and the Reformed have of orthodox Christians. Lutherans do not believe that baptism is necessary (mandatory) for salvation. Not even the Roman Catholic Church believes this. All the saints of the Old Testament, the thief on the cross, and thousand of martyrs down through the centuries have been saved without Baptism. Baptism is not the “how” of salvation!

    Lutherans believe that baptism is one of several “when”s of salvation, it is not the “how” of salvation. The “how” of salvation is and always has been the power of God’s Word/God’s declaration of righteousness.

    A sinner can be saved by the power of God’s Word when he hears the Word preached in a church, preached on TV or radio, reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room, or reading a Gospel tract that contains the Word. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, through the power of his Word alone, received in faith alone. In each of these situations, the sinner is saved the instant he or she believes. Baptism is NOT mandatory for salvation to occur.

    However, the Bible in multiple passages, also states that God uses his Word to save at the time of Baptism.

    It is the work of the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, that works salvation in the sinner’s spiritually dead soul, according to the second chapters of Ephesians and Colossians, and the third chapter of Romans. Your “decision for Christ” does not save you, neither does your decision to be baptized.

    God saves those whom he has elected, at the time and place of his choosing. Sometimes God saves them while hearing a sermon in church, sometimes at home reading the Word, and sometimes by the power of his Word spoken during Baptism.

    God does 100% of the saving. The sinner is a passive participant in his salvation. There is no passage in the New Testament that asks sinners to make a decision for Christ. The Bible states that God quickens sinners, gives them faith, and they believe and repent.

    The sinner does not decide to be saved. God decides to save the sinner!

    Baptism is not an automatic ticket into heaven. Although salvation is entirely God, there is no “decision” by man to be saved, sanctification requires the believer’s participation. God is not in heaven keeping track of our good deeds and our sins to decide whether or not to let us into heaven, but the Christian who turns his back on Christ by outright rejection (converting to Islam) or by ongoing willful sin/neglect of his faith, should be warned by the Church that he is “skating on thin ice”. He may wake up one day in hell to eternal damnation!

    No faith—>no salvation—>no eternal life

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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