A Few Thoughts on Baptism
Pastor Dennis Smith
What do you think? Is baptism necessary for salvation? A corollary question would be, is faith alone insufficient for salvation? Well, at Harvest we teach that salvation comes by grace through faith apart from works, which would include baptism. But that doesn’t mean that baptism is unimportant. I fear that Baptists, of all people, can actually downplay its significance, possibly in an attempt to stay as far away as possible from any thought of salvation by works. And from Baptists who do emphasize baptism, you may have heard it said that baptism is important because it is a public declaration of your faith and so a first step of obedience toward God. In other words, why be baptized? It’s because, they say, baptism is an opportunity for public witness. But I think that view of baptism falls far short of the mark. I believe the Scriptures show that baptism is much more than that.
You may have heard me say from the baptistry that while baptism does not accomplish salvation, it is to accompany salvation. By that I mean that, although water baptism does not result in salvation, it is to be part of the Christian’s salvation experience—baptism is to follow and accompany faith in Christ. Another way of saying this is that, while baptism does not result in salvation, salvation should result in baptism. We see this again and again in the New Testament. In fact, baptism is commanded as part of the disciple-making mission of the church (as in Matthew 28:19). Even if baptism is not required for salvation, God expects baptism of the believer.
We could list some 20 verses from Acts and the epistles in that regard. When we look at those passages, it is impossible to deny the importance of baptism. Just a few of these would be Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3–4; Colossians 2:12; and 1 Peter 3:21. In fact, oftentimes these verses are cited by churches that believe in baptismal regeneration (that is, salvation through the rite of baptism). My answer to that would be that, in the New Testament, baptism is so closely associated with belief that the apostles more or less use it in such passages as a metonymy (a type of figure of speech) for belief itself. As we suggested in the previous paragraph, we find this time after time in the scriptures. See, for example, Acts 8:36–38; 10:44–47 and 16:29–33.
While this could be a very long monograph on baptism, dealing with everything from baptism as an ordinance to the proper mode of baptism, here I want to simply present a thought on 1 Peter 3:21. (I admit that this verse presents some difficulties in interpretation, depending even on how it is punctuated!) In context, Peter is speaking of suffering for righteousness’ sake with Christ as our example, and in v. 21 he touches on what baptism is and isn’t.
First, comparing baptism to the flood in Noah’s day (and that can be another discussion), he says baptism saves us! So, what does he mean by that? Well, he then adds that baptism is not like some sort of cleansing or purifying bath, but rather, it is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” And baptism saves, he says, by means of Christ’s resurrection. (Compare 1 Peter 1:3 where he also connects the resurrection with salvation.) I think Peter means that baptism is an outward expression of a clear conscience before God that results from faith in Christ and his resurrection. So, this is one of those times that a New Testament writer uses baptism to stand for belief itself, and we have here that close association of baptism with faith. It’s in this sense that baptism “saves.”
Again, much more could be said about baptism. But for now, let me simply summarize and say that, based on Peter’s description of baptism in v. 21 and what we have said here, we can think of baptism as an outward expression, in the sight of God, of a settled commitment to follow Christ. It is a way of affirming to God and to ourselves, like the graphic on our baptism tee-shirts, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”
Of course, God knows the heart. He knows how our inward man has yielded to the gospel of Christ. Yet the Lord commands that we be baptized. It’s not up to us to say that there is no need for it. While a convert doesn’t have to understand all that the Bible says about baptism before submitting to it, he or she should not be left with the impression that it is unimportant or optional. Evidently Phillip the evangelist spoke of the significance of baptism to the Ethiopian official when he explained the gospel to him as we read in Acts 8.
So, are you a believer? Have you been born again? Then have you been baptized? If not, why not? And if you have been baptized, I hope that what we have said here might be a help and encouragement to you in your walk by faith.