Is Baptism Essential for Salvation?

Is Baptism Essential for Salvation?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 3:21pm

A READER HAS ASKED the straightforward question, “Is baptism essential for salvation?” My straightforward (but qualified) answer is this: “Under normal circumstances, since the Day of Pentecost, YES.” In my book, “Baptism: A Biblical Study” (College Press, 2 ed., 2006) I have shown that the 12 NT texts that say anything at all about the purpose of baptism all testify to its saving significance. Water baptism is clearly described as the time or occasion during which God bestows salvation upon the one being baptized. Honest exegesis can yield no other conclusion.

By “baptism” I mean the immersion of a believing, repentant sinner into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. This is immersion in water, which is at the same time an immersion into the Holy Spirit. The separation of the ONE BAPTISM (Eph. 4:5) into two separate acts (first in Spirit, later in water) is a false doctrine begun by Huldreich Zwingli about A.D. 1525.

I say “since the Day of Pentecost” because that is when Christian baptism was first introduced, i.e., by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:38. The act of baptism draws its saving significance from the completed work of Jesus Christ (finalized by his ascension ten days before Pentecost) and from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost itself.

John’s baptism is parallel to Christian baptism only in form (i.e., as immersion), not in meaning and purpose (see Acts 19:1-7). No conclusions about Christian baptism can be drawn from John’s baptism, or from Jesus’s baptism (since he was baptized by John, and since his baptism was unique to his own purposes). The fact that the thief on the cross was not baptized with Christian baptism is totally irrelevant, since that was pre-Pentecost.

What do I mean by “under normal circumstances”? Two things. First, “normal circumstances” assumes that water baptism is physically possible. It is conceivable that a sinner may understand that baptism is where God has promised to save him and may sincerely desire to be baptized, but is unavoidably prevented from doing so by his circumstances. In such a case, Christians through the ages have trusted God to “take the will for the deed,” and have considered the person to have received a “baptism of desire.” See my “Baptism” book (p. 27): “’Baptism of desire’ refers to ANY situation in which a believer honestly desires to meet the condition of baptism but is prevented from doing so by irremedial physical circumstances, e.g., confined to prison, nailed to a cross, pinned down by enemy gunfire, lost in a desert.”

As further explained in the same book (pp. 27-28): “In this connection we must be careful to guard against an error that is quite common within Protestantism, namely, a glossing over of the distinction between absolute and relative necessity as it refers to baptism. It is common practice to cite a situation in which water baptism for a believer is impossible (e.g., lost in a desert) and to conclude from such that baptism has NO necessary connection with salvation at all. That is to say, an example that proves at most that baptism is not ABSOLUTELY necessary is used to prove that it is not necessary even under ORDINARY [normal] circumstances. This is a non sequitur: it does not follow. In any normal situation where water baptism is at all possible, it is a condition for salvation: ‘He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved’ (Mark 16:16).”

Second, “normal circumstances” means that the sincere believer has had a genuine opportunity to understand the true Biblical teaching about baptism and has conscientiously acted upon that knowledge. The problem here is that there is so much false doctrine about baptism that is innocently accepted as truth (e.g., sprinkling instead of immersion) that many sincere believers THINK they have “done the right thing” with baptism when in fact they have not. Even though these folks cannot be accepted now as members of the body of Christ (since we finite beings cannot know their hearts), it is possible that they may finally be saved anyway, as I have explained in my book, “The Faith Once for All,” p. 373:

“In the final judgment we can expect God to judge all persons who have received baptism improperly in the same way that he will judge everyone else, namely, in accordance with their CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT. No one will be condemned for failing to meet some particular requirement as long as he is conscientiously responding to whatever light is available to him (see Rom 4:15). It is obvious that human traditions have seriously distorted and limited the light of Scripture concerning baptism, and many sincere people have responded in good conscience to what light they have. For this reason we may hope to see such people in heaven.”

“This last point does not permit us to give anyone false assurance about his present state of salvation, however; nor does it give us the right to change the clear teaching of Scripture on believers’ immersion for salvation. The ‘available light’ principle applies only to future judgment, and it can be applied only by the omniscient God. For us today, as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, we must continue to believe and proclaim the clear Biblical teaching about baptism without cowardice and without compromise.”

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