Is Knowing That Baptism is Essential to Salvation Essential to Salvation?

by Gary Eubanks

This question may seem a bit obscure and requires a moment's reflection to digest, but it actually addresses a very common and familiar situation.  Anyone who knows much about Evangelicalism knows that at its heart lies the concept of salvation by faith alone.  For Evangelicals, salvation comes at the point of belief and before, and without, baptism. Yet, Evangelicals also seek, and encourage, baptism. Hence, the idea that people should be baptized but for some reason other than to be saved is by far the norm.

If anyone wants to be baptized at all, it is because the New Testament instructs people to be baptized. It is inconceivable that anyone could come away from a reasonably careful reading of the New Testament without getting that impression from it. This much is not even questioned, much less controversial. The result, then, is a situation in which baptism is held to be essential to obedience but not essential to salvation. In the abstract, the idea that something could be essential to obedience but not salvation is not at all strange, since almost all of a typical person's obedience to God's commands does follow salvation.

Yet, the fallacy of applying this thinking to the purpose of baptism begins to unravel simply by asking how anyone could manage to become convinced from reading the New Testament that he should be baptized without also noticing in the same texts the very reasons why he should be baptized. Such a scenario is so improbable that the only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that such people have willfully chosen to ignore New Testament teaching about baptism. A brief survey of some of the more outstanding texts relating to baptism renders this conclusion self-evident:

  1. How does one learn from Jesus' commission to His apostles that he should be baptized without also learning that it is how he is made His disciple (Matthew 28:19)?
  2. How does one learn from Jesus' commission to His apostles that he should be baptized without also learning that, along with belief, it comes before salvation (Mark 16:16)?
  3. How does one learn from Peter's response to the people on Pentecost that he should be baptized without also learning that it is "for the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 2:38)?
  4. How does one learn from the Ethiopian eunuch's recognition of his urgent need to be baptized that he should be baptized without also learning that it intervenes being taught Jesus and going on one's way rejoicing (Acts 8:35-39)?
  5. How does one learn from Paul's recounting of his baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it is to wash away sins (Acts 22:16)?
  6. How does one learn from Paul's teaching about baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it is "into Christ Jesus" and "into His death" and so that one "might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4)?
  7. How does one learn from Paul's teaching about baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it is essential to his identity as being "of Christ" (I Corinthians 1:12-15)?
  8. How does one learn from Paul's teaching about baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it is when he is "clothed with Christ" (Galatians 3:27)?
  9. How does one learn from Paul's teaching about baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it is when he is buried and raised with Christ (Colossians 2:12)?
  10. How does one learn from Peter's teaching about baptism that he should be baptized without also learning that it "saves"(I Peter 3:21)?

While not every text is so explicit in making this connection between baptism and salvation, yet, that connection is so clear and compelling that a good argument might be made for it from virtually any text referring to gospel baptism. Thus, it is so improbable as to be practically unimaginable that anyone desiring salvation could undertake a serious, careful, and conscientious study of the New Testament and conclude that he should be baptized without also concluding that the reason he should be baptized is because it is essential to his salvation. In short, the very texts which convince him he should be baptized are the very ones which should convince him that he should be baptized to be saved.

That being the case, the idea that a person, strictly from reading the New Testament, would want to be baptized to obey God but not to be saved simply lacks credibility and fails to conform to reality. To be charitable, it is conceivable that a person might come to believe in Christ from a brief and casual reading of some New Testament texts (e.g., John 3:16) and conclude he is then saved without having been baptized.

The very contemplation of such a scenario requires the improbable conception of a person who has so little regard for his salvation and so little respect for God's word that he is content to vouchsafe his soul to a process which cherry-picks isolated texts for the ease and comfort they provide and rejects the rest. That alone is sufficient to raise doubts about his salvation.

Rather, the kind of person this question contemplates and the kind experience offers is one who is serious enough about his faith to continue a more extensive study of the New Testament. In the course of such a study, he will shortly uncover numerous texts about baptism and its relation to salvation. This means that he cannot conclude from reading the New Testament that he should be baptized to obey God without having to confront what the New Testament says about its relation to salvation. Thus, at this point, he will have to make an informed decision about baptism. Whatever it is, it will also involve a very conscious conclusion about its purpose. He has long passed the stage of innocence by way of ignorance. If he decides to be baptized to obey God but not to be saved, his decision necessarily entails a very the conscious conclusion that baptism is not essential to salvation, and that in the face of all the New Testament says about baptism's relation to salvation. Thus, any decision to be baptized to be saved but not to be saved will involve a more-or-less elaborate attempt to reconcile the texts already considered with the notion that baptism is not for the purpose of salvation.

It is now time for great candor. This, then, is not a person who is baptized in obedience to God's command but rather in defiance of it and rebellion against it.

If anyone thinks this conclusion is unwarranted or exaggerated, he should consider that it enjoys the vast support of reality. Evangelicals by the hundreds of millions have not been baptized to obey God but not to be saved because they live in a doctrinal vacuum and have simply followed an impulse to be baptized from some vague sense of the need to obey God. No! They are baptized "to obey God" but not "to be saved" because they are desperately clinging to the cherished doctrine of salvation by faith alone with all the far-fetched, lame, ungainly, and incredible quibbles they can muster. Thus, the idea that one should be baptized but should not be baptized to be saved is not the result of slight inadvertence in one's Bible reading; rather, such a baptism is done in conscious response, and deliberate submission, to a rebellious, man-made creed. No other rational explanation is available nor one need to sought, except by those who, discontented with the narrow fellowship of God's people, wish to enlarge it by accommodating the disobedient.