Questions About the Essentiality of Baptism

Questions About the Essentiality of Baptism
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 7:22pm

QUESTION: An individual asked me some questions about baptism, and I would love to hear your response. Here are the questions: (1) If we are justified through faith (Rom 3:27—4:8) how are we justified in baptism? And (2) what about the man in the desert who is incapable of being baptized? Will he be lost, even if he has a genuine faith? I responded to the latter question by saying this is a rare case and that these types of situations are in God’s hands, nevertheless the Bible still teaches baptism as essential to the salvation process. He then responded by saying that my response was inconsistent, i.e., if baptism is truly essential then I should be consistent and say that anyone who is not immersed for the remission of sins will go to hell. He then went on to say that there are no hypothetical scenarios that rule out faith, which in his mind is the only requirement for salvation. What are your thoughts?

REPLY: The first thing to keep in mind is that sound exegesis and rational thinking will usually not convince those who are committed to the Zwinglian version of “sola fidei” (“by faith alone”). They are under the sway of what may be called “the tyranny of the paradigm.”

The answer to the first question is in the very language that is used, namely, the difference between the two prepositions in the phrases, “THROUGH faith” and “IN baptism.” The Bible is clear that we are justified “through” or by means of faith, and NOT by means of baptism. On the one hand, faith is the means by which we reach out and receive the gift of justification (which is the same as forgiveness). On the other hand, in this New Covenant age, baptism functions primarily as the time or occasion when faith receives this gift. That is why Colossians 2:12 specifically distinguishes between the two phrases: “IN baptism,” but “THROUGH faith.” Martin Luther, who is usually credited with recapturing the “sola fidei” concept of salvation, taught very emphatically that baptism is the time when salvation is received, while advocating that it comes by means of faith alone. Modern Protestants, who have generally adopted Zwingli’s radical and innovative revision of baptismal doctrine, have forgotten this original distinction between MEANS and OCCASION. They have transformed “faith as the only MEANS of justification” into “faith as the only CONDITION for justification,” without realizing how different these ideas are.

Regarding the second question, when we say that baptism is essential or necessary for salvation, it is important that we distinguish between an absolute, inherent necessity (on the one hand), and an appointed, designated necessity (on the other hand). We should acknowledge that faith and baptism do not have the same kind of necessity as far as salvation is concerned. Faith is inherently necessary for salvation, since this is the natural act of submission to and dependence upon the One who is the source of salvation. Salvation is a gift that must be received, and faith is the empty hand with which we grasp that gift.

Baptism, though, does not have that kind of necessity. If it did, baptism would have been specified as a salvation condition in Old Testament times, as it is now in New Testament times. But this is not the case. Baptism is a necessary condition in these NT (post-Pentecostal) times simply because God has so appointed or designated it to be such. For good (not arbitrary) reasons, God has appointed baptism by immersion as the moment of time when he will bestow forgiveness (justification) and the indwelling of the regenerating & sanctifying Holy Spirit upon the believing, repenting sinner. This is not a matter of inherent necessity, but is simply God’s sovereign decision. This is why God is able to make exceptions to this condition if circumstances require it.

Another reason why faith and baptism are different kinds of conditions, permitting hypothetical scenarios that excuse one from baptism but not from faith, is that baptism is a physical condition while faith is an inward condition, one that is met solely within the heart and mind. All sorts of circumstances can be imagined that make immersion in water a physical impossibility for a new convert, but none of these would make it impossible for a responsible individual to surrender his or her heart to Jesus in faith.

I have dealt with this point in my book, “Baptism: A Biblical Study,” on pp. 27-28. Here I say that one reason for the omission of baptism in the second half of Mark 16:16 is the 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 NT age, it still has only a relative or designated necessity and thus can be dispensed with in extraordinary circumstances. The only absolutely and inherently necessary condition for salvation is faith; thus it alone is mentioned in the second clause of Mark 16:16. It is conceivable that one could be saved without baptism, but not without faith.

This distinction 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 believer honestly desires to meet the condition of baptism but is prevented from doing so by irremediable 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 believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. (That can only be God’s decision, of course.)

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 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.”

“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 clear and simple affirmation in the first clause of Mark 16:16.

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