A minister who was called to the bedside of a dying man promised he would return to serve him communion. Then he offered a formal prayer and left. But the patient failed to find much comfort in the preacher’s promise. He knew very well he had sinned against God and needed forgiveness. How a ritualistic observance of the Lord’s Supper could possibly do him any good made no sense to him, and he couldn’t sleep that night. When a nurse came in and found him awake, she engaged him in conversation, read him some verses from the Bible, and then had the joy of leading him to Christ. And what a transformation! That dying man experienced at once the joy of forgiveness and the assurance of being accepted into the family of God. The next day, weak as he was, he testified of his faith in Christ to everyone who entered his room. Then he lapsed into a coma and died without regaining consciousness.
The question arises: Did that man go to heaven? Some people would have serious doubts about it. This is because they believe it’s essential to be baptized in order to be saved and to have our sins washed away.
Therefore, I would like us to consider the questions: Does baptism save? Does it wash away sin? Does it contribute in any way to the new birth? The answers will become evident as we review the passages of Scripture that are usually referred to as proof that a person must be baptized by water to be saved.
We have already seen in our first lesson that Romans 6:3 does not indicate that there is any saving power in baptism.
Some people believe, however, that several other passages of Scripture do teach or suggest that baptism is essential to being born again. So let’s look at those verses to see if they really do portray baptism as having power to wash away sins.
This is the verse most often quoted by those who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. It says:
Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In this verse Peter was addressing the same people who not only cried out for the execution of Christ but also declared, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Mt. 27:25). Here he commanded them to repent—that is, to change their minds––and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ “for the remission of sins.” Does that mean that baptism is the agent of forgiveness? In other words, is a person baptized so that he can receive forgiveness of sin? No! Baptism is a testimony that the one baptized has already changed his mind about Christ. Accepting Him instead of rejecting Him, he has experienced the forgiveness of sin.
What does Acts 2:38 mean when it says, “Repent, . . . and be baptized . . . for the remission of sins”? Here is a possible explanation. A. T. Robertson, a well-known Greek scholar, has pointed out that the Greek preposition eis, translated “for” in the phrase “for the remission of sins,” may also mean because ofeis found in Acts 2:38. The people of Jonah’s day, you see, did not repent for his preaching but because of it.
Then too, according to some Greek scholars the word eis (translated “for” in Acts 2:38) may also mean, “with a view toward.” According to that possible meaning, the people to whom Peter was preaching were to repent and be baptized with a view toward the forgiveness of their sins. Acts 2:38 does not teach that baptism brings the remission of sins.
When Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came upon the entire household when they believed (see Acts 10:44-48). Even during that transition period in the early days of the church, therefore, people were saved and received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in water.
A second verse quoted by those who teach that water baptism has some special spiritual efficacy is:
In this passage, Ananias said to the recently converted Saul of Tarsus:
Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
In trying to understand the meaning of the words “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins,” we must follow this basic rule of Bible study: Interpret every verse in the light of the clear teaching set forth in the rest of Scripture. Since the truth of justification by faith is declared plainly in the Bible, we know that Saul was forgiven the very moment he met Christ on the Damascus Road and believed on Him. We are therefore safe in concluding that his baptism was the outward and physical sign of his inward and spiritual cleansing from sin by the grace of God.
Another passage often misinterpreted as teaching that baptism plays a part in saving us is:
1 PETER 3:18-21
The passage reads as follows:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us— baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What did Peter mean in verse 21 when he said, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism”? Was he indicating that water baptism in itself has any saving power? No, not at all! Rather, he saw the waters of baptism in much the same way he did the deluge in Noah’s day. Although those floodwaters destroyed a wicked world of sinners, they in turn saved Noah and his family by buoying them up as they rode out the storm in the ark. In that sense, Peter could say in verse 20 that “a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”We know, of course, that the waters saved them indirectly. They escaped by floating in the ark while everything else was being submerged. And the deliverance of Noah’s family under those circumstances reminded Peter of baptism. Referring to the “eight souls . . . saved through water,” he said, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism” (1 Pet. 3:21). Even as Noah and his family in the ark were “saved” by the very same waters that judged the rest of the world, so also the waters of God’s judgment poured out on Christ at Calvary for the sins of the world became the means whereby all who are in the ark of safety, the Lord Jesus Christ, are saved.
Please notice that Peter went on to say baptism “saves us,” figuratively. It is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). Peter was not talking about the outward washing of the body; he was speaking of what is really necessary––an inward spiritual cleansing that is experienced only by those who have received Christ’s forgiveness. No, baptism itself does not remove sin. It is a symbolic testimony of an inner cleansing that has already occurred.
Now a few comments about one other passage that is sometimes mistakenly related to water baptism.
The verse reads:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.
Paul indicated in this verse that God has saved us “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” This has been taken by some as a reference to baptism, and they therefore conclude that baptism is essential to regeneration.
In speaking of the “washing of regeneration,” however, the apostle was referring to a cleansed life, not baptism. In verse 3, he had spoken of the unsaved as “foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.” In verse 5, he went on to declare that “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration.” That speaks of the cleansing that accompanies the new birth.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
The implied reference to water in the word washing in Titus 3:5 should be understood in the light of the Old Testament. In the ritual of the Mosaic economy, as recorded in Leviticus, water was used as a symbol of cleansing. And when the prophet Ezekiel portrayed Israel’s future conversion, he quoted God’s promise as follows:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols (36:25).
The washing of regeneration, therefore, is a fitting symbol of the cleansing that the believer receives from God through the new birth.With this in mind, read what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word (Eph. 5:25-26).
The “washing of water by the word” is related to spiritual cleansing.Water baptism is not a means of regeneration or spiritual cleansing; rather, it is symbolic of salvation and the spiritual cleansing we enjoy through our union with Christ by faith.
Even though baptism has no power to save us from our sins, we must be careful not to minimize its place in the life of a Christian. Because baptism has no saving efficacy and is not mandatory for salvation, some believers have concluded that it’s really quite unimportant. But they’re wrong! Although it’s true that baptism is not essential to salvation, this does not make it merely an option for Christians. Doing the will of God is never an optional matter. The Lord Jesus gave His disciples this clear command:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).
And on the Day of Pentecost, the record says:
Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:41-42).
These 3,000 people converted on the Day of Pentecost are models for us. They believed, they were baptized, they gathered for instruction, they broke bread with one another, and they prayed together.
Baptism is important. It’s a testimony to the believer’s identification with Christ. And if you know Him as Savior, the Lord wants you to be baptized and to identify with a local assembly of believers who meet for the preaching of the Word, the administration of the ordinances, and the practice of mutual nurture, admonition, and discipline. If you are born again but have not been baptized, or have not united with a local church that is true to the Word, I urge you to do so.
Perhaps you have never accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. I would remind you that salvation through a personal belief in Christ is first and foremost. Admit your spiritual need. Acknowledge that the Lord Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your sins. Agree that He arose from the dead as proof that the death penalty was paid in full. Then receive Him. In other words, by an act of faith, place your trust in Him. The Bible says that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). After you have done that, your next steps should be baptism and church membership—not in order to be saved but because you have already experienced the saving grace of God by placing your faith in Christ. The Bible gives this promise:
If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10).