Is baptism necessary to be saved? If it isn’t, then why should we be baptized? Many Christians have neglected being baptized for a variety of reasons, but in the end, it just boils down to not thinking baptism is that important.
It should be no surprise that there are Christian groups out there that have reacted against this seeming apathy to be baptized by making it a necessary part of being saved.
One such group is called the church of Christ. One of their core beliefs is that a person must be baptized to be saved. Their “plan of salvation” is that you need to: Hear the Gospel, believe that Jesus is the Son of God, repent, publicly confess faith in Jesus, receive baptism for the forgiveness of sin, and remain faithful.
A popular book in the church of Christ is named, “Muscle and a Shovel” by Michael Shank. Shank’s book is basically the story about how he came to believe that baptism was necessary for salvation.
I could not find out why he named it “Muscle and a Shovel,” but it strikes me as a very odd name to give a book that is essentially a manual on how to get saved. Does it take muscle and a shovel to get saved?
I will say that I do appreciate the importance that Michael Shank and the churches of Christ give to baptism. I think they have overblown it by making baptism necessary for salvation. But many other Christians have done the opposite and made baptism optional. The truth, as it often does, lies between.
After thinking about this for awhile, I decided that if I got into a discussion with someone about whether or not baptism was was necessary for salvation, what I would do would be to change the topic: “So, what do you think about this crazy weather we’ve been having?”
Okay, I wouldn’t change the subject that much, but I would try to focus the conversation more on the heart of salvation, namely…
I. JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE
The Bible says that we are saved by faith alone, not by works. For instance,
2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:2–5)
Abraham was “justified” (declared righteousness by God) not by doing good works (like circumcision), but by believing in God—by faith alone.
But Michael Shank says that “faith only or faith alone is a false doctrine” (Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel [La Vergne, TN: Lightning Source Press, 2013], 43). The core issue in this debate is whether not faith alone saves you. The baptism issue is a sideshow.
To defend his view he goes to James 2,
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2:17)
Then James points out that Abraham offering Isaac on the altar was a work and says:
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (James 2:23–24)
When you read Romans 4 and James 2 together, it seems like James and Paul disagree! Is James saying that we need to perform works like being baptized in order to be saved? Of course not!
If you look at the beginning of chapter 2, you’ll see that James was speaking to some members of the congregation who gave preference to the rich people, but made the poor people sit in out-of-the-way places. James reminded them that the law said to love their neighbor:
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2:14–17)
To defend his belief that baptism is a necessary to being saved, Michael Shank says that works have to be a part of faith. But if that’s how he is going to read James, then he also has to say that giving to the poor needs to part of being saved as well because that is the context of James 2.
But James is not saying that works are a part of faith—he’s saying that works are an evidence of faith. You don’t need to do special works in order to have faith, but if you have faith, there will be works.
As a Christian, you’ll have, or you will develop, a concern for the poor—you’ll want to love your neighbor because you’ll be becoming more and more like Christ.
Faith alone saves us, that is the clear teaching of the Bible. That is the bedrock that we need to interpret the rest of scripture.
What people who believe that baptism saves you do is that they twist these clear, bedrock verses to match what they want to say. One of the clearest verses that say that works do not save us is…
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
What does Michael Shank say here? He says that Paul is only talking about Jewish works like circumcision, not baptism. He claims that’s the context of Ephesians 2.
However, he misses the immediate context of the verse. Paul says no work will save you because it could cause you to boast. Could someone boast in their baptism? Yes, they could, and many have.
Shank goes on to claim that Baptists get saved by saying the Sinner’s Prayer or walking to the altar—aren’t those works? I agree with him there—if you think going to the altar or saying the Sinner’s Prayer saves you, you are wrong—those are works.
It’s your faith in Christ that saves you. You can say the Sinner’s Prayer or go to the altar as an expression of your faith, but they aren’t actually anything that saves you.
So what saves you? Faith alone!
Children’s Sermon: What is faith?Faith is being sure of someone or something that you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1, 2 Corinthians 5:7).
Can you see air? No, but we are sure that it is there, right? How can we be sure that air is there? We can see it blowing things around, like leaves. (Use a fan [paper or electronic] to demonstrate).
Can you see any candy around here? No. How can you be sure that you’ll get some candy after this is done? Because you know me and that I give you candy afterwards. You can be sure of me.
Can you see Jesus? No. How can you be sure that he is there and that he loves you? Lead in “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
We are saved by faith alone. But where would anyone get the idea that baptism would save you? Well, there are a few verses in the New Testament that seem to say that it does. We’ll look at just a couple, but you’ll learn the basic principles for correctly interpreting most of them.
II. THE “BAPTISM” VERSES AND WHAT THEY MEAN
1) Acts 2:38
38 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. (Acts 2:38)
The first rule of interpreting the Bible is that no passage will contradict what the rest of the Bible says. If you come up with an interpretation that doesn’t fit the rest of the Bible, your interpretation is wrong. Scripture says that salvation is by faith alone, as we just have seen.
What some folks do is they see a verse like Acts 2:38 and they get hung up there. They choose the interpretation that contradicts the other, clearer, parts of the Bible and explain those other parts away.
Well, if Peter isn’t saying that you need to be baptized for the remission of sins, then what is Peter saying here?
The explanation that keeps with the teaching with the rest of scripture is that Peter is saying “repent” so that your sins will be forgiven. This is precisely what he says in the next chapter—
19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; (Acts 3:19)
You see, there’s no mention of baptism here, only repentance. Why did he leave part of baptism out? Because it’s not necessary. But, one might argue, that he doesn’t mention faith or belief either. Actually belief is part of repentance. How so?
To repent means to change your mind and go in the opposite direction. Change your mind about what? About Jesus Christ. The repentance that saves is repenting of your unbelief.
Of course, if you truly do repent of your unbelief in Jesus Christ, you’ll end up repenting of your other sins as well.
Once there were two butchers who worked together in the same shop. Both of them were crooked. When they weighed the meat for a customer, they would put their thumb on the scale and charge the customer for more.
One day one of them was converted to Christ. His life changed dramatically, and he became a strong witness for Christ. For several days he tried to convince his fellow butcher to convert to Christ.
Finally, the other butcher said, “Look, if I convert to Christ, who’s going to weigh the meat?”
The repentance that saves is repenting of unbelief, but it’s going to lead to repenting of other sins as well. Now, repenting of unbelief is just a negative way of saying that you believe—you have faith.
But what about the phrase in Acts 2:38,“and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins”?
It’s precisely the same thing as what James said about works being the evidence of your faith. The baptism is evidence of your repentance.
The Jews listening to Peter would risk their jobs, their families, and their lives by being baptized. But if they had truly believed in Christ, Peter challenged them to be baptized as evidence of their faith.
Another passage that seems at first to say that baptism saves you is…
2) 1 Peter 3:21
20 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. 21 The like figure [the symbolism] 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: (1 Peter 3:20–21)
What does it mean when it says“even baptism doth also now save us”? Is Peter saying something that is contradictory to the rest of scripture? No, not every instance of baptism in the Bible refers to a water baptism. The word “baptism” just means to immerse, and not necessarily in water.
Peter makes it plain that he is not referring to being immersed in water. He says that is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh,” (which is something you do with water). Instead, he is thinking of “the answer of a good conscience toward God.”
The baptism that saves you is an answer, or appeal, of your conscience to Christ and his death and resurrection. That’s just another way of saying you need to have faith.
Water baptism is like the wedding rings in a marriage. The wedding rings make a statement that you are married. They identify you as a husband or wife. They are symbols—to most couples they are very important.
But do you need rings to get married? Nope. It’s merely an external symbol, an important one, to be sure—but it’s still an outward symbol. Water baptism is an external symbol. The baptism that is most important happens inside.
There are a few other passages that some folks use to claim that baptism is necessary for salvation (e.g., Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 22:16), but the same principles we’ve used on these can clear up those other verses as well.
III. OTHER PROBLEMS WITH SAYING BAPTISM SAVES
There are other reasons not to believe that baptism is necessary for salvation.
1) Paul Doesn’t Focus On Baptism
If baptism was necessary for salvation, you’d think that the apostle Paul would make a big deal out of it. But he doesn’t, just the opposite, he says:
17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. (1 Corinthians 1:17)
That doesn’t sound like Paul thinks baptism is necessary for salvation
Furthermore, Paul uses the word “baptism” (or one of it’s forms) only 16 times in all his letters. In contrast, he uses “believe” (or one of it’s forms) 68 times, and “faith” 164 times—fifteen times more than baptism!
What does that tell us that the main emphasis should be? We should focus on believing and having faith, not baptism!
2) Have Faith In Christ, Not In A Plan
Some of those who believe that you need to be baptized in order to be saved, place so much emphasis on the baptism that it appears that their faith is in the baptism, not in Christ.
What is faith? Faith is simply a dependence and trust in Christ—it’s being sure of Jesus even though we can’t see him. Nothing more, nothing less.
But listen to how Michael Shank defines faith: “…belief, repentance, public confession of belief that Christ is God’s Son, baptism for remission of sins into Jesus Christ” (Shank, 304).
What Shank is saying is that faith is faith in a plan of salvation, not in Jesus Christ. It’s all very legal and mechanical—you have to trust the plan and do each step of the plan precisely. If you have been baptized before, that baptism doesn’t count. It has to be according to plan or you’re not saved.
Folks, it’s not that we need faith in a plan, faith is the plan! We need to trust in Jesus Christ, and in him alone. Focus on Christ to be saved, not on works like baptism.
IV. THE REASONS WE GET BAPTIZED
1. Baptism Is An Identification With Christ
In baptism, we identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That’s what Paul is getting at in Romans 6—
3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 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. (Romans 6:3–4)
As we go down into the waters of baptism, we symbolize dying and being buried with Christ. As we come back up, we show that we are risen from the dead with Christ.
So in baptism, we are saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you died for my sins according to the scriptures, and that you were buried, and that you rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
2. Baptism Is A Show Of Trust
Baptism is a show of your trust in Jesus Christ to save you. You know and understand that salvation is only by faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
In a sense, it’s like a wedding where a groom and bride show their love for one another in a public ceremony. Are you ready to show your trust in Christ to others around you?
3. Baptism Is A Step Of Obedience
When I was saved, I was baptized in a church that did not practice immersion. Over the next few years, I attended Bible college and learned a lot about the Bible—including that the biblical mode of baptism is immersion.
One day, as an intern at a Baptist church, I was given the wonderful job of typing the entire church constitution into the computer. I came across the part of the doctrinal statement about baptism.
I forget now exactly what it said, but it said that the scriptural way of baptism was by immersion and gave some Bible references. I read that part and was convicted—I needed to obey Christ and be baptized properly. I talked to the pastor and him and I and Tami went out to Lake Bemidji where I was baptized.
If you are a Christian, and haven’t been baptized, then you really need to make that step of obedience. No, baptism isn’t necessary for your salvation (and you should not be baptized as a means to make your salvation sure).
Baptism is, however, a way of showing your salvation to others and committing yourself to obedience to the Lord.
Come to me and I’ll ask you a few questions to see if you are ready, and then we can help you walk in obedience to the Lord Jesus’s command to be baptized.