by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 9:36am

QUESTION: I know of a severely-handicapped person who had a sincere desire to be baptized in the Biblical way, but because of the disability simply could not be immersed. It was decided to put this person under the shower and cover him with water in such a way that he was extremely wet from head-to-toe and had to hold his breath for a time while the water was showered over his face. Those conducting this “baptism” emphasized the importance of the person’s commitment to follow Jesus with all his heart. Was this an acceptable baptism? Is this person saved?

ANSWER: I believe that the New Testament clearly teaches that Christian baptism (immersion in water) is the time when (and the place where) God bestows upon the lost sinner the gift of salvation. This is the point of time when the double cure of grace is received by the lost sinner, through his faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. This has been God’s plan since Pentecost (Acts 2:38). This is what he expects us to believe, to teach, and to practice. Certainly, in this sense we can say that baptism is necessary for salvation.

This is what all those under the Christian banner believed for the first 1,500 years of the church. It was the Swiss Reformer, Huldreich Zwingli, who in 1523-1525 robbed baptism of its saving significance and created ex nihilo a new meaning for baptism that had nothing to do with salvation. Most Protestants today have followed in his footsteps.

I believe with all my heart that we must follow the teaching of the New Testament rather than Zwingli. However, I believe that it is appropriate and sometimes essential to make a distinction between what is absolutely necessary for salvation as compared with what is only relatively necessary. The idea is that even if baptism has been appointed by God as a necessary part of the salvation process in the New Testament age, it still has only a relative necessity and can be dispensed with in extraordinary circumstances. Faith, on the other hand, is an absolutely and inherently necessary condition for salvation. It is conceivable that one could be saved without baptism, but not without faith. For example, in Old Testament times faith was an absolute necessity, but Christian baptism did not even exist in that era.

This distinction (between absolute and relative necessity) has been recognized all through Christian history. The “baptism of blood” and the “baptism of desire” have been accepted as valid substitutes for baptism in water in circumstances where water baptism is physically impossible. “Baptism in blood” refers to martyrdom; it refers to situations in which a person has put his faith in Christ but is martyred for his faith before he has a chance to be baptized. (This possibility was quite prevalent in the early Christian centuries when initial faith and baptism were often separated by lengthy periods of catechetical instruction.) “Baptism of desire” refers to any situation in which a believing person honestly desires to meet the condition of baptism but is prevented from doing so by unavoidable physical circumstances, e.g., confined to prison, nailed to a cross, pinned down by enemy gunfire, lost in a desert. In such cases it is reasonable to assume that God “takes the will for the deed” and saves a person without baptism, as long as he or she believes on the Lord Jesus Christ.

I believe that this understanding is correct. On this basis, then, I consider the person described in the question above to have received the “baptism of desire”; thus I consider this person to be saved.

In this connection, though, 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 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).

“The thief on the cross” is commonly misused in this context. In the first place, how the believing thief was saved is irrelevant for the Christian era since he was still under the Old Covenant and since Christian baptism did not even exist yet. In the second place, even if his case were relevant, it would be an example only of the “baptism of desire” (not blood or martyrdom) and would prove only that baptism does not share the absolute necessity of faith. It says nothing about what might be required under ordinary circumstances; it cannot be used to negate the New Testament’s clear and abundant teaching that baptism is the time when God bestows salvation. We have “been buried with Him IN BAPTISM, IN WHICH [we] were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (Col. 2:12).

(Most of the above material was taken from my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study, from the chapter on Mark 16:15-16.)

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  1. Thank you Jack, I have been preaching for 20 years and have struggled with this. Although I still preach I now for the last three years have worked as a hospice chaplain and have run into cases where people wanted to get baptized but were in no shape to do so. I have always felt that God would honor their faith in Jesus and I have taken their confession of faith in Jesus. Not all agree with me on that but I have always felt that a death bed confession from a sincere heart God would honor. I have used the workers in the vineyard to back that up so I hope I am using that in the right context, those that come in the last hour earn the same as the ones who were there all day!!! I learn a lot from your writings so thank you

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