“Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?” Questioning the Question.
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, August 20, 2010 at 3:50pm
“Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?”
QUESTION: A brother has written expressing his dismay upon discovering that his church’s preacher and many of its elders do not see baptism as related to salvation, appealing, e.g., to the thief on the cross and to the hypothetical new believer lost in the desert. One elder is quoted as saying, “You will never get me to believe you have to be baptized to get to heaven.” Another elder cited a quote from Hicks and Taylor’s book, “Down in the River To Pray,” thus: “God seeks hearts who seek Him, and God transforms people who seek him. God is not the supervisor of technicalities (baptism) who denies mercy to those who seek him but have mistaken his rituals through ignorance, weakness or other non-rebellious circumstances. God values transformed life above all else. We must not deny mercy to those whose transformed lives God values simply because they have not conformed to our understanding of a divine ritual. God values a transformed life more than He values baptism.” This brother asked for my input, and I wrote the following.
ANSWER: I have already given my “input” on this question many times, especially in my book on baptism (“Baptism: A Biblical Study,” new ed. 2006) and in ch. 20 of my systematic theology, “The Faith Once for All.” Still, upon reading your thoughtful letter, I came to some conclusions that might be helpful to you in your ongoing discussions on this matter. On the one hand, I take it that you are defending the view that baptism is necessary for salvation, and that you would answer NO to the question you have worded thus: “Scripturally speaking, is there salvation outside of baptism for the forgiveness of sins?” On the other hand, your antagonists seem to be defending the common Zwinglian, denominational faith-only view, as stated by your still-Zwinglian-at-heart elder: “You’ll never get me to believe you have to be baptized to get to heaven.”
My “input” here may surprise you, because I suggest that these two approaches present us with a false choice in the sense that, strictly speaking, neither position is correct. Let me explain. First, baptism cannot be an ABSOLUTE necessity for salvation, in the same sense that faith and repentance (for example) are necessary. Here are four categories of people who (I believe) will be saved without baptism.
ONE. Infants, or those who have not reached the age of accountability. This applies in both the Old Covenant and New Covenant ages. All human beings from the moment they come into existence in the womb are under the original grace of God because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. This original grace automatically negates any spiritual effects of Adam’s sin and puts all newly-formed individuals in a saved (redeemed) state, whether they be conceived and born in a Christian household or not. No infant baptism is necessary in order to secure children in this saved state. This is the teaching of Paul in Romans 5:12-19; see my commentary on Romans for this.
TWO. Old Testament saints, or all believers in Yahweh who lived before the beginning of the New Covenant on the Day of Pentecost. There was no requirement for baptism as a salvation event anywhere until Pentecost. Nothing in the Law of Moses is comparable to Christian baptism; John’s baptism is not comparable to it. To cite the thief on the cross as proof that baptism is not necessary for salvation in this New Covenant age shows considerable ignorance of the distinction between the two covenant ages. Christian baptism, with its salvation content, did not begin until Acts 2 and the Day of Pentecost.
THREE. Those living in the NT era, who know about the requirement to be baptized, but who through no fault of their own are physically unable to be baptized before they die. For its first fifteen hundred years Christendom in its various forms believed and taught that baptism is the time when the double cure of salvation is received. But there was also a general recognition that those who truly desired baptism but were literally prevented from receiving it (e.g., by Roman authorities who sent them to martyrdom) were considered to have received the “baptism of desire” as an acceptable substitute for the real thing. This is comparable to a man lost in the desert who comes to faith and wants to be baptized but dies before it is possible. I have no trouble believing that God can (and does) make an exception for such a person on the requirement for baptism. The problem is that our faith-only friends want to make this possible exception into the new rule: baptism thus cannot be considered as necessary for ANYONE. This is a terrible logic. (I have discussed this briefly in “Baptism: A Biblical Study” , pp. 27-28, in the chapter on Mark 16:16).
FOUR. Those living in the NT era who through no fault of their own never come to know about the requirement to be baptized for salvation, but who are sincerely doing the best they can to live a life of submission to Jesus as Savior and Lord. It has rightly been said that at the final judgment God will judge every one of us according the principle of CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT. Many people, even in the context of Christendom, are through no fault of their own in complete darkness about the NT’s teaching that baptism is a salvation event; they are the victims of centuries of false teaching. Nevertheless they are in their hearts conscientiously submitting to the light they do have about Jesus. If so, even if not immersed for forgiveness of sins in this life, I believe God will accept them on the Day of Judgment based on this principle. (I have briefly set forth this explanation of “conscientious response to available light” in my book, “The Faith Once for All,” in the chapter on baptism, p. 373.)
The serious mistake by faith-only sympathizers is to assume that WE can apply this same principle to any individual today, in our discernment of who is or who is not a Christian and in our judgment of who is or who is not saved NOW. This is a terrible mistake. ONLY GOD knows how much light is truly available to any individual, and ONLY GOD knows whose response to that light is truly conscientious. Here is the point: in this life, and in our own preaching of the gospel, we must proclaim and apply the rule that is written clearly in Scripture: Christian baptism is the moment of time when a sinner receives the double cure of salvation. Therefore we must consider all who have not received Christian baptism as being legitimate objects for our evangelistic endeavors. Whether God accepts them on the Day of Judgment is His business. Even if we believe that there is a good chance that He will do so, we cannot usurp the role of the omniscient Judge and waive the baptism requirement for present Christian fellowship.
I believe this is what Hicks and Taylor are wrongly doing in making “transformed lives” the mark of salvation while relegating baptism to the category of “technicalities” and “rituals.” They are wrong to say that “God values transformed life above all else,” especially “more than He values baptism.” The fact is that God values His own TRUTH (about any subject, including baptism) more than He values transformed lives or anything else produced by our puny efforts.
As in the case of the third category above, anyone who from God’s viewpoint falls into this fourth category will be an exception to the clearly stated NT rule, that baptism is the time when salvation is received. We have no right to make such a possible exception into a new rule, a rule that denies everything the NT actually says is the purpose and result of baptism.
I have said that the two sides of this debate as formulated above are a false choice. I have just explained why the statement, “Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation,” is false. But on the other hand, I most emphatically declare that the other side also is false, i.e., the Zwinglian notion (begun about A.D. 1523-1525) that water baptism is definitely NOT the time when salvation is received by the sinner. The fact is that EVERY New Testament reference to the meaning of baptism identifies it as a salvation event. This is the way it was introduced on Pentecost and the way it is explained throughout the NT. This is the way we must present it to sinners (as in Acts 2:38); this is how we must continue to teach it to baptized Christians (as in Rom. 6:1-4; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21, e.g.). This is the view any true church must stand for. See my book on baptism for an explanation of the twelve NT texts that clearly teach this meaning of baptism.
In conclusion, I suggest that we are in fact asking the wrong question when we word it thus: “Is baptism absolutely necessary for salvation?” The exceptions noted above show that the honest answer to this question is NO, but this then is wrongly assumed to leave the door open for faith-onlyism (Zwinglianism). It does no such thing. Thus I believe it is better to ask the question this way: “Exactly what does the Bible SAY are the meaning, purpose, and result of Christian baptism?” When we come at the issue from this direction, we must conclude that the NT clearly teaches that sinners must be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the only way we have any right to teach it. To deny, twist, or dilute this clear NT teaching, on the basis of possible exceptions that can be sorted out only by God, destroys the integrity of the gospel and of the church, and puts the eternal destiny of sinners in grave danger.