There are several biblical passages that seem to state that baptism is necessary for a person to have eternal salvation. However, before we consider those scripture passages, we will discuss John 3:16, which declares, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
People who believe that baptism is necessary for eternal salvation sometimes argue that John 3:16 says that a believer should not perish, rather than that a believer will not perish. In other words, they contend that the word “should” indicates that salvation is conditional on something else, which they infer is the baptism of the believer. However, they are placing undue emphasis on the word “should.” Not all versions of the Bible translate the word as “should.” A number of versions translate the word as “shall,” which is definite, not conditional.
Scripture Passages that Seem to Indicate Baptism Is Necessary for Eternal Salvation
Now, we will consider scriptures that seem to state that baptism is necessary for a person to have eternal salvation. In Mark 16:16, Jesus Christ says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., comment not only on this verse, but also with regard to the entire passage included in Mark 16:9-20. On page 378 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they state,
Scholars are divided over the authenticity of these verses. Those who follow the received text tradition point to the fact that this text is found in the majority of biblical manuscripts down through the centuries. Thus, they believe it was in the original manuscript of Mark.
On the other hand, those who follow the critical text tradition insist that we should not add evidence, but weigh it. Truth is not determined, they say, by majority vote, but by the most qualified witnesses. They point to the following arguments for rejecting these verses: (1) These verses are lacking in many of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, as well as in important Old Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopic manuscripts. (2) Many of the ancient church fathers reveal no knowledge of these verses, including Clement, Origen, and Eusebius. Jerome admitted that almost all Greek copies do not have it. (3) Many manuscripts that do have this section place a mark by it indicating it is a spurious addition to the text. (4) There is another (shorter) ending to Mark that is found in some manuscripts. (5) Others point to the fact that the style and vocabulary are not the same as the rest of the Gospel of Mark.
A second scripture that seems to state that baptism is compulsory for a person to have eternal salvation is John 3:5. In this scripture, Jesus states, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
In regard to this verse, Geisler and Howe say on page 406 of their aforementioned book,
Salvation is by grace through faith and not by works of righteousness (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-6). But baptism is a work of righteousness (cf. Matt. 3:15). What then did Jesus mean when He referred to being “born of water”? There are three basic ways to understand this, none of which involve baptismal regeneration.
Some believe Jesus is speaking of the water of the womb, since He had just mentioned one’s “mother’s womb” in the preceding verse. If so, then He was saying “unless you are born once by water (at your physical birth) and then again by the “Spirit” at your spiritual birth, you cannot be saved.
Others take “born of water” to refer to the “washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). They note that Peter refers to being “born again . . . through the word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), the very thing John is speaking about in these verses (cf. John 3:3, 7)
Still others think that “born of water” refers to the baptism of John mentioned (John 1:26). John said he baptized by water, but Jesus would baptize by the Spirit (Matt. 3:11), saying, “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). If this is what is meant, then when Jesus said they must be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) He meant that the Jews of His day had to undergo the baptism of repentance by John and also later the baptism of the Holy Spirit before they could “enter the kingdom of God.
Strong’s Concordance provides the following additional perspective as to the meaning of the phrase “born of water”:
The word “water” is in Jn. 3:5, in view of the preposition ek, “out of,” the truth conveyed by baptism, this being the expression, not the medium, the symbol, not the cause, of the believer’s identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.
A third scripture that seems to state that baptism is essential for eternal life is Acts 2:38. In this verse, the apostle Peter states, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. . . .”
With regard to this scripture, A. G. Hobbs, Jr., in his pamphlet entitled “To Our Baptist Friends,” says,
Repentance and baptism are both for the same thing. If repentance is essential to remission of sins, and it is . . ., then baptism is likewise essential. The two commands are inseparably joined; and Peter emphatically says that both are “for the remission of sins.” . . . [W]hatever the Greek word “eis” means in relation to baptism, it means the same in relation to repentance. The two commands are joined by the coordinate conjunction “and.” Baptism is either essential, or repentance is non-essential.
However, it should be noted that most, if not all, translations of Acts 2:38 place a comma after the word “repent.” Therefore, the word “and” that follows the word “repent” does not indicate that the Greek word “eis” applies to both “repent” and “baptism.”
On pages 428-429 of their book, Geisler and Howe address this matter, as follows:
[T]he word ‘for’ (eis) can mean ‘with a view to’ or even ‘because of.’ In this case, water baptism would be because they had been saved, not in order tobe saved.
[V]erse 44 [of Acts 2] speaks of “all who believed” as constituting the early church, not all who were baptized.
[L]ater, those who believed Peter’s message clearly received the Holy Spiritbefore they were baptized. Peter said, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
[J]esus referred to baptism as a work of righteousness (Matt. 3:15). But the Bible declares clearly it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5).
[N]ot once in the entire Gospel of John, written explicitly so that people could believe and be saved (John 20:31), does it give baptism as part of the condition of salvation. It simply says over and over that people should “believe” and be saved (cf. John 3:16, 18, 36).
In view of all these factors it seems best to understand Peter’s statement like this: “Repent and be baptized with a view to the forgiveness of sins.” That this view looked backward (to their sins being forgiven after they were saved) is made clear by the context and the rest of Scripture. Believing (or repenting) and being baptized are placed together, since baptism should follow belief. But nowhere does it say, “He who is not baptized will be condemned” (cf. Mark 16:16). Yet Jesus said emphatically that “he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). So neither Peter nor the rest of Scripture makes baptism a condition of salvation.
A fourth scripture that seems to state that baptism is required for eternal salvation is Acts 22:16. In this verse, Paul (who at that time was named Saul) was told to “be baptized, and wash away your sins. . . .”
The inference of the verse may seem to be that Paul needed to be baptized before his sins would be washed away. However, it should be noted that the verse uses the word “and” – rather than the words “in order to” (or similar wording) – between the words “baptized” and “wash your sins away.” This infers that there is no cause and effect relationship between “baptism” and “wash your sins away.” In other words, it is the blood of Jesus Christ, not baptism, that washes away a person’s sins.
We believe that a careful study of the Bible indicates that it is not necessary for a person to be baptized to be saved. However, we believe that the previously cited scriptures (and others) imply that a person who is truly saved will want to be baptized as an act of obedience that demonstrates the sincerity of their commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ that are recorded in the New Testament.
In this regard, Henry and Tom Blackaby assert on page 16 of their book entitled The Man God Uses, “Our obedience to Christ’s commands is proof to God and to everyone watching us that Christ indeed is Lord of our lives. The act of baptism for a new Christian is the first act of obedience in response to the commands of Jesus Christ.”
[Note: The appendix that follows addresses another matter related to baptism: whether or not immersion is necessary.]
Is It Necessary to Be Immersed When Baptized?
Unger’s Bible Dictionary makes the following statements with regard to the biblical meaning of the word “baptism”:
The verb from which this noun is derived – baptizo – is held by some scholars to mean “to dip, immerse.” But this meaning is held by others to be not the most exact or common, but rather a meaning that is secondary or derived. By the latter it is claimed that all the term necessarily implies is that the element employed in baptism is in close contact with the person or object baptized.
The common doctrine of Christendom has been that all that is essential in the mode of baptism is the application of water “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” It denies that immersion is the only valid baptism, and admits of sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. That immersion is a very ancient mode of baptism may be freely admitted. But the same may also be said of the other modes – sprinkling and pouring. . . Our Lord in his institution of baptism simply appropriated an ancient rite, and adapted it to the purposes of his kingdom. And he was silent as to the mode in which the water is to be applied. It is contrary to the whole spirit of Christ’s teaching to attach great importance to details of ceremony. Also, baptism, which is a universal rite, may properly, and sometimes must of necessity, be varied in mode according to climate and other circumstances.
It may be argued, however, that baptism is supposed to be symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of a person who has become a Christian, and that neither sprinkling nor pouring provides such symbolism. Romans 6:3-4 states,
[D]on’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
With regard to this scripture passage, the footnote in the NIV explains,
Baptism depicts graphically what happens as a result of the Christian’s union with Christ, which comes with faith – through faith we are united with Christ, just as through our natural birth we are united with Adam. As we fell into sin and became subject to death in father Adam, so we now have died and been raised again with Christ – which baptism symbolizes.
Another example of this symbolism is found in Colossians 2:12, in which Paul says to the Christians to whom he is writing that they have “been buried with him [i.e., Christ] in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Strong’s Concordance of the Bible indicates that the Greek term that is translated as “baptism” in these passages and other New Testament passages refers to “the processes of immersion, submersion, and emergence and is used . . . of Christian baptism.”
We conclude that the New Testament indicates that the usual form of baptism for new Christians in the early Church was immersion. Since there does not seem to be a valid reason to think that the form of baptism should be different now, we believe that immersion should generally be practiced by Christian churches.
However, there are circumstances in which immersion is not feasible, such as when people are baptized when they have some type of serious illness. And, the Bible teaches that God is more concerned with a person’s attitude than with the person’s words or actions. Therefore, if a Christian is sincerely seeking to be obedient to the Lord with regard to being baptized, but chooses to be sprinkled rather than immersed, it seems unlikely that God would not approve of that person’s baptism.