If you’ve not been under the water, will you go above the clouds? That might be a humorous way of stating it, but the question is a very serious one. Is baptism essential for eternal salvation?
The answer is an emphatic no. Baptism is a public testimony that a believer desires to follow Christ as a disciple, but it is in no way essential to receiving God’s free gift of eternal life. There are four ways we know that.
First, while only six verses in the entirety of Scripture could lend themselves to even a possible interpretation of salvation through baptism, there are more than 60 verses that clearly state that man is saved through faith alone. For example, Ephesians 2:8-9 reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Romans 4:5 also reads, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” A basic principle in interpreting Scripture is that the clear verses should interpret the unclear, not vice versa.
Second, when studying the six verses that seem to teach salvation through baptism, context is crucial. In John 3:5, Christ tells Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” If one does not examine the context, he could think that Christ was telling Nicodemus that he must be baptized to be saved. However, when you look at the whole conversation, you find that Nicodemus already referenced physical birth. After being told by Christ that he must be “born again” to be saved, he asked in verse four, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Connected with the birth of every human baby, there is always water. So Christ’s point in mentioning water with salvation is then clearly understood when studied in context of this conversation. He was basically saying, “The first time you were born, you were born of water and began a physical life. What I am saying to you is that if you are going to live forever, you have to be born a second time of the Holy Spirit and begin a spiritual life.” When examined in context, the other five verses that appear to imply salvation through baptism are equally explainable.
Third, consider Paul the apostle’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel….” We know the gospel is the Good News—the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Therefore Paul’s own testimony makes it very clear that baptism is not part of the gospel.
Lastly, remember the account of the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross. After the man acknowledged Christ to be who He said He was, Jesus replied, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 22:43). If baptism were a requirement for salvation, there is no way Christ could have promised this man heaven. There is no way the thief could have been saved. Baptism was not even possible as he hung on the cross.
I wholeheartedly believe that baptism is important, but it is not a requirement for salvation. It is the way we as believers testify to others that we have trusted Christ and intend to follow after Him as His disciple: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41).