Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

"What must I do to be saved?" The question receives a different answer in every conceivable religious faith, and in this essay, we will pursue a single question: What is the Biblical view of the relationship between faith and works?

Christian apologists rightly point to numerous verses that declare that faith alone is what saves, and not any external act (John 3:16, 18, 36; 11:25-6; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 John 5:1). We will show that in the Bible, works are to be understood as the inevitable product of a saving, living faith and that it is not proper to say that we must perform works to be saved, but rather, that we will perform works if we are saved.

As Riddlebarger puts it [Christ the Lord, 104]:

...(O)ne who has exercised faith in Christ, and is united to Christ by that faith, will repent and will struggle to obey and yield. But these things are not conditions for nor component parts of faith itself. They are the fruits of saving faith. They are the inevitable activity of the new nature.

We will then, by way of application, consider the role of baptism, the initial "work" of the convert, and its own role in the life of the believer. Then we will offer links below noting how various other faiths err in their use of the Bible on this subject.

The Semitic Totality Concept

Behind much of the thought in the Bible lies a "peculiarly Semitic" idea of a "unitive notion of human personality." [Dahl, Resurrection of the Body, 59] This notion combined aspects of the human person that we, in modern times, often speak of as separate entities: Nausea is thought of as a condition of the soul and not the stomach (Num. 21:5); companionship is said to be refreshing to the bowels (Philemon 7); and the fear of God is health to the navel (Prov. 3:8).

This line of thinking can be traced through the Old Testament and into the New Testament (in particular, the concept of the "body of Christ") and rabbinic literature.

Applied to the individual, the Semitic Totality Concept means that "a man's thoughts form one totality, with their results in action, so that 'thoughts' that result in no action are 'vain'." [ibid, 60] To put it another way, man does not have a body; man is a body, and what we regard as constituent elements of spirit and body were looked upon by the Hebrews as a fundamental unity. Man was not made from dust, but is dust that has, "by the in-breathing of God, acquired the characteristics of self-conscious being."

Thus, Paul regards being an un-bodied spirit as a form of nakedness (2 Cor. 5). Man is not whole without a body. A man is a totality which embraces "all that a man is and ever shall be."

Applied to the role of works following faith, this means that there can be no decision without corresponding action, for the total person will inevitably reflect a choice that is made. Thought and action are so linked under the Semitic Totality paradigm that Clark warns us [An Approach to the Theology of the Sacraments, 10]:

The Hebraic view of man as an animated body and its refusal to make any clear-cut division into soul and body militates against the making of so radical a distinction between material and spiritual, ceremonial and ethical effects.

Thus, what we would consider separate actions of conversion, confession and obedience in the form of works would be considered by the Hebrews to be an act in totality. "Both the act and the meaning of the act mattered -- the two formed for the first Christians an indivisible unity." [Flemington, New Testament Doctrine of Baptism, 111]

Requirements or Results?

Objection: If works are the result of salvation, then why did Christ and Paul so often exhort others to maintain moral standards? Doesn't this view make such commands meaningless?

The problem with this sort of objection is twofold.

First, when appealing to the commands of Christ (like the Sermon on the Mount), they are correctly understood as commandments; yet they are not commandments alone, but a mirror that demonstrates our inability to meet up to God's standards.

Romans 3:19-20 tells us, "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." The primary purpose of the law, and of the Sermon on the Mount, was condemnation, not salvation.

Second, as Horton observes, the argument used confuses the indicative(who we are in Christ) with the imperative (the command to respond to the indicative in a certain way). [Christ the Lord, 113] Paul does not merely issue commands; he rather calls upon the believer, in this and other exhortation passages, to be consistent with the new life they have in Christ:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him...(Romans 6:1-8)
If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. (Eph. 4:21-24)

Under the Semitic Totality paradigm, thoughts that result in no action are vain. When Paul encourages believers to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," (Phil. 2:12) he is not telling us that we must do our part to be saved. We already possess that righteousness; what is needed is for us to come to terms with this and live consistently with it.

What about the many passages that indicate a judgment that will be based on works?

Matthew 7:21-24 and 25:31-46 are often cited in this regard, as is Romans 2:5-10:

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile...

However, this understanding of this verse fails as before on the qualification of Romans 3:20: "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight." Romans 2:5-10 does mean that a person who persists in good deeds will be granted eternal life, but as Romans 3 goes on to show, that is irrelevant, because no one can live a life in accordance with the commandments of God, and completely faithful obedience is no more than a theoretical means of obtaining justification.

The passages in Matthew, then, show no more than that those who had faith actually lived it out, as we would expect. As Moo puts it: [Romans, 142]

It is a continual seeking after eternal rewards, accompanied by a persistent doing of what is good, that is the condition for a positive verdict at the judgment. Paul never denies the validity of this principle, but he goes on to show that no one meets the conditions necessary for this principle to become a reality.

It is obvious, then, that faith alone -- a living and real faith -- is all that can save, as is made clear by Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."

The Role of Baptism

We are now prepared to offer a case study of the role of works and works relation to faith, using the example of the rite of convert baptism. We will see that the answer to the question, "Is baptism necessary for salvation?", is that the question is out of order. If there is any question that needs to be asked, it is this: "If you are saved, and you know what baptism means and that it was commanded by Christ, why would you not be baptized?"

One does not become baptized to be saved. Instead, one is saved and is therefore baptized. Faith that is true inevitably manifests itself in obedience, and being that baptism is the first act declared for the believer by Christ, the true believer will gladly undergo baptism.

Here are some verses that are used by a number of groups in this regard. Verses which seem to have a unique usage by a particular group will be found in linked articles below, or, one may wish to consult the encyclopedia by Scripture reference.

Mark 16:15-16 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

This passage may be dispensed, in my view, without discussion of baptism. The evidence is strongly against its inclusion (and that of Mark 16:9-20 as a whole) in the text:

External evidence. The two earliest parchment codies, Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus, plus 2 minuscules and several versions and manuscripts, do not contain verses 9-20. Two important early Christian writers testify that these verses are not found in Mark: Eusebius (Quaestiones ad Marinum I) says that they are not in "accurate" copies of Mark and are missing from "almost all" manuscripts; Jerome (Epistle CXX.3, ad Hedibiam) testifies that almost all Greek manuscripts of his time lack vss. 9-20.

Many manuscripts that do have these verses "have scholia stating that older Greek copies lack them," and other textual witnesses add "conventional signs used by scribes to mark off a spurious addition to a literary text." There are also several variant endings of Mark in circulation. Our vss. 9-20 are the most common, but there is also a "short" ending, and seven Greek manuscripts with both the long and short ending.

Internal evidence. There is a sudden change in subject from verse 8 (the women) to verse 9 (Jesus). Mary Magdalene is introduced as one from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, as though she had not been introduced in the Gospel before. The form, language, and style "militate against Marcan authorship."

There are seventeen non-Marcan words or Marcan words used in a non-Marcan sense. There is no instance of the typical Marcan stylistic transitions or methods (such as beginning a phrase with a parataxis). Overall, the passage has the "distinct flavor of the second century" and appears to be a pastiche of material taken from other Gospels. [See, for this data, Markan commentaries by Brooks (272-3), Lane (601-4) and Anderson (358)]

John 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Some would claim that the phrase "born of water" clearly refers to water baptism. While many see here an allusion to baptism that Christian readers would recognize, there is a serious problem with seeing a reference to baptism that cannot be controverted, and that is that Nicodemus would not have the slightest idea that Jesus was referring to it. How could Nicodemus understand a reference to "an as yet nonexistent sacrament"?

The correct interpretation of this verse is found in light of the intimate connection of water, spirit and cleansing in Judaism. As Beasley-Murray observes, "The conjunction of water and Spirit in eschatological hope is deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness." This motif is found in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Similar sentiments are found elsewhere in Jewish literature. Here is another passage from the Qumran material (1QS 4:19-21):

He will cleanse him of all wicked deeds by means of a holy spirit; like purifying waters He will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth.

While John's readers would undoubtedly recognize the baptismal "freight" the word water carried with it in this context, it is improper to read this passage as though the freight had been loaded before the train got to the station. At the core of John 3:5 is the metaphorical use of water in Judaism as a symbol of interior cleansing -- not a declaration that baptism is required to enter the Kingdom of God. [See, for these points, commentaries of John by Brown (141-2), Morris (193), Beasley-Murray (49) and Borhcert (111, 173)]

Acts 2:37-8 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

A key here is the word "for" (eis) - a word that can mean for or because of. If eis is taken to mean "for" then it is taken to mean that baptism is essential to salvation; if it means "because of", then it is not. However, "into" is the closest approximation of eis in this verse, so that here Peter is telling the crowd to be "baptized into the remission of sins."

Read in light of the Semitic Totality Concept, it indicates that believers will practice this behavior to validate their commitment to Christ. Baptism is just one part of that behavior that is inextricably linked to repentance and salvation.

Does the lack of the behavior mean one is not saved? No, but one does have to ask why anyone would not produce the validating behavior. Do they understand the command? Are they hydrophobic? Why would they refuse baptism if they knew that Christ had commanded it? Can we picture someone hearing the preaching of Peter and saying, "Peter, that's good news, I'll repent as you say, but I'm definitely not being baptized, even though I know it was commanded by the one I now call Lord."

Baptism, like any validating behavior, is "essential to salvation" only in the sense that if you don't want to go through with it, and there is no barrier to understanding, then it is clear that you do not possess salvation. Thought and action are expected, under the Semitic Totality paradigm, to correspond. The conversion and the baptism are regarded as one process, not because the latter is required for salvation, but because it is expected in light of salvation.

Hence, it is off the mark to make much out of Peter commanded the baptism, and thereby conclude that baptism is a "necessity" rather than an inevitable result. A command is often needed simply because the person being commanded has no idea what they should do next (as would have been the case with the Pentecost converts), having no knowledge of what the process is. And, and it could hardly be phrased in any less demanding language.

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

Some argue that this verse teaches that Paul's sins would be washed away following his baptism, and thus indicates the necessity of baptism. But, under the Semitic Totality concept, this is simply not the case.

Moreover, if one wants to read this verse as a chronology, rather than as a totality expression as we would read it, one wonders why calling on the name of Jesus is done last. It is more in line with the anthropological data to read Paul's quote of Ananias as a summary of a total commitment process which involved confession, obedience, regeneration and the "calling on the name of the Lord" as the "overarching term" in the passage. [For points in Acts, see commentaries by Polhill (461) and Kistemaker (790)]

Gal. 3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Although some indeed have taken the "for" here to "indicate that the status of divine son-ship is contingent upon the ritual of water baptism" it is difficult to find this point in a letter in which Paul spends so much time trying to show the Galatians that they do not need to be circumcised. If baptism had replaced circumcision as an initiatory rite, then why does Paul not simply point to baptism over and over again? (Note that Paul in vv. 3:2-3 asks if they received the Spirit -- not if they were baptized)

As Longenecker writes:

...Paul is not simply replacing one external rite (circumcision) by another external rite (baptism). If that were so, i.e., if he viewed baptism as a supplement to faith in much that the same way that the Judaizers viewed circumcision as a supplement to faith, he could have simply settled the dispute at Galatia by saying that Christian baptism now replaces circumcision.

In both pagan and Jewish contexts, the idea of "clothing" oneself hearkens back to specific ideas. In pagan contexts, after a ceremonial washing, one would often don the distinctive garb of the god being worshipped in order to identify with the god's persona. In a secular context, one which Paul's readers would recognize, a Roman youth, upon coming of age, would remove a childhood garment and don one suited for adults.

In the Bible, the idea of clothing oneself with an attribute is found in several places (2 Chr. 6:41; Job 29:14; Rom. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:8; Eph. 6:11-17). What is represented is an inward decision, and thus those who are "clothed with Christ" have made the inward decision for which baptism is the corresponding action. One no more obtains a position in Christ via baptism than a Roman child could have become an adult by donning an adult's clothing. [See Galatians commentaries by George (276) and Longenecker (156)]

In light of this passage, we also see that once the Semitic Totality concept is understood, other passages become more clear in their meaning as well. Romans 6:3-4 ("Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. 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") and 1 Corinthians 12:13 ("For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink") show not that baptism is the point at which we connect with the cross, and are saved, but that it is the inevitable expression of one who has indeed connected with the cross.

Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost...

Some argue that "washing" means baptism, but it is better understood as a figurative term for the regeneration process of cleansing from sin (in line with the Jewish allegory of water noted above). The word Paul uses for "regeneration" (paliggenesia) has connotations associated with renovation, resurrection and new life. And, the word behind "renewal" (anakainosis) is used elsewhere in the New Testament in connection with the renewing, cleansing work of the Holy Spirit (for similar imagery, see: Romans 6:4, 1 Cor. 6:11 and Eph. 5:26). The two words are "practically synonyms and thus express a unity", and the fact that a single preposition governs the entire phrase indicates that the "washing of regeneration" and the "renewing of the Holy Ghost" are the same event.

Beyond this, there is no evidence that "washing" (loutron) was ever used of Christian baptism in the New Testament. It is used elsewhere only in Ephesians 5:26, where it must also be assumed to mean baptism. [See Pastorals commentaries by Quinn (195, 224), Fee (157), and Towner (256)]

1 Peter 3:20-21 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ...

We have noted that the Semitic Totality concept radically affects our understanding of verses concerning the interrelation of faith, works and particularly of baptism. Is there any evidence that the early Jewish apostles as Christians had difficulty in communicating this difference in anthropological view to their Gentile converts?

I believe that there is, and that this passage serves as an example of how they coped with the problem. But, we need to first look at a parallel from corresponding Biblical and secular sources.

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

From this verse there emerges a puzzle, for while Mark says that John preached "a baptism of repentance," we find what appears to be the opposite proclaimed of John's baptism in the following passage from Josephus, who said that John called for his converts:

...to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and purity towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be pleasing to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already cleansed by right behavior.

Critics of the Bible often assume that either Mark or Josephus are in error, but I believe that Peter and Josephus are actually explaining to their Gentile readers -- those who do not think within the paradigm of Semitic Totality -- what the role of baptism is, in Gentile terms, as opposed to Semitic terms.

The phrase, "the filth of the flesh," does not mean to say that baptism is not for washing -- who would think that it was? Why should Peter have made such a banal point? There must be more to this advisory, and Michaels is right to say that it is either "a rhetorical way of accenting baptism's profound significance (i.e., not merely a physical cleansing but a decisive transaction with God), or as a corrective to an actual, specific, misunderstanding."

I believe, in fact, that the solution also lies in understanding why there appears to be a contradiction between Mark and Josephus: Peter is correcting a Gentile misapprehension of baptism in terms of the Semitic Totality concept.

The word "flesh," as well as the phrase "flesh and blood," has a Semitic connotation signifying the frail human nature. It is a word/phrase that reflects a conceptual unity, rather than a physical aspect of the body. Dahl comments on the use of the word "flesh" alone in another context [Resurrection, 121]:

The connotation of the word is not merely, if primarily, physical, but describes the whole totality and would therefore comprehend the mental or psychological as well. It is used in biblical literature to emphasize frailty, creatureliness, weakness...

"Flesh" (sarx) is often used in the New Testament as a synecdoche for human weakness, and we find this elsewhere in 1 Peter:

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. (1 Peter 1:24)
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit... (1 Peter 3:18)

Note that the emphasis here is on the weakness of the human body of Christ, which was perishable, in contrast with the resurrection body (cf. 4:1-2). Then there is the word "filth" (rhupos). It appears in the New Testament only here in 1 Peter, and while it can mean "dirt," it also means depravity, and it has that meaning in the place where the related word "filthiness" (rhuparia) is found in the New Testament:

Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

Thus, the "filth of the flesh" to which Peter refers is moral uncleanness, and he is saying (just as Josephus does) that baptism is not for the cleansing of moral defilement. "...Peter's point is not that such cleaning is an unimportant or unnecessary thing, only that baptism is not it". Rather, as Michaels says of Josephus, "the inward moral cleansing...is presupposed by the act of water baptism."

What, then, is baptism? It does not wash away the "filth" (sins) of the "flesh" (human weakness). Rather, it is "the pledge of a good conscience toward God," (not "for" as the NASB reads) a conscience knowing its duty to be baptized according to the command of Christ, that good conscience having been achieved by the moral cleansing that has already taken place through the forgiveness of sins. [See Michaels' 1 Peter commentary, 213-16]

-JPH