The title of the article, undoubtedly, is the most important question a human being can ask. There is a lonely, fiery lake of condemnation to be avoided and a gorgeous city of jewels, precious metals, fellowship, feasting, and the glorious presence of Almighty God to be gained; the stakes are high. But there’s a problem: depending on who you ask, you get different answers to this question. The two most prevalent ones seem to be:
1) Believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved the moment you believe in Him.
2) Believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved the moment you are immersed in His name.
A website entitled Stand to Reason has an article posted by Greg Koukl entitled “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?” Koukl argues that it is not. His argument is roughly described below:
He begins with an exegesis of John 3–Jesus’ late-night discussion with Nicodemus. He argues that Jesus is not teaching Nicodemus about Christian water baptism in this text. I do not pretend to be a scholar capable of handling this passage the way it should be handled, and I confess that this text still is a bit beyond my comprehension. Koukl says, “John 3 is not a good proof text for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.” I think we can agree there. His next sentence:
Acts 2:38 would be a better example, where Peter says, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
I believe we can agree on this one as well. Koukl now pauses for a moment in his article to give some advice (good advice, in my opinion) on how to approach this topic when doing Bible study. He recommends finding all the verses in the Bible that talk about baptism, writing them down on index cards, and separating the index cards into piles representing the different kinds of baptism. Koukl mentions four: 1) baptism of John, 2) baptism of trial, 3) baptism of the Holy Spirit, 4) Christian water baptism.
His next paragraph is a short one, and it explains the purpose behind the index card process he encourages. I could writhe with words all evening and never say what he means as beautifully as he pens them, so I will allow them to speak here.
This allows you to construct a balanced teaching on the issue, drawing instruction from the full counsel of God on the subject. You can see the full range of teaching in the New Testament on baptism, and you can watch how the teaching takes form.
He then concludes, based on his study using the aforementioned approach, “It becomes clear that baptism–Christian baptism–is not exalted in the Scripture as a necessary element of salvation. In fact, it’s rarely even mentioned.” Later he will explain that there are 71 references to a form of the word “baptism” in the New Testament. Only 19 of them, he says, refer to Christian baptism (emphasis mine), and “over half of these are simply references to people being baptized.” He suggests that only 8 of these give theological content about Christian baptism. He then offers a question and his opinion on the matter: “Do these few verses make it clear that baptism is necessary for salvation? I don’t think so.” The eight passages that Koukl says give “theological content” about baptism are quoted at the end of the article.
So, let’s take stock for a moment. Koukl has introduced the question: “Is baptism necessary for salvation?” He has recommended that we consider all the New Testament verses about baptism in order to answer that question. He has found 71 New Testament references to “baptism,” and identified 19 which refer to the type of baptism in question. These 19 verses are the ones Koukl has in mind when he says that Christian baptism is “rarely even mentioned.” Of those 19, he designates 8 as having relevant “theological content.” EIGHT references with theological content, according to Koukl, is NOT ENOUGH to establish that baptism is necessary for salvation. I am quoting him a little out of order here, but I don’t think I’m being unfair to his argument or twisting it at all. I’m simply trying to put it in a logical sequence.
Back to Acts 2:38. Koukl quotes the verse, then spends no less than 17 paragraphs getting around to saying that the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” is a reference to the word “repent,” not “be baptized.” He suggests:
A more precise rendering might be, “Let all of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness, and then each who has should be baptized.” (emphasis mine)
So how did he spend those 17 paragraphs? Three of them covered the aforementioned concept of considering all of Scripture’s teachings on a topic to make an informed decision about what it means. The rest imply that to understand Acts 2:38, you first must consider 4 other passages: 1) Romans 8:9, 2) Ephesians 1:13, 3) Acts 10:44-48, and 4) Acts 11:17-18. It is interesting to note that only one of these passages refer to baptism in any way. According to Koukl, we must interpret the baptism passage of Acts 2:38 in light of the non-baptism passages just listed.
The argument flows this way: according to Paul in Romans 8:9, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” How do we get the Spirit, then? Enter Ephesians 1:13: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Recap before moving on: we must possess the Spirit before we can be Christians, and we possess the Spirit when we believe. Therefore, believing = possessing the Spirit = being saved. Koukl then guides us to Acts 10, where non-Christian, Gentile Cornelius and family break out into tongue-speaking and prophesying while Peter preaches to them. The tongue-speaking and prophesying imply the presence of the Holy Spirit, which according to Romans 8:9 and Ephesians 1:13 means they are saved. Peter then asks, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” According to Koukl, “Peter is saying that these people were now Christians just like he and his companions.” They are then baptized because they had already received the Spirit. Koukl’s next checkpoint is chapter 11:17-18, where Peter is giving an account of the event to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Peter asks them:
“If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
Koukl points out that baptism is not used in this passage. Instead, it is only the “salient details of regeneration: repentance, faith and salvation…. Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.” Interesting that he chose to quote the passage beginning with verse 17 instead of verse 16, which records Peter saying:
I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
… But this passage contains “no mention of baptism.” Granted, it would be difficult to use this portion of Acts 11 to argue that baptism is required for salvation. However, it is unfair for Koukl to quote the two verses following a reference to two types of baptism, then tell his readers that the passage says nothing about baptism.
Long story short: in Acts 2:37, thousands of men convicted of sin asked Peter, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent and each 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.” Seems rather plain. But Koukl claims that this passage is ambiguous. To understand it and interpret it correctly, you must know Romans 8:9 — “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (a passage Paul wrote to a group of Christians who had been baptized “into Christ” [Rom. 6:3], the place where one encounters the blessings given by the Spirit [Rom. 8:1-2]); you must also be familiar with Ephesians 1:13 — “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (a passage also written to baptized Christians, cf. Acts 19:1-10); you must know that in Acts 10, Cornelius’s household received miraculous gifts from the Holy Spirit upon hearing Jesus preached to them (from this you must conclude that their receiving the gift of speaking in tongues implied they were forgiven of their sins before Peter commanded them to be baptized); finally, you must be aware that when Peter reported this event to the church in Jerusalem, part of his statement did not include the word “baptism.” These FOUR loosely connected passages are supposed to provide the foundation on which we interpret Acts 2:38. However, Koukl offers no explanation of how these passages affect Acts 2:38, other than that they provide a seeming contradiction to it. He then argues that the grammatical construction of the verse is what makes it deceptive, causing it to sound like baptism is necessary for salvation.
Koukl then uses the Cornelius incident to dismiss 1 Peter 3:21–“Baptism now saves you.” I’ll forego the discussion of this segment and get to the point.
Koukl’s FOUR passages outlined in the last several paragraphs supposedly provide a solid ground on which to believe that the Holy Spirit is granted to someone upon their belief in Jesus Christ, and this receiving of the Holy Spirit is equal to their sins being forgiven. Cornelius and company received the gift of the Spirit, manifested by their speaking in tongues, and this supposedly meant they were saved already, before Peter commanded them to be immersed. Then, when Peter told the Jews about it, part of his response did not include the word “baptism.” Any verses about baptism must be interpreted through the lens of these FOUR scriptures that are not about baptism. FOUR scriptures, then, we must conclude, are enough to give us a clear picture, a balanced teaching, an understanding of the full counsel of God on this subject.
The following EIGHT Scriptures, however, according to Koukl, are NOT sufficient to establish baptism as a necessary step in the plan of salvation:
- Acts 2:38 — “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
- Acts 22:16 — “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
- Romans 6:3 — “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?”
- Galatians 3:27 — “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
- Romans 6:4 — “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
- Ephesians 4:5 — “One Lord, one faith, one baptism…”
- Colossians 2:12 — “… having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
- 1 Peter 3:21 — “And 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…”
You do the math.