I have been asked on various occasions about the issue of baptism and its relation to salvation. Does scripture require baptism for salvation, or not? Before I go further let me say, I am not, in this article, speaking about whether scripture commands believers to be baptized—it absolutely does—but whether such baptism is required for salvation. A chief reason for this question is the apparent conflict between the two passages of:

  • Mark 16:16 NIV “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
  • Romans 10:9 NIV “That if you will confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”

To begin with we need some definitions. Though the words baptism and baptize appear in the English Bible and are used almost daily among English-speaking Christians, like so many of our words, they are not of an English origin. According to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary the word ‘baptize’ came through Late Latin baptizare from the Greek baptizein: to immerse. The use of baptize in Mark 16:16 comes from the verb form baptizo—actually an intensive form and can be even used of causing to perish by drowning1. This gives us a link to the meaning of baptism—when we are baptized we show the world that we have died with Christ and come back from the grave (Rom 6:3f).

Even though baptize means to immerse it does not always mean to be immersed in water. In the New Testament the word is used primarily of three things: Jewish Ritual Cleansing in water, Christian immersion in water and the Baptism (immersion) in the Holy Spirit. Now for the last one many will ask why this is called an immersion when it does not refer to water. Even in our modern language we have a similar concept—one can be “immersed in their work”, or “immersed in a good book.” For example when I am studying a subject I often become incapable of hearing anything else and if interrupted must take a moment to regain my bearings to understand even the most basic of questions (this is really difficult for my wife to take)—I get immersed in the subject. According to Scripture, we can be immersed (baptized) into water (Acts 8:36ff; 10:47f) or into the Holy Spirit (John 1:33; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor 12:13). The question we have to answer is: are these baptisms concurrent and is one a pre-requisite for the other?

Before we can discuss this question we need more definition. The reason for this need is the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of the twentieth century. The phrase ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ has a different meaning between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal believers. Most believers define the baptism of the Spirit as the reception of the Spirit at salvation, while Pentecostals use the phrase to refer to a post salvation phenomenon of being imbued with Spiritual power. To simplify this, most say: “We are baptized in the Holy Spirit at conversion (Romans 8:9) and may receive multiple fillings (Eph 5:18) of the Spirit later in life.” Pentecostals and some Charismatics say: “We receive (Romans 8:9) the Holy Spirit at conversion with a later (possibly multiple) baptism (Eph 5:18) in the Spirit.” I believe we are saying the same thing but choosing different words. Ultimately it comes down to semantics, do we have one baptism with multiple fillings or one reception with multiple baptisms?

For the purpose of this article I will use the definitions that are most common and in my view the closest to scripture. The reception of the Holy Spirit at conversion is the baptism of the Spirit promised by Christ. I say this because in Acts 1:5b NIV Jesus promised the apostles: “ . . .in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The apostles, a few days later, had their first reception of the Holy Spirit and this was the fulfillment of this promise—therefore our first reception of the Holy Spirit is our Spirit baptism. Another reason for saying this is the fact that the Spirit baptizes us into the body (1 Cor 12:13) and we would all admit that we become part of the body of Christ at the moment we truly are saved.

Now for a brief aside—many will say that we are baptized into the Spirit upon conversion and that is all of the Holy Spirit we will ever experience. In other words, they claim, that there are no subsequent fillings with the Spirit. This is problematic at best because Paul, in speaking to a church who had obviously been baptized in the Spirit (Eph 1:13f), commanded the Ephesians (5:18): “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” If the conversion experience of the Holy Spirit is the only one we have then Paul here just wasted his breath—not to mention ink and paper.

To return to my point: we can be baptized (immersed) in two ways—in the Holy Spirit or in water. Some will claim that one (water baptism) causes the other (Spirit baptism): baptismal regeneration. These people claim that when we receive the ‘rite’ of baptism God responds by removing our sins and giving the Holy Spirit. There are three main passages used to support this view: Mark 16:16 (given earlier); 1 Peter 3:21 “ . . .and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also”; and Acts 2:38 “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

There are many problems with this interpretation though: first of these is the passage of Romans 10:9 (given earlier) saying that it is only necessary to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths to be saved. Some claim that this confession is the act of baptism, but its a pretty far stretch to make verbal (with the mouth) confession equal physical (with the body in water) baptism. I know, I have heard the argument ‘this is a reference to the baptismal confessions used in the church, where one confesses certain doctrines as true before baptism is administered’, but there is no reference in scripture to such a practice. Besides, this confession is not a declaration of a statement of faith preparatory to water baptism but more of a declaration of belief in the divinity of Christ and possibly a Christian counter to the confession of the Imperial cult “Caesar is Lord.” This is a declaration of loyalty to and worship of Christ. We also see this confession of Christ in 2 Tim 2:19 and Heb 3:1. There is simply no way to tie Romans 10:9 to water baptism without a great deal of damage to the passage.

Now for the question as to whether a person must be baptized in water in order for God to baptize them with the Holy Spirit we can learn from examples given in scripture. In Acts 10 we see Peter taking the message to the first gentile household. While there, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the household of Cornelius and in response to this Peter calls for water to be brought in for baptism. So in at least one place we see baptism in the Holy Spirit come first and water baptism after. For more on this see Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor 1: 17 “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul declares that his mission is to preach the gospel, not baptize. If water baptism were necessary for the reception of the gospel message (salvation) Paul could not have made this distinction. We do see examples of both baptism of the Holy Spirit and baptism with water occurring simultaneously, but these passages show that this can be taken as an exception rather than the rule.

Another question is not whether the two occur concurrently or not, but whether Water baptism precipitates Holy Spirit baptism. Does our act of obedience in being baptized in water cause God to act by giving the Holy Spirit? Besides the episode earlier in Cornelius’ house and Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor 1 we also have the events with Philip in Samaria. There we have people believing and being baptized in water but God with-holding the Holy Spirit, until two others come and lay hands upon them. This shows us that the giving of the Holy Spirit is an action of Christ and is not tied to baptism.

Why did God choose to have the Samaritans wait until Peter and John came? Is this because Peter has some special position of headship in the early church? No, this is because God wanted to display to the church, through a couple of irrefutable witnesses that the Samaritans were to be included as equal members of the body of Christ. Therefore, he chose to wait until these witnesses were there before pouring out the Holy Spirit upon them. If Peter held such a position of unquestioned authority in the early church it would have been unnecessary for him to defend himself for his actions at Cornelius’ house in Acts 11.

These points can help us understand the Mark 16; 1 Peter 3 and Acts 2 passages but they do not trump those passages. The question now comes down to what do these passages mean? Either they mean that water baptism is necessary for salvation and actually saves us or they mean something else.

First, lets look at the passage in Acts 2:38. Peter is preaching to the people of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and explaining to them that God has done as he promised and poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh through Jesus Christ. The people are ‘cut to the heart’ and ask what they should do in response to this message. Peter responds with two parts: their actions and God’s actions. Peter is not here giving a plan of salvation. He is speaking to covenant people and giving them a chance to enter the new covenant or be cut off from their people (Deut 18:17-19 and Acts 3:22f). These people are going from a covenant, which is disappearing (Heb 8:6-13), to an eternal new covenant—the fulfillment of the promises given in the old. So this passage relates to us in that we must repent of sin and are to submit to baptism, but it is not a formula for how to be saved. It is the proper response for a people who have heard the word under the old covenant and are now coming into the new. In the next chapter of Acts (4:19), in his next message, Peter does not mention baptism at all in his response but only tells them to repent and turn to God. If baptism were the catalyst causing the pouring out of the Holy Spirit he would not have done this.

The same speaker here, Peter, goes on to explain in Acts 15:11 “No! We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we (Jews) are saved, just as they (gentiles) are.” The people Peter spoke to earlier (his fellow Jews) were not saved by being baptized but simply by the grace of Christ. This is a perfect time to look at Peter’s statement in 1 Peter 3:21. This passage is the best one to use to interpret his statement in Acts 2. Let’s look at the passage with some of its context:

1 Peter 3:18-22 NIV (emphasis mine):

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

This passage is speaking of a baptism, which is defined as a pledge of a good conscience toward God, saves by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet is not a removal of dirt from the body. The baptism that saves is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This baptism is symbolized by water baptism, pictured by the events of Noah’s day. In order to be saved we must confess and believe (Rom 10:9). Christ responds by baptizing us in the Holy Spirit, resulting in our being sealed with a pledge (Eph 1:13f; Mk 16:16). We are brought into the body through this baptism (1 Cor 12:13).

There is a baptism that saves and without which you are not saved—Spirit baptism. Romans 8:9-11 NIV says as much:

“You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit if the Spirit of Christ lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit, who lives in you.”

This now gives us the perfect answer to Mark 16:16. We must believe and be Spirit baptized to be saved. I find it interesting that every time Jesus mentions the baptism he will do he speaks of Spirit baptism. Remember that in John 4:1 “The Pharisees learned that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.” I find it interesting that Jesus is never recorded as baptizing anyone in water—only in the Spirit. Jesus does not give the symbol but the substance. The baptism done by the disciples (and John the baptizer) was and is a symbol of the true baptism performed by Christ (John 1:32ff).

So, is baptism necessary to salvation? If speaking of water baptism the answer is no, but if speaking of Spirit baptism the answer is a resounding yes! This however, does not take away baptism as practiced by the church. We are still to baptize converts as commanded by Christ (Matt 28:18ff) and practiced by the apostles (Acts 2:41 et al.). This is not how we save them but demonstrates to the world that they are saved.

Footnotes:

  1. Verlynn Verbrugge, The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p202.