How Important is Baptism?

Question: Mark 16:16 says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” In his Pentecost sermon, Peter urged his listeners to be baptized to wash away their sins. I am confused. Is baptism essential for salvation or is it not?

Response: There is not one verse in all the Bible that says that failure to be baptized damns the soul, but there are scores of verses declaring that those who do not believe the gospel are lost. Nor is baptism even any part of the gospel. As Paul said, “Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17; cf. 15:1-4). In Paul’s clear declaration of “the gospel . . . by which . . . we are saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), there is no mention of baptism.

It is upon believing the gospel that one is to be baptized (“What doth hinder me to be baptized?. . . . If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest”—Acts 8:36-37). Christ, after His resurrection, sent His disciples forth to preach the gospel worldwide. Of their converts He said, “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). That all who believe (and they alone) are to be baptized could not be clearer.

Baptism symbolizes the believer’s identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection: “We are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead . . . we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Therefore, baptism in the early church was by immersion: “They went down both into the water” (Acts 8:38-39; etc.). Death could only be symbolized in this type of baptism.

Unfortunately, various innovations (e.g., sprinkling instead of immersion) and even heresies were gradually introduced regarding baptism: that one must be saved—indeed, that baptism itself saves the soul, even when administered to infants. Catholics even practice intrauterine baptism of the fetus when there is doubt that they will be born alive. Such heresies became known as the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Most Protestants holding similar beliefs today are not aware that they originated in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

For centuries before the Reformation, baptismal regeneration was rejected by non-Catholic believers, who taught from Scripture that baptism was only for those who had believed the gospel. Infant baptism was rejected, because infants have neither understood the gospel nor believed in Christ. Those who practiced infant baptism justified it by citing alleged biblical precedent where entire families were baptized, presuming that there were infants among them.

That this was not the case can be easily proved. Consider Cornelius’s household: They heard the gospel, believed it, and were baptized. That no infants were involved is clear, for they had all gathered “to hear all things that are commanded thee of God” (Acts 10:33), things that an infant could not understand. “The Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard [and, obviously, understood and believed] the word” (v. 44); and they spoke with tongues (v. 46).

That they had “received the Holy Ghost” (v. 47) proved that they were saved. Therefore, Peter baptized them (v. 48). Here is proof both that one is saved without baptism and that only those already saved are to be baptized.

Neither can infant baptism be supported from the case of the Philippian jailer, who “was baptized, he and all his [household]” (Acts 16:33). Again, there were obviously no infants present because Paul and Silas preached the gospel “to all that were in his house” (v. 32), and “all his house” believed (v. 34) and were then baptized. The gospel is not preached to infants, not even by those who baptize them.