Throughout the ages, the Church has often found itself battling false doctrines and textual misinterpretation in order to preserve the pure Apostolic faith as recorded within the New Testament. It has been forced to defend such core teachings as the Trinity, the absolute Deity of Christ, the Personality of the Holy Spirit, etc. from cults claiming to have the correct interpretation of the Scripture. Recently, the Church has been forced to address the role baptism plays in a person’s salvation, due mainly to movements such as the International Church of Christ which state that Salvation does not occur until one is fully baptized. This is in marked contrast with the Protestant Reformation belief of sola fida, that it is solely faith apart from works which justifies the believer.
To see which view is correct, we will examine the proof-texts that are commonly appealed to by groups like the Church of Christ and see whether the Bible does teach the necessity of baptism for salvation.
Before doing let us first define the word “baptism” and examine the different types presented within the New Testament. The word “baptism” is derived from the “dyers” trade and was used in secular language to mean to dye a piece of cloth. When a person wanted something dyed, he would go to a dyer who would take the item and “dip”, “dunk”, or “immerse” it into a vat of colored dye. Upon removal, the material then became “identified” with the color it was dyed in. Hence the word itself is used in several different ways depending upon the context, with one example being its metaphysical usage to indicate the believer’s “union” or “identification” with Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf. ROM 6:3, 4).
Types of Baptisms include:
The Baptism of Moses (1 COR 10:1, 2)
Here baptism is used symbolically to identify Israel’s “union” with Moses. It cannot be taken literally, since none of the Israelites were actually immersed in water, but walked on dry land instead.
The Baptism of the Cup (Cross) (MK 10:38, 39 ; LK 12:50).
Jesus’ drinking of the “cup” of God’s wrath immersed, i.e. “baptized,” in the death and resurrection on behalf of fallen humanity, again pointing to the metaphorical interpretation of the word.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 COR 12:13, GAL 3:27)
A believer is “united” or “immersed” into the body of Christ by the Spirit of God, thus forever becoming one with the Lord.
Baptism of Fire (MT 3:11, 12 ; LK 3:16, 17)
The outpouring of God’s wrath upon unrepentant sinners who are then “immersed” into the lake of fire.
Actual water immersion symbolizing repentance and forgiveness of sins.
The Lord’s baptism by John at the river Jordan served a fourfold purpose:
1. A prefiguring of His eventual death and resurrection
2. The unveiling of His identity to John which included the Holy Spirit’s descent (cf. JN 1:33, 34)
3. His identification with sinners, becoming sin for us. (2 Cor. 5:21)
4. The fulfillment of righteousness (MT 3:15)
This last factor is the most important in relation to our study, since Christ identifies baptism as a work of righteousness, something which bears heavily on the biblical view of salvation.
Proceeding further, we present the following list of biblical texts in which denominations such as the Church of Christ use as proof for the necessity of baptism in regeneration.
“Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (ACTS 2:38)
Misinterpretation - According to one Church of Christ publication, “Acts 2:38 teaches the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit come as a result of repentance and baptism.... The gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted after a person repents and allows himself to be baptized.”
(Rex Geissler, Born of Water-What the Bible says About Baptism, p.24).
Response - A basic biblical principle in interpreting scripture is that passages that are obscure or difficult must be explained in light of the easier, clearer ones. One cannot build a theology on a single verse or on difficult passages. Further, the key in understanding this passage lies in the Greek word ”for”, eis, which can either mean “with a view to” or “because of”. Thus, water baptism would be because they had been regenerated, not in order to be saved. >BR>
That this interpretation is correct can easily be seen in ACTS 10:44-47, where Cornelius and his friends and family received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized, indicating that it is belief in Christ apart from baptism which saves. Keeping in mind that it is the Holy Spirit who regenerates, basically affirms that Cornelius and his household had experienced the new-birth without even being baptized. (cf. EPH 1:13, 14)
“Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But whoever refuses to believe will be condemned”. (MK 16:16)
Misinterpretation - One must believe and be baptized in order to be saved, since without baptism following belief results in condemnation.
Response - On the contrary, it is disbelief that brings condemnation: “He who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”
Further, scholars are divided over the authenticity of this passage since two of the oldest MSS do not have vv. 9-20. Those MSS. that do contain it, although being in the majority, are not unanimous in their rendering since variants exist. This has made the passages’ reliability very questionable.
Finally, to say that not being baptized results in unforgiveness is committing the fallacy of negative inference, since nowhere do the Scriptures state this. The fallacy of saying “If A, then B” equates to “If not A, then not B” can be seen in the following example: Suppose someone says, “a person born in Chicago is an American;” could we then infer that someone not born in Chicago was therefore not an American? -Of course not.
This is the same reason why we cannot infer the negative in regards to baptism, since as noted above, the scripture nowhere implies this. The Bible does however state that, “He who does not believed is condemned....” (JN 3:18, 36). Hence it is faith in Christ alone that saves (cf. JN 3:16-18, 36; 5:24; 6:40,47; 20:30-31; ACTS 26:17-18).
“The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (JN 3:5)
Misinterpretation - Once more, the necessity of baptism for receiving the Holy Spirit is affirmed.
Response - As we had noted earlier, believers such as Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before being baptized, affirming that salvation comes from hearing the word.
(cf. ACTS 10:37; ROM 10:17).
Furthermore, one group of Samaritans had been converted and were baptized by Philip and they still had not received the Holy Spirit. (ACTS 8:12-17). This strongly argues against the necessity of baptism for regeneration. In fact, this passage does not refer to baptism, but is contrasting the natural birth with the supernatural: “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” (v.6)
Not only does the term “water” refer to the mother’s womb (i.e. water of the womb) but also symbolizes the regenerative cleansing effect of hearing God’s word:
“You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” (JN 15:3).“...not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ Our Savior....” (TITUS 3:5-6).
We are washed spiritually by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, not by water baptism.
“....since you have purified your souls by obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives forever...”
(1 PET 1:22-23; cf. JN 3:3).
“...that He (Christ) might sanctify and cleanse her (the Church) with the washing of water by the word...” (EPH 5:26)
It is obeying the word which purifies one spiritually, causing the new birth. It has nothing to do with water baptism whatsoever.
,br> “And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on the name of the Lord.” (ACTS 22:16)
Misinterpretation - One must be baptized after calling on Jesus’ name to receive forgiveness. Not to do so would result in unbelief.
Response - Romans 10:13- “And whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (cf. JOEL 2:32) .
Baptism follows salvation, and is not the cause of it. (See comments on MK 16:16).
“And this is a picture of baptism, which now saves you by the power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Baptism is not a removal of dirt from your body; it is an appeal to God from a clean conscience.” (1 PET 3:21).
Misinterpretation - Peter indicates that baptism imparts salvation.
Response - On the contrary, Peter is speaking of the symbolism behind baptism which saves a person: “it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ...” The entire passage deals with symbology since Peter indicates that the flood waters during Noah’s time saved Noah and his family (v.20). It becomes obvious that this is not meant to be taken literally, seeing that far from saving Noah, the flood destroyed all living flesh upon the earth at the time. Hence, it is futile to build a baptismal regeneration theology from this Petrine passage.
Other reasons why one cannot build a theology around baptismal regeneration include:
Jesus Christ identified baptism as a work of righteousness (MT 3:15), whereas the Bible specifically states that one is saved by grace through faith, not by the righteous deeds that we do. (cf. ROM 4:1-8; EPH 2:8-9; TITUS 3:5).
The thief on the cross was saved by his confession of faith without having to be baptized (LK 23:43). Some argue that baptism was part of the New Covenant which had not been instituted until Christ’s resurrection, disqualifying the thief’s need for baptism. This reasoning is erroneous since Christ had already instituted the New Covenant the night before at the Passover meal. (LK 23:14-20).
Note - We realize the serious limitation in using this particular argument seeing that the circumstances surrounding this case made it impossible for baptism to occur. Hence, this is a special event and cannot be used to demonstrate the position of baptism in relation to regeneration.
Paul was sent to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ which brought salvation and the forgiveness of sins. (c.f. Acts 26:17-18; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-2) Paul also states in 1 COR 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel.” This is an amazing statement for Paul to make since this would prove that baptism has nothing to do with salvation and forgiveness, clearly distinguishing it from the Gospel which is the sole cause for salvation.
Scripture clearly teaches that a person cannot confess Jesus Christ as Lord unless it is granted beforehand by God:
“Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.”
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’” Mt 16:16-17
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him...” John 6:44
“And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” John 6:65
“Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” 1Cor. 12:3
This last passage refutes the belief that the Spirit is only granted after baptism, since without the Spirit enabling a person beforehand to confess Christ as Lord makes baptism useless and unnecessary. Hence, regeneration must occur before baptism, otherwise receiving Christ as Lord becomes impossible.
Finally, the Holy Bible clearly shows that an unregenerated person can never do the works pleasing to God:
“But we are all like an unclean thing, and our righteousness are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf.” Is. 64:6
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.
“So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Rom. 8:7-8
The preceding passages make it exceptionally hard to hold to a baptismal regeneration perspective. Since a person is not regenerated until after baptism, this would make it a work done in the flesh and is therefore unacceptable to God. Hence, one must presume that regeneration has already occurred beforehand enabling a person to do the works pleasing to God, otherwise the Scripture is seen to contradict itself.
These factors completely expose the fallacy and weakness of holding to a baptismal regeneration perspective, since the overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that one is saved by faith in Christ and His perfect and complete work on the cross only. After a person is saved he is transformed to do the works which glorify God, reflecting His holiness in our lives. Hence, we are not saved by works, but are saved to do good works having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us:
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (EPH 2:10)