|Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes (1425)|
Do we need to be baptized to be saved? Catholics say yes, while acknowledging that certain cases exist in which water baptism is impossible, and a person is still saved, like the good thief on the cross. In other words, even if it’s possible that someone may be saved without receiving water baptism, we need to be baptized to be saved. You know about the necessity of baptism (if you didn’t before, you do now!), and have the opportunity to be baptized.
Many Protestant denominations disagree with that answer. Ironically (given their name), Baptists are the most vocal opponents of this view of baptism. In their view, Baptism doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t wash away our sins; it doesn’t incorporate us into the Church, the Body of Christ; it doesn’t bring us into the New Covenant; and it certainly doesn’t save us. Instead, Baptism is just a symbol of the fact that we’re already saved. It’s a “testimony” of our salvation, to let everybody know we’re saved.
There are plenty of debated doctrines within Christianity in which an honest reader is left seeing both sides of the issue You might come to the conclusion that X is the right answer, but you can at least see where the people who support Y are coming from, and which Bible verses might lend support to Y.
That’s hard to do on this question. The Baptist view simply isn’t found in Scripture. There aren’t any verses that speak of Baptism as merely symbolic, and there are several that teach the exact opposite. The Old Testament is replete with prefigurements of the Holy Spirit’s role in saving us in Baptism. For example:
- The Spirit hovering over the waters at the dawn of the world (Genesis 1:2)
- Noah’s Ark, in which salvation came through water, as 1 Peter 3 reminds us, and in which a dove crosses the water to show that the Flood is over (Gen. 8:11).
- The parting of the Red Sea, in which salvation once again came from passing through water, and which St. Paul would later call a kind of baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
- The Mosaic Law, which used ritual washing as a way of signifying cleansing from sins.
- Naaman’s healing in 2 Kings 5, in which a skeptical leper is healed by submerging himself in the waters. He initially objects at the seeming foolishness of a miraculous cleansing through waters (2 Kings 5:11-12).
And the New Testament, as we’ll see, has several passages explicitly describing Baptism in the way that the Catholic Church claims. But perhaps the clearest way to see how well the Baptist case holds up is simply to present it side-by-side with Scripture. Now, I’m using the case laid out by Baptist Distinctives. If you think this overlooks some important argument, I’ll gladly add it. With that in mind, let’s compare the Baptist claims about Baptism with what the Bible teaches:
|The Baptist Claim||The Bible|
Question 1. Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
Claim: “Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. [….] Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation.“
Truth: Scripture explicitly tells us that for salvation we need both faith and baptism (Mark 16:16), and that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21).
Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.“
1 Peter 3:18-22, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.“
Question 2. What did St. Peter says about Baptism in his Pentecost Sermon?
Claim: “In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).“
Truth: Nowhere in Peter’s Pentecost sermon does he say anything about Baptism being a “testimony” that his listeners “had been saved.” Instead, he tells them it’s (a) for the forgiveness of sins, (b) imparts the Holy Spirit, and (c) saves them.
Acts 2:37-38, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Question 3. Does Baptism Wash Away Sins?
Claim: “For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. [….] Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.“
Truth: St. Paul doesn’t claim that his sins were washed away on the road to Damascus. Rather, as his own conversion story attests, Baptism does wash away sins (Acts 22:16):
Acts 22:6-16, “As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
As you can see, these passages of the Bible just don’t say what the Baptist side is claiming that they say. Frequently, they say the exact opposite. I want to focus on one verse in particular, Mark 16:16. It’s after the Resurrection, and Jesus is sending His Apostles out to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And He says this to the Apostles as He is sending them out: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
Catholics claim that you need faith and Baptism to be saved. Jesus just said you need faith and Baptism. That settles it, right? Not quite. Here’s how Matt Slick of CARM attempts to salvage the Baptist position, in light of Mark 16:16:
This verse is frequently used by baptismal regenerationists to show that baptism is necessary for salvation. It says he who believes and is baptized will be saved. Therefore, they conclude that baptism is a necessary part of becoming saved. But, does this verse prove that baptism is necessary for salvation? Not at all.
Mark 16:16 does not say that baptism is a requirement for salvation. Let me show you why. I could easily say that he who believes and goes to church will be saved. That is true. But it is belief that saves–not belief and going to church. Likewise, if you believe and read your Bible, you’ll be saved. But it isn’t reading your Bible that saves you. Rather, belief in Christ and in His sacrifice is what saves.
Stop and think about this exegesis for a second. Imagine that Jesus really is teaching that belief is all you need to be saved, and that Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation. Can you imagine a worse way to present that than “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”? If the second condition is unnecessary, why did Jesus include it at all? Why in the world wouldn’t He just say “He who believes will be saved”?
In Slick’s analysis, the clause “and is baptized” is meaningless. It adds nothing to the verse. According to this view, the verse means the exact same thing whether that clause is in or out, or whether it’s replaced with any other condition-that’s-not-really-a-condition like reading your Bible or going to church… or, for that matter, anything. Jesus could just as well have said, “He who believes and is left-handed will be saved,” and it wouldn’t matter, since the second condition is just a red herring that has nothing to do with our salvation.
Even Slick doesn’t actually seem particularly convinced by this slick exegesis. He spends most of the rest of the article suggesting that maybe the last part of the Gospel of Mark shouldn’t be considered Scripture.
Imagine that you have a job interview, and the interviewer ends by saying, “If your references check out, and you have five years of job experience, the job is yours.” The interviewer’s just laid out two prerequisites for your securing the position. If you were to take the equivalent of the Baptist view on Baptism, you would understand this to mean that as long as you have good references, you’ve got the job. Then, once you get the job, you can get those five years of job experience.
That interpretation is clearly mistaken. And the mistake is this: the five years’ experience is presented as a prerequisite to your goal, whereas you’re treating it as a result of your goal.
That’s what’s going on with this Baptism question. Baptist Distinctives claims that “baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation” just as Matt Slick believes that “Baptism is simply a public demonstration of the inner work of regeneration.” In other words, after you’re saved, you get baptized. They’re treating it as a result of your salvation, where Jesus describes it as a prerequisite.
While we’re on the subject, permit me a small aside. Mark 16:16, as we’ve seen, presents two prerequisites for salvation: faith and Baptism. Baptists treat one of these, Baptism, as if were actually a consequence of salvation. Calvinists fare worse: they treat both conditions as if they were consequences of salvation. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:
As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
The Calvinist view can be summed up this way: from the dawn of time, God divided humanity into two groups: the elect and the reprobate. The elect will be saved, no matter what. The reprobate will be damned, no matter what.
But in this case, the elect’s salvation doesn’t occur at the moment that they’re baptized, or even the moment that they come to faith. Rather, both their faith and their Baptism are the results of God’s eternal decree of salvation. At the very least, at the moment that Christ died for them, this made it impossible for them to go to Hell, according to the (faulty) logic of Limited Atonement. But whether you view the relevant date as 33 A.D. or all eternity, it was well before the lifetime of the believer. There was no moment in which they were, in any meaningful sense, “unsaved.”
So we can contrast the three views like this:
That’s what makes this question in Mark 16:16 so critical. It provides a clean contrast between what Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church teach about the prerequisites for salvation, and what’s taught by the Baptists and Calvinists. And the result of our examination is that yes, contrary to what some Protestants believe, Scripture teaches that Baptism is necessary for salvation.