(This question was brought to me recently, and I asked Energion author Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. to write a short response. Elgin is author of Evidence for the Bible, Christianity and Secularism, and Preserving Democracy. — Henry Neufeld)
Some Christians believe that Baptism is necessary for one to be saved. Supporters point to Mark 16:16 “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever doesn’t believe will be condemned” (ISV). Here, they claim, Jesus commands that we be baptized. As one supporter put it,
How much clearer must we have it said by the Lord Himself than this… Why would Jesus tell His disciples to baptize if it were not necessary? Don’t you think that if the Lord had intended baptism to be optional that He would not have made such a strict command out of it here.
The problem, however, is that it could have been clearer. Notice that only belief is mentioned in both parts of statement. Thus to be clearer Mark could have written the second half as “but whoever doesn’t believe or is not baptized will be condemned.” That would have been very clear. It would also be clearer if baptism was consistently mentioned as a requirement for salvation, but it isn’t. There are many passages which discuss what must be done to be saved that do not mention baptism.
When Jesus was directly asked in John 6:28-9, “‘What must we do to perform the actions of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the action of God: to believe in the one whom he has sent’” (ISV). If baptism were required, why didn’t he mention it? If baptism were required for salvation, how could Paul say that Christ did not send him to baptize (1 Cor 1:17)?
But there is a deeper issue here, one that goes to the core of how we are saved. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by such grace you have been saved through faith. This does not come from you; it is the gift of God and not the result of actions, to put a stop to all boasting” (ISV).
Salvation is God’s work in us. We can accept it or we can reject it, but we cannot earn it. The real problem with saying that baptism, or any other work, is required for salvation is that it means that Christ’s death on the Cross is insufficient; that something else is needed. It would hold, contrary to Ephesians 2:8-9, that salvation is not completely a gift but something that must be earned, at least in part, as the result of the action of being baptized. One can believe that baptism is necessary, or one can believe Ephesians 2:8-9. It is not possible to hold both and remain consistent.
Does this mean that we don’t need to be baptized? As the supporter above asked, “Why would Jesus tell His disciples to baptize if it were not necessary?” Jesus commanded a lot of things. If took all of them as requirements for salvation, we truly would be putting ourselves back under the law. Fundamentally this confuses what is important with what is required.
But if they are not required for salvation, why do we follow them? John 14:21-24 lays this out. As verse 23 says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” We are not baptized to be saved. We do not avoid sin to be saved. We do not serve others to be saved. If we do any of this to earn salvation, our works will be as filthy rags. Rather, we should do all of this and more, out of love. We serve our Lord and Savior because we love him. A gift offered to earn something will be judged based on it merit, a gift offered in love, will be judge based on the love in which it was offered.
I have a painted rock sitting on my desk. It has sat there for over two decades now. It is not some expensive piece of abstract art. And for many people, it is just a rock with sort of face on it. But for me it is very valuable. This is because it was given to me by my daughter, and it was given in love.
That is how God looks at our works as well. Not for their intrinsic merit, but for the love in which they are offered.