This question can stir up heated debates among Christians. As usual, this is because the group on one side of the debate is lacking in a knowledge of the scriptures that can only be achieved from understanding them in the context in which they were written. Equally as important as the context in which they were written is how they fit into the whole context of the Bible, that is, an understanding of the totality of scripture. However we cannot ever forget that the Bible was written by God – all of it. It is his book, his instruction manual to us, his love letter to us. It is in fact more than just a book, as the scriptures say, the Bible is a living entity and reading it with an open heart is the primary way in which God communicates with us.
If you are looking for the short answer to this question it is: yes and no. Yes you must be baptized to be saved, but no it has nothing to do with getting your head wet. There are two types of baptism spoken of in the Bible. That is important to understand. The word “baptize’ is used in the Bible to refer to two different things. There is water baptism, which is a symbolic gesture, and then there is the baptism of the Holy Spirit – which is what happens when you decide to believe in and receive Jesus as your savior. This is also referred to as being born again.
• Receive Christ as your savior and you are baptized by the Holy Spirit, you are born again, and you are saved.
• Receive water baptism and you got your head wet, hopefully as an outward expression of your inward commitment to the Lord.
Notice how it is possible to be water-baptized and not be saved. This is one of the main problems with the doctrine of water-baptism being a requirement for salvation. People tend to associate any requirement as being the only requirement, especially since Christianity would seem to have so few requirements. Many churches teach that partaking in communion and water baptism are both requirements for salvation. Yet when Jesus was asked by the rich young ruler as to what he must do to be saved, he only replied that you must be born again.
So now we have some people thinking they are saved simply because they were water-baptized and took communion, yet they have no personal relationship with the Lord. That is no more assurance of being saved than going to church every Sunday is. Given a choice between being a person who attended church their entire life and took communion and was water-baptized, and a person who never did any of that but uttered a sincere Jesus forgive me with their dying breath, I would much rather be the second fellow. At least I know he is going to spend eternity in paradise with the Lord.
As Proverbs 16:2 tells us, God is interested in the condition of your heart. There is nothing you can do with your physical self, in this physical dimension, that can save you spiritually. Not jumping up and down on your left foot and reciting the ten commandments backwards in Hebrew. Not saying a million hail mary’s. Not having your head dunked in water, or sprinkles of water dropped on your head as an infant. And not eating a cracker followed by a shot of weak wine.
You must be born again. You must be baptized by the Holy Spirit. Those are the same thing, and this happens when you accept Christ into your heart and decide to believe in him, draw close to him, and trust his death on the cross as being the atoning sacrifice for your sins.
There are plenty of legalists who will argue this point. Some will even insist that very specific words must be spoken at your water baptism, or it “doesn’t count.” So the God who loves you so much that he sent his only Son to suffer and die in your place, is going to let you slip into the eternal hell even after you repent from your sin and ask forgiveness in his Son’s name, because of a legal technicality. This is, of course, absurd, when you understand the totality of scripture.
Legalists who insist that water baptism is necessary for salvation like to quote Mark 16:16. This is after the resurrection, when Jesus was sending his Apostles out into the world to start churches. If you don’t understand that there are two different meanings for the word baptism in the Bible, I can see why they think this. However a more correct interpretation of his statement would be …those who believe and are thereby baptized will be saved. It is the believing that baptizes you, not water on your head.
Remember John the Baptist. I think it is safe to say that nobody understood more about baptism than he did. Yet he himself said, …I baptize you with water but the one who comes after me, whose shoelace I am not fit to untie, will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. In the context of what he said, he basically was saying, “hey this water baptism is cool and all, but it is purely symbolic – the real baptism – the one you really need – is coming from the Messiah – and it is spiritual.”
Jesus did not say to the thief on the cross (who repented and turned to him), “gosh if only you could get water baptized you would be saved.” No, the Lord assured him that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. What exactly did the thief do to get saved? He repented and turned to Jesus. He decided to believe in Jesus and asked to be remembered. That’s all. Now I suppose some legalists would call this an exception. But if exceptions are available, then hey – maybe we can all hope to be an exception, right? Wrong. Exceptions are inconsistent with the totality of scripture. Turning to Jesus to be saved is consistent with the totality of scripture
Romans 10:13 says that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. It doesn’t mention anything about water-baptism.
Ephesians 2:8 tells us that by faith we are saved through grace. Not faith + water baptism.
John 20:31 tells us that by believing we may have life in his name. I could go on and on with these kinds of passages.
Finally, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:14 that he thanked God he did not baptize many people at this church, because they were now getting all legalistic and putting too much emphasis on rituals and not enough on the Lord. If water baptism were a requirement for salvation, Paul thanking God that he did not baptize people is tantamount to blasphemy. I personally thank God that (in his infinite grace and wisdom) he didn’t see fit to require us to dot a bunch of i’s and cross a bunch of t’s, because I would surely miss a few along the way.