Is Baptism Essential for Salvation?
This is another favourite topic of many cults. Quoting verses such as 1 Peter 3:21
“And corresponding to that, baptism that now saves you…”
and Acts 2:38
” …Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”
they state that it is essential to be baptised to be saved. However, we need to look at the subject as a whole and we need to start in the Old Testament.
God works within a covenant (see for example Hebrews 13:20) – a pact or agreement between two or more parties. If we do not understand covenant we cannot fully understand baptism because baptism is a covenant sign.
Baptism is an outward representation of an inward reality. It represents the reality of being born again of God. Death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is one of the signs of the Covenant of Grace that was instituted by Jesus. Speaking of this sign and the Lord’s Table we read,
“They represent the same spiritual blessings that were symbolized by circumcision and Passover in the old dispensation.” – Lewis Berkhoff, Systematic Theology, 1988, p.620.
Circumcision, necessary under the Old Covenant, was the sign of someone accepting the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17:9-13), however, it did not save but was confirmation of what God had already done in blessing them and giving them the covenant. Under the new Covenant there are no ‘works’ and Baptism is the sign that we have already accepted Christ’s saving work.
In the New Testament, circumcision and baptism are brought together in Colossians 2:11-12,
“and in him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
Baptism – with no blood being shed – replaces the Old Testament circumcision because in circumcision there was the shedding of blood but now the blood of Christ has been shed. As a covenant sign baptism is an outward declaration of the inward spiritual blessing of new birth.
Many times we have declarations of the saving gospel – see for instance 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 but there is no mention of baptism. These verses are especially interesting when read in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 1:17 where Paul declares that, “he did not come to baptise” but,“he did come to preach the gospel.” Obviously, baptism is not an essential part of the gospel of salvation.
Now we need to look at the two verses we quoted at the beginning and show how to answer them.
” …Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” – Acts 2:38
Matthew 26:28 also uses this phrase:
“for this is My blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins”
This verse in Matthew shows quite clearly that it is the blood of Jesus Christ that enables sins to be forgiven NOT my being baptised. What, then, is the meaning of Acts 2:38, because it cannot contradict the words of the Lord Jesus.
In Acts 2:38 the Greek words for “repent” and “your” are shown to be related to each other by both being in the plural. It is like saying, “All of you repent, each of you get baptised and all of you will receive forgiveness.” Repentance is a clear mark of salvation because it can only be granted by God:
“…if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:25
Repentance therefore means that the person becomes a believer, and only then is baptised. The baptism is not the act that saves, the repentance leads to a relationship with Christ through His blood and thus saved they are baptised. Baptism is the manifestation of the repentance, that gift from God, that is the sign of the circumcised heart. That is why it says, repent and get baptised.
“And corresponding to that, baptism that now saves you…” – 1 Peter 3:21
The key word in this verse is the Greek antitupon – meaning “copy, type, corresponding to, a thing resembling another or its counterpart.” Baptism is a representation, a copy, a type of something else. So, what is baptism a type of what does it corresponds to?
The answer is found in verse 20. What does baptism correspond to – the flood or the ark? What saved Noah and his family? The Ark that Noah entered by faith. Baptism here refers to the Ark not the waters. In NT terms then what is the ark or rather who is the ark? Obviously, salvation is being “in Jesus” our NT ark not being in the waters, which destroyed.
All Scripture gives the same message – baptism is not necessary for salvation it is the sign that we have already entered into the covenant of grace.