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 inadequate.
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 existence.
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 heaven.
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 eternity.
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” (Revelation 22:12, NAS).
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 We Saved?
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.
Baptism and Salvation
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)
When the 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 its purpose.
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 ESV).
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 ESV).
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 redeemed (Romans 3:23-26).
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 Completion of Salvation
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.