Let me cut right to the chase — baptism is a big stinking deal. There’s a lot of talk (still) about what it means to “get saved.” There are lots of opinions on how one receives salvation. Usually that conversation goes great. Then baptism is mentioned.
That sound effect you hear is the screeching of brakes as the discussion skids to a stop.
“Well, that’s just an act of obedience,” someone may protest.
Or, “that’s the first thing everyone who is already saved should do,” others might add.
But if you suggest that baptism is essential to the salvation process, people kind of look at you like you’ve got three nostrils.
Here’s why I’m convinced that baptism is, in fact, essential:
It’s Not a Work
No work can save you, those who diminish the importance of baptism may contend. It’s a popular phrase, “works can’t save you.” But what do those who say it mean?
Do we literally mean nothing, no work, nothing we do aides in our salvation? Do we really think that “getting saved” is just “receiving the gift?” Only the staunchest Calvinists argues we are completely passive. I don’t know anyone who says we don’t have to do anything. We say we can’t be saved by our own works, but do we really believe that?
When you “got saved” (an expression worthy of an entirely separate blog entry), did you really do nothing?
Your pastor may have asked you to close your eyes and bow your head, or raise your hand, or repeat a prayer, to walk forward, to fill out a card, or whatever. Most of us think that salvation is born out of a process that primarily includes the work of God, but always includes a “work” by us. Everyone has the expectation that we respond somehow.
I believe baptism is an essential response to God’s work, and I would also argue that in baptism we are more passive than any of the other commonly promoted responses. It’s hardly “work.”
It is the Most Vivid Picture of Death, Burial & Resurrection in Scripture
What are we really doing when we’re baptized, anyway? It is an act of surrender.
Romans 6 says we are participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. We are lowered beneath water, symbolizing his death. Then, we are raised from the water, symbolizing his resurrection. Baptism is a beautiful picture of death, burial, and resurrection — one that we should not only want participate in, but perhaps should all be required to participate in.
The Witness of the Early Church is Strong
If you want to be a church that is like the church in the New Testament, a very high view of baptism has to come with that. To the first followers of Jesus, baptism was a big deal. It was essential.
Every single conversion account in the Book of Acts includes baptism. Sometimes the author fails to mention the confession response, or the repentance response, but they never fail to mention baptism. When people in the Bible ask, “How do we get saved,” baptism is always in the answer. Outside of the New Testament, church history pours forth with stories of people coming to know Jesus and immediately being immersed. If you don’t want to think baptism is a big deal, that’s okay. But you cannot reasonably use the Bible or the life of the early church to defend your position. Consider: Acts 2 (3,000 were baptized), Acts 8 (the Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized), Acts 9 (Saul/Paul was baptized), Acts 10 (Cornelius is baptized), Acts 16 (Lydia is baptized), and Acts 18 (Jewish Leaders are baptized).
There are so many Scriptures that link baptism with salvation, it’s hard for me to ignore. These Scriptures make me think that it’s more than an “outward sign of an inward expression.” In baptism, there is something far more significant going on.
Think about these:
Acts 2:38: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
Romans 6:4: “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.”
Acts 22:16: “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
1 Peter 3:21: “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Yes, there are passages that mention salvation without mentioning baptism. But taken on the whole, it is obvious that Scripture places an extremely high value on baptism. No one would suggest you don’t have to repent, and there are many Scriptures that mention salvation that don’t mention repentance. Why must baptism must be argued against?
Could it be that it’s as essential as confessing Jesus as Lord?
Before you brand me a proprietor of works-based righteousness or start asking all the famous “what-if’s” (What if you die in a car crash on the way to be baptized? What if you lived at a time when the Church did not teach this?), keep in mind one more thing:
I’m not sure when I say “essential” that I necessarily mean “required.” But what I am sure of is that when the Scripture talks about people getting saved, baptism seems to be the “essence” of that process, as we participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
While there are a lot of folks who go out of their way to discount the essential contribution of baptism in the life of a Christian, I’m not sure why. It’s a beautiful ceremony where we surrender and submit and die and rise again. The Bible links it to salvation on numerous occasions. It’s no more a work than raising your hand or praying a prayer. The early church practiced it without fail. It seems to represent and communicate the essence of what salvation is.
For those reasons, I think baptism is essential.