To clarify this discussion, the five beliefs on baptism could be grouped as follows:
- Groups that don’t practice it (E.g. Quaker, Salvation Army)
- Practice it optionally as symbolism (E.g. Baptist’s, who ironically are some of the weakest in this belief)
- Believe it’s required obedience as soon as possible
- Believe it’s actually when you get saved or forgiven of original sin (leading some to infant baptism)
- Have unique obscure Church-specific additions that must be part of baptism.
I believe we are saved by our faith and our confession as Romans 10:9, 10 (below) clearly says. The context of this chapter is clearly about the simplicity and ease of salvation without any great effort on our part.
9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. Romans 10:9, 10
This specific first step can also be called justification and we begin a new life with God as our loving father and Lord when we come to Him in this simple step. So I believe He starts to work on us to obey Him in a long process of spiritual maturity. That’s why the Bible says many things are required, including baptism- they are required later. You can see this discussed in James ch 2. (I have a whole article on this topic of required obedience after justification). But you can’t make any of these things, like baptism, required for actual salvation (justification) or you’ll be denying the faith verses like Romans 10 above. I believe this “baptism salvation” (as I’ll call it, item 4 on the list above) comes from confusing two things: 1) verses that do indicate baptism is required (after salvation) and 2) an overly literal interpretation of the symbology of baptism in other verses. The symbolic verses do make things confusing, as they often do with other topics, and I know very godly people, good friends of mine, who believe this. However when you look at it all in context you’ll see the difference between required baptism (after salvation) and baptism salvation. I’ll also discuss the salvation of Cornelius which adds clarification.
What causes people to believe in salvation at baptism:
Scriptures that teach baptism is required
These show that baptism is commanded but not that it’s what actually saves you.
“unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” John 3:3-8.
I can see why someone would think baptism is where you enter the kingdom of God by this verse, since you can’t get in the kingdom until you take that step. But this may be a Western society legalistic way to pick it apart. The verse doesn’t say baptism is where you are saved it just says it’s required. It’s dangerous to make any other point. When you look at it in context, I believe it, like many other verses (a few of which are below), is summarizing aspects of obedience in the Christian life. Notice the similarity of this verse to these below, which emphasize other aspects of obedience:
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20 (Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17 are similar)
and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3
strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Acts 14:22
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Revelation 2:10
All of these are referring to entering the kingdom and each gives a unique aspect of the Christian life that is required. The next verse is the same way but it too has been used for baptism salvation because it mentions baptism.
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38
Here again, we are helped by nearby verses that have similar structure but mention other aspects of obedience.
Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you Acts 3:19, 20.
See, this verse is in a very similar context to the previous verse and talks about wiping sins away but there is no mention of baptism here.
So I think these verses make the case for baptism being one of the required steps in the Christian life but not the actual point where you are saved.
I believe baptism is a commanded sacrament for a public identification of following Jesus. That’s why it’s so important. But it’s symbolic. Protestants don’t have any problem taking the clear commands of Jesus to “eat His flesh” as symbolic sacraments. Likewise the washing of sins during baptism could also be a commanded symbolic sacrament. No one believes that water actually washes sins away. So it’s obvious that there’s a certain amount of symbology. The Bible constantly uses symbology. 1 John 1:7 says Jesus’ blood washes our sins away but we’re sure not going to take that literally and incorporate it into baptism. There are references in the 4th century to Christians literally stripping all clothes during baptism (they separated the genders) and putting on a special garment as they come up to fulfil Galatians 3 (clothed with Christ). So you can see how people can go too far. But there are no verses forcing us to take anything literal in the symbology of baptism, either of being dead with Christ and raised with him or of washing our sins away. A teaching like this would be paramount doctrine, which the Bible never hides away in an obscure verse that could be confused as symbolic. Here are some verses using symbology:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:27
Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name. Acts 22:16
This previous verse is particularly used for baptism salvation because they think Paul made the initial steps of salvation, but was not saved until baptism a few days later. But if you look at the passage, Paul does not take the steps to salvation when Jesus talks to him. Yes he believed of course, but so do the demons (James 2:19). Paul did not ask forgiveness or receive the Spirit, etc. Jesus merely told him to wait for Ananias and he would be told what to do. So Ananias brought him to salvation and baptism at the same time and he used a symbolic phrase of baptism washing his sins away. The point of salvation isn’t specifically mentioned when Ananias came, but receiving the Spirit is and Romans 8:9 makes it clear “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him”. So it’s safe to say he was not saved until Ananias came. There is nothing here to dictate the baptism is what saved him. Here’s the passage:
6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do… 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; Acts 9:6, 17, 18
It’s interesting that this symbology of baptism is used loosely in other places too. 1 Peter 3:21 says the flood water, which saved 8 people, symbolizes baptism which now saves us. It says it’s a “pledge of good conscience to God” just like you’d expect as a step of obedience. And obviously the flood was nothing like an immersion baptism. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 says in passing that the Israelites that passed thru the sea were baptized into Moses and the sea. Again, this was nothing like a baptism but Paul casually makes this passing statement.
Examples of quick baptism
We see that baptism often happened quickly, but we can’t define doctrine from it – like sharing our possessions which was also seen (called “common purse” and some people do take that as doctrine). It was done quickly because there is no reason not to take this first step of obedience, especially when evangelists are on the move. Yes baptism should be done quickly if possible. However the fine difference between belief in required baptism and that baptism is at salvation is how quickly you absolutely must be baptized. Weather, resources or political circumstances can make it very dangerous and difficult to be baptized right away. Perhaps if you just had a week you could make the arrangements. But if you truly aren’t saved until then, then you’d do whatever it took because you wouldn’t know if you’d make it a week. It just doesn’t seem to fit the Bible and certainly doesn’t fit the faith alone theme of Romans 4 and 10.
Problems with salvation at baptism
Not saved by works
People will counter this by saying “Baptism is not a human work; it is the place where God does the work that only God can do.” It’s a “passive act of faith” rather than a “meritorious work”. But Paul in Romans 4 preaches the difference between faith and works in relation to circumcision, which he strongly condemns. And circumcision could also be described as a “passive act of faith”. The two are very similar in that they are a physical act that you voluntarily do to allow God to do something. So baptism would seem like a work as well. It’s a natural conclusion.
The salvation of Cornelius and his friends and family doesn’t fit the baptism salvation model. Cornelius was clearly a godly man who was obeying God. He’d gathered his friends and family and they were eagerly listening as Peter was preaching the gospel. Their hearts were right. So Peter explains that Jesus is the prophesied messiah and that all who believe in Him will receive forgiveness of sins. Right then all the sudden they started speaking in tongues. The natural reading is they must have believed in Jesus at this point and got saved at this point. But this is a problem for the baptism salvation idea because all this happened and then they got baptized.
Some say that they weren’t saved here but only got the Holy Spirit. I’ll discuss this in a minute but I’ll point out first that this is still in opposite order of what Peter said, showing that these events are not in strict order.
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38
Here in Acts 2 Peter tells people to be baptized and then they’ll get the Holy Spirit but Cornelius unquestionably got the Holy Spirit and then was baptized. I always like to look at both sides so I read an article (Dave Miller, 2022 referenced below) from the other side and here are what I believe is his explanation of this discrepancy. First he says that since Peter in his retelling of the account in Acts 11:4 says he gave it “in order”, then the “account in Acts 10 is not necessarily in strict order”. But there is no reason to think Acts 10 is not in chronological order. Though Acts 11 is more brief and not all the events are listed, all the events that are listed are in the same order. Furthermore the event of the filling with the Spirit must have come before baptism because it surprised Peter and then he baptized them. There’s no doubt about that. This is clear in Acts 11 as well. So I didn’t see any good explanation for this difference.
Furthermore it seems that Cornelius’ family were actually saved at that point, before baptism, because Peter uses this event at the council of Jerusalem to show that Gentiles are justified by faith. He cites their receiving tongues as proof that they were saved by faith at that point. His whole point is that they got saved here without obeying the law.
6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Acts 15:6-11
I did not see any explanation of or reference to this passage in Acts 15 anywhere on the Apologetics Press web site regarding the salvation and baptism of Cornelius (they have a search tool where you can search the whole site). As I understand it, the explanation they do give for the Acts 10 and 11 passages is that the gentiles had to hear the message Peter was going to give and the complete message was interrupted by this filling of the Holy Spirit so they never had the opportunity to be saved. They say this filling was just proof that the “Gentiles had an equal right to enter the kingdom.” But here again this doesn’t make sense. Peter had already said at the beginning of his message that he “certainly understood” this.
Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. Acts 10:34, 35.
As I mentioned, the Miller article seems to cast doubt on the order of anything in Acts 10 but this passage specifically gives the impression it’s when Peter started to speak as he “opened his mouth”. It would be so odd for it to be out of order.
Furthermore the explanation that Peter’s message was interrupted before he was able to give enough of the message is not plausible either. Yes his message was interrupted, but not before he gave the essential details of Jesus, including that he was proven to be the messiah and that we could be forgiven if we believe in him, fear him, and do what he says. Their hearts were already right and they were ready so it just didn’t take any more convincing. It’s the easiest evangelistic sermon of all time. Cornelius seeing the angle probably helped. J
The Miller article also addresses a verse in John 14:15-18 that seems to say only believers can get the Holy Spirit.
15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [take], because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. John 14:15-18
This verse is not even needed to make the case but if true it would certainly be a clincher against the baptism salvation doctrine. So the article points out that the word “receive” can mean “take” and that Jesus is saying the world can’t take the Sprit from the disciples when He leaves. And the word can mean that and there is surrounding context of Jesus leaving them. But the actual verse does seem to fit more that the world can’t receive the Spirit, since it says the world doesn’t see or know Him (the Spirit) but the disciples do. So this isn’t certain but another passage that really doesn’t fit well with baptism salvation.
Thief on the cross wasn’t baptized
This fits fine with baptism being a required obedience (#3). If you don’t have the opportunity to obey like this, then you aren’t disobeying. But to support baptism salvation they have to say this was part of the old covenant and start the new covenant at Jesus’ resurrection. There is no strong support for this other than it doesn’t contradict baptism salvation (circular reasoning). This is not proof against it either, since God didn’t see fit to tell us exactly when the new covenant started, but it seems more likely the new covenant started at his baptism (ironically they don’t see it starting there even though they put so much emphasis on baptism). After His baptism, Jesus was constantly preaching the new covenant. E.g. Matthew 5 (“you have heard it said…, but I tell you…”) and the new wine in new wine skins (Matthew 9). His death would be another logical place, as he took our sins and became the Passover lamb, agreeing with Hebrews 9:16-17 (death seals a covenant).
Jesus was baptized for another reason than washing sins.
Speaking of Jesus’ baptism, we know He was not baptized for remission of sin as we are, because He was sinless (I Peter 2:22). Instead, the Bible says He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). It sounds like he was doing it in obedience.
Paul was thankful he didn’t baptize?
Another quick comment is that Paul was thankful he didn’t baptize many people. Since most of his life was spent reaching the lost you’d wonder why he said he wasn’t sent to baptize. It could have been others but there were times he was alone (though it was not the norm). This is kind of an odd statement to make if baptism was the salvation. It’s not conclusive, but you’d at least expect an explanation as to why he said this if baptism and salvation went hand in hand.
Dangerous extremes of salvation baptism
So now I’ll get into the really dangerous distortion of this baptism doctrine (category 5 in my initial list). Some teach that a correct understanding that Baptism is for forgiveness of sins is required for the baptism to be valid. This seems to have come about by one man in the late 1800’s in one of the churches of the Restoration Movement, a 19th century merger of two major leaders (Barton Stone and Thomas Campbell). An exhaustive study was conducted in the late 1990’s by many members of these churches, called the The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement edited by Douglas Allen Foster and Anthony L. Dunnavant. According to my understanding of this work, this teaching on rebaptism came about from Austin McGary. He argued that “belief that baptism is for remission of sins is essential to its validity” and started or wrote in numerous publications over many years and had written debates with two other publishers, Thomas Burnett (Christian Messenger) and David Lipscomb (Gospel Advocate) who argued that “if a believer was baptized out of a desire to obey God, the baptism was valid, even if the individual did not fully understand the role baptism plays in salvation”. The encyclopedia records that McGary was very fervent and used harsh mean-spirited insulting attacks (though it records that he apologized later right before his death). Many churches were persuaded, but not all. The encyclopedia records that McGary was later exposed for selling a fake patent-medicine remedy under the name of Dr. Burlington that was found to just be tar water (a “snake oil” scam).
It’s gotten to the point now that this may have become a tool to draw disciple away from other churches because recent divisions of these churches re-baptize each other, even when they had the proper understanding during baptism. Taking members from other churches is all too common. My family has actually experienced this. A woman from one of these churches saw our Christian bumper sticker at a store and looked hard for us and told us she was looking for Christian fellowship. Naturally you’re inclined to think that meant she didn’t have any, right? Well, after a couple meetings at a park with her family and other friends of ours, whom we had also invited, we were soon invited to special meetings at her church. We found out that she was part of it all along.
These are two links I found on the debate.
I found the same on this website which looks like a routine restoration movement bio on McGary, not a critical attack.
Baptism may be when you are considered part of the church:
I could see that this clear and identifiable step is where they considered you a part of the Church. Think about children who have always believed in God and Jesus and ask His forgiveness regularly, but at one point they officially identify with Christ. How could anyone say they weren’t saved before that? This would naturally be what drives some churches to infant baptism. Or maybe people believe in the age of accountability, but this isn’t clearly defined in the scripture.
Dave Miller, P. (2022, August). Gentiles Received the Spirit Before Baptism? Retrieved from Apologetics Press: https://apologeticspress.org/gentiles-received-the-spirit-before-baptism/