No, and yet, baptism is of great importance in the Christian faith. It is a symbol of conversion rather than a means to salvation. To make this distinction, it is helpful to look at how the people of Jesus’ day understood baptism. Baptism was already a practice of the Jews before there were any Christians. It was a one-time event symbolizing the rejection of pagan gods and cleansing from a sinful lifestyle. When converts from outside the Jewish community decided to follow the Jewish God and faith, they were baptized. Anyone in their day would recognize the ritual as a turning point, a rejection of an old way of living in favor of a renewed one. It was only natural that Christians would use the same ritual to symbolize the start of a new life.
Christians gave the practice a deeper meaning. Not only did it signify new belief and conversion, but being immersed in water and raised up again symbolized Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Paul explains in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The apostles and early Christians would baptize new converts immediately upon belief; everyone understood what it meant. For the early church, baptism was so tied up with new belief that it is often mentioned in the same breath as salvation. Examples: Peter telling the Pentecost crowd to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), Philip preaching the Samaritans who then believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12-13), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:35-38), Saul/Paul himself (Acts 9:18), Lydia and family (Acts 16:14-15), the Philippian jailer and family (Acts 16:30-33). The assumption was that once you placed your faith in Christ, you would be baptized as a public proclamation that you belonged to Christ. The apostles would not have understood someone declaring faith in Christ, and then not being baptized. It was the next logical step, what one Bible scholar has called “the starting point of the Christian pilgrimage.”
But we have many other verses describing the faith needed for salvation without any mention of baptism at all. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). As Jesus told the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). Similar verses include Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16-18, and Luke 23:43. Salvation depends on one’s belief and faith in Christ alone as the Savior.
Once more, is baptism required for salvation? No, but neither should it be slighted. Baptism continues to be important to modern-day Christians. We are commanded to be baptized and to baptize new believers (Matthew 28:19). Jesus, who was not sinful and so had nothing to turn away from, was nevertheless baptized. He is our model, and we must follow his example. To be baptized is to announce, in the words of a song we sang as kids in Sunday school, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”
First, we always start with checking what the Bible has to say about it. Let’s consider these important verses about Baptism:
Matthew 28:18-20 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NASB)
Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. (NASB)
Titus 3:4-7 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (NIV)
We learn a lot from these verses. First, in the Matthew verses (the Great Commission) we are commanded by Christ to make disciples of all nations and baptize believers. This tells us that salvation ought to be followed by baptism. Mark also describes belief in Christ as being expressed by baptism. Because salvation and baptism are mentioned several times together we can be sure that baptism is important.
Secondly, in Titus we learn that baptism is a representation of what Jesus’ death and resurrection means for us – that we are literally “washed” or “cleansed” of a lifetime of sin. When we die, we actually become alive except without sin and shame. Regardless of who we are and what we have done during our lives when we stand before God we will be declared not guilty.
Also the symbolism of baptism is a beautiful memory that we can take with us for the rest of our lives. First of all, the process of being immersed in the water and lifted out is exactly what Jesus did at the start of His ministry. As followers of Jesus, we are doing exactly what He did. Additionally the process of baptism represents that when we are immersed in the water it represents a kind of death to our old self. Coming out of the water represents a clean slate, a new start and a brand new beginning. The apostle Paul in Philippians 3:13 tells us “…But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.” Baptism is the start of the race to win the prize of God’s personal calling for you. Another symbolism of baptism is that it represents what happens when we die. Literally we will take our last breath and rise up to a new life with our eternal Father, Jesus. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He tells the thief who is beside him, in Luke 23:43 “And Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” When we draw our last breath, the next step we take is to be with Jesus in heaven. That is worth celebrating.