Saved by Baptism?
Our lack of understanding about salvation becomes apparent by our inability to know how to interpret something that Jesus once said. These words that he spoke were actually some of his last just before he ascended into heaven after he had risen from the grave.
Jesus spoke them to the eleven
remaining disciples: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved,
but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16, NAS).
In what way does Jesus mean that
baptism has to do with salvation? Even though this verse speaks of salvation,
the first part of this phrase is uncomfortable for many Christians. Many might
wish that Jesus had changed his word order a little. We are cautious not to
teach baptismal regeneration, and so we should be.
Baptismal regeneration is the teaching
that all that one must do to be saved is go through the ritual of having water
applied in some form to one’s body. According to this teaching, in doing this,
that person has fulfilled his part in his own regeneration.
Baptismal regeneration is a dangerous
teaching because it is also attractive. The teaching is both dangerous and
attractive for a couple of reasons. First of all, we like simple formulas and
solutions to problems—ones that do not require a lot of thought or a lot of effort.
Secondly, in baptismal regeneration,
there is something that we can do. We
do not have to come to the point of saying we are totally helpless; we can have some part in our own salvation. In
this way, our pride is protected.
Thus, many Christians are cautious
about this dangerous doctrine, and I think rightfully so. However, we must not
become so cautious that we do not quite know how to handle the words of
Jesus—“He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.”
Belief and Baptism
We might wonder why Jesus could not
have said, as Paul did, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), and just leave baptism out of it. Or at least, could
Jesus have put the mention of baptism after salvation? “He who has
believed shall be saved and then baptized?” That is the way that many would
prefer it. It seems that if the order of the verbs was in this way, it would
not appear that baptism was necessary for salvation. We would rather retain the
strong connection between belief and salvation
After all, Jesus is quite clear that it
is faith that is the requirement for salvation. He told Nicodemus that everyone
who “believes” in him will have eternal life (John 3:15). Faith is the key factor in salvation. This is the work
of God and not of ourselves. Baptism should be relegated to its rightful place
of being an outward expression of an inward commitment.
The short of it is, many Christians are
a little touchy about this whole subject of baptism. This confusion has caused
some problems in the church. I do not pretend to know all the answers, but I
think some of the problems lie in an understanding of salvation that is
Putting Our Lives into Different Compartments
Part of this inadequacy in our
understanding comes from the fact that we tend to think of the benefits of
salvation mostly in terms of the future. “When we die, we will go to heaven,”
we say. “We are saved from hell.”
That is true, but as I said earlier, it
does not give a complete picture of salvation. It is easy for us to consider
our existence after death as something completely apart from our present
Even in these present years, we like to
compartmentalize our lives. We divide our lives into periods of childhood,
adolescence, teenage years, young adulthood, middle age, and so on. In each of
these stages of life, we do different things. When it comes to the time of our
retirement, we think that we will hopefully get to enjoy the fruits of our
working years. With a bit of luck, we hope that we can save up a little “nest
egg” so that when we retire, we can enjoy our lives.
In several ways, we consider our
working years as separate from our life in the retirement years. In our working
years, much of what we do and the money we are earning may not give us
immediate benefit, but we hope to reap the benefits later in our retirement
years. We put money into our IRAs—our Individual Retirement Accounts. We take
the money that we could spend today and put it into an account that will not be
accessed until we are older.
Of course, to a certain extent it is
true that our working years are separate from our retirement years, but because
of this, it has often caused us also to think that our salvation is rather like
an extension to our retirement plan. Just as we presently work to build our
nest egg for retirement, we believe that in our Christian lives, we are doing
things now that may not really benefit us today, but they will when we get to
And again, in many ways this is exactly
right. Just as our example of the working years as they relate to the
retirement years, in some ways it is also true of our earthly life as it relates to our heavenly life. We do things now for which we will benefit in
Paul especially speaks of running the race and laboring for the rewards set before us. Near the end of his life he wrote,
The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6b-8 NAS).
Jesus also speaks of this in speaking
of his return. He tells the people who will still be on earth in the very last
days, “Behold, I am coming quickly,
and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done”
Even with these things being true, if we think of salvation only in terms as an extension of our retirement plan, our view is inadequate.
From What Are
What is a more complete picture of
salvation? To be saved implies that there is something from which we need
saving, as if we were drowning in the ocean and we needed someone to save us.
In a spiritual sense, we have traditionally considered that thing from which we
need salvation to be hell, and of course that is true. We are saved from hell.
However, if we are saved, it must be
that we are also saved in this present life. Salvation does not only apply to
us only after our bodies die, but it also applies to us in this present life
and in our present bodies. What is it from which we must presently be saved?
Hell is no threat to us now while we are living. It becomes a threat when we die, and because of this, we need
salvation from it.
But we forget that we also need the effects of salvation right now, and because of our inattention to this fact, we have often been caught unawares by the world. It is because of this failure on our part that we have allowed the world to affect us who are in the church as Christians. We have been blindsided by the world.
What does all of this have to do with
baptism and salvation? Why did Jesus say, “He who has believed and has been
baptized shall be saved?”
Jesus said this to tell us that baptism is meant to be a testimony to the world that we are renouncing our citizenship with the world and that we have entered into a new citizenship of the kingdom of heaven. It is an outward act that expresses what the Apostle Paul said in these words:
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. (Romans 6:4 NAS)
apostle Peter was preaching in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, he pleaded
with the people that they must “be saved from this perverse generation!” It is
interesting to note the reaction to this entreaty: “So then, those who had
received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:40-41). Those who
were baptized did not do so because they were doing it for any future benefit
in heaven. Rather, their baptism was their immediate response to the call to be
saved from the generation in which they were living.
Peter’s appeal at this point was not
salvation from hell, although that was implicit in what he was saying. However,
he was talking more specifically about being saved from the perverse generation
of that day. Whether Peter meant to use the word generation speaking of
those alive in that day or if he meant it as meaning salvation from this perverse
age, the application is the same. He is speaking of salvation for us in
this present life.
As I have mentioned, the response of the people to this appeal to be saved from their perverse generation was to be baptized. Their own baptism was a demonstration to their own generation that they were now citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and not of the world. Their baptism had the effect of “saving them” from the manners and the activities that are expected by the people in the world.
As a Sign to
the World—Not a Sign to the Church
Baptism is an expression that our old
nature has died with Christ so that we can walk in newness of life. Baptism is
not something we must do if we wish to become a member of a church. That is not
It is easy to see how we can get this
idea, and it is understandable that a church would require this of its members,
but church membership is not the purpose of baptism. In fact, baptism actually
has less to do with the church than it does with the world.
Baptism is meant more to be a testimony to the world. It is saying to the world, “I no longer am under your domain, but I now belong to the kingdom of heaven.” By saying this, in many ways we are saved from the world.
At the last supper, on the eve before
his crucifixion, and using the cup of wine as a symbol, Jesus said, “For this
is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness
of sins” (Matthew 26:28
The forgiveness of our sins has an
eternal relevance, but it also has a current relevance. As every Christian can attest,
just because our citizenship is now in the kingdom of heaven, this does not
mean that we have completely ceased acting like citizens of the world. This is
the reason that Jesus tells us to have this observance of his death and
forgiveness on a regular basis. We need daily forgiveness of sins.
It is also the reason that Peter wrote,
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and
live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24
Both of these statements (and many
others in the Bible), speak of a current and daily cleansing from the sins of
the world. Peter also mentions our need to “die to sin.”
These are our present needs. This is salvation from the world.
When it comes to the eternal state of
things, Jesus spoke of it as the “regeneration,” or the “renewal” (Matthew 19:28). This is the time when all things will be made new. Very often, when the Bible speaks of
this final condition of those who are saved, the writers do not actually use
the word salvation. Rather, they refer to this eternal state by using
the word redemption.
This is a rich word that refers to our
purchase by Jesus when he sacrificed his life on our behalf. Jesus spoke of
this when he said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his
life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, ESV). This is
redemption. Christ paid the ransom by his own blood so that we could be
Indeed, all who place their faith in
Jesus are redeemed now, but it is a forward-looking redemption. Paul speaks of
our present condition as one in which we have the “first fruits of the Spirit,”
but that we are yet waiting our adoption and the complete “redemption of our
body” (Romans 8:23).
This final redemption is also
accomplished through the blood of Jesus, which is why Paul writes, “In him we
have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according
to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7 ESV).
We are also “sealed with the Holy Spirit of God,” which points to and guarantees our completion in “the day of our redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). This is the ultimate goal of our salvation, and it speaks of our salvation in the eternal sense.
The final goal of our salvation is a complete separation from all that is corruptible—that is, all things of this present age. This separation from the world is completed at the time Christ takes us away from this earth. This is a separation that will be fulfilled at that time, but which should begin the moment we decide to follow Jesus. We should be living in this salvation from the world even now. This is the present-day aspect of our salvation. Paul also speaks of this:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12 NAS)
That, I think is what Jesus meant when
he said, “He who has believed and is baptized will be saved.” He is referring
in great part to our lives in the world. Our eternal salvation does not begin
when we die—it begins now. It begins when we decide to believe in Jesus for our
salvation and decide to follow him.
Baptism is our declaration. “I am
renouncing my citizenship in this corruptible world and declaring that I am now
a citizen of the kingdom where there is no corruption and where death and decay
do not exist. I am now a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
More about this next week.