We are looking at the biblical teaching of water baptism. So far we have established:
- The word “baptism” means “immersion” or “to dip under” (Baptism, Part 1)
- The earliest Christians all baptized people by plunging them fully under water(Baptism, Part 2)
- Water baptism is a public symbol that a person has new life through Jesus Christ, and immersion best illustrates Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Baptism, Part 2)
However, there is a teaching about baptism that contradicts what we have already seen. It is a well-known teaching, so prevalent, in fact, that the question comes up every time I teach at Hope Ministries. It is a teaching that I have discussed with many people over the years, and one that is hard to convince people who believe it otherwise. This teaching is that a person must be baptized in order to have salvation.
While there are many churches and denominations that hold this to be true, probably the most well-known is the Catholic Church. And its teachings on this are very clear. The following quotes come from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition). The bolding is all mine for emphasis.
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word.” (p. 312)
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude [bliss, happiness]… (p. 320)
By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. (p. 321)
Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism. (p. 324)
There are several footnotes to the above quotes, but they are all from other Catholic documents, not from the Bible. However, there are references to the Scriptures throughout this section of the Catechism. Since the Bible is where we go to center our study, here are the passages most often used to support this teaching (all quotes are from the NET Bible unless otherwise noted).
Do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. Romans 6:3-4
Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:12
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:27
When the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. Titus 3:4-6
Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” John 3:5
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one 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
The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:16
Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you– not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience– through the resurrection of Jesus Christ 1 Peter 3:21 (New American Standard)
Let’s take these one at a time.
1. We have already seen in the first two passages (Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12) Paul’s teaching that water baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The person being baptized uses public water baptism to identify themselves with Christ and his church and committing to the new life offered by Christ’s salvation. Since this symbolism requires faith in Christ first, these passages do not support baptism as a means of salvation.
2. The answer to Galatians 3:27 (and many other misunderstood Bible teachings) comes from the context immediately surrounding the verse. Paul’s discussion in this chapter centers on the question, “Does salvation come through keeping the law or through faith?” His response is unashamedly “by faith.” In fact, in the previous verse he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.”
Notice also that he refers to being “baptized into Christ”, not “into water.” Upon faith in Christ, a person is added to the body of Christ, the church. He is “immersed” or “plunged” into new association with Christ and his people. Since this is the only reference to baptism in the whole letter, and since the context is about salvation through faith in Christ, not water baptism, this verse does not support baptism as a means of salvation.
3. In Titus 3:4-6 we find a similar instance to Galatians 3:27. In this letter we find no reference to baptism at all – into water or into Christ. The phrase “washing of the new birth” obviously refers to salvation, but it has no reference to water baptism.
Throughout the Scriptures salvation is referred to as a washing of sin, something that water – even water blessed by a person – cannot do. This is fact according to the writer of Hebrews: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
If baptism in water can wash away sins and give salvation, then traditional Christianity has major problems, including (but not limited to):
- Hebrews 9:22 is wrong, and the Bible has been discredited.
- Jesus’ death and bloodshed have no value whatsoever.
- God is both a murderer and sadist, commanding the deaths of countless animals and Jesus, when water would have been sufficient.
Since the rest of the Bible teaches salvation is available only through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and baptism is not even mentioned here, this passage does not support baptism as a means of salvation.
4. Another verse commonly used to support this teaching is in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:5. Once again, a look at the immediate context and the historical context makes the answer plain.
In this account, Jesus, an Old Testament Jew, was talking to Nicodemus, another Old Testament Jews, using Old Testament Jewish references and terminology. Jewish understanding did not (and still does not) allow for a suffering Messiah or a combination Jew-Gentile church. In Jewish teaching, the kingdom of God will be the Messiah’s literal reign on Earth, delivering the Jews from all outside government and oppression. It will be a time of complete peace under God’s headship.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he wondered if it was possible that Jesus was the Messiah and if the kingdom would be commencing soon. Jesus answered the (unasked) question by stating that entrance into the kingdom would be based on spiritual, not national or ethnic, criteria. This is why Nicodemus, not understanding, asked about being born – physically – again. His idea of the kingdom was purely physical.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets used both wind (translated “spirit” here) and water to describe God’s Spirit. By using both, Jesus was emphasizing the spiritual nature of the kingdom, rather than just the physical (which it will also be). Jesus’ follow-up statement in verse 6 compares physical birth to spiritual birth: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” and emphasizes that entrance into the kingdom will be by spiritual birth.
That part of the conversation concludes with Jesus making reference to his crucifixion, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15), making the case again that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Since this discussion is primarily about Jews, not Christians, and since baptism was not mentioned, this passage does not support baptism as a means of salvation.
The last three passages will take a little more time to explain, and this post is already long, so we’ll push those off to Part 4.