While at Summit Colorado this summer, I engaged in a discussion with a bright young student on the issue of baptism. The discussion centered around two question, the first of which had to do with the definition of baptism and whether it always implied a water baptism by full immersion. The second question was regarding baptism as a requirement for salvation. While not exhaustive, this should help clarify those questions.
The root of baptism in Greek is “bapt” and there are many cognates of the word found in Scripture. In brief, it can mean immersion, washing or sprinkling, trouble (Jesus referring to a “baptism” he must undergo in Luke 12:50, suggesting a difficulty or trouble), a pouring out, this one often associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Strong’s Greek 907 – baptidzo, baptize (Matt. 3:6, Mark 1:5, Luke 3:7, John 1:25, Acts 2:38, Rom. 6:3) means dip, submerge, but specifically of ceremonial dipping. A cognate of this word (baptizontes) appears in Matthew 28:19
Strong’s Greek 908 – baptisma, baptism (Matt. 3:7, Mark 1:4, Luke 12:50, Acts 1:22, Eph. 4:5, Col. 2:12) means the rite or ceremony of baptism.
Strong’s Greek 909 – baptismois, washings (Heb. 9:10) means dipping or ceremonial washing.
Strong’s Greek 910 – baptistas, baptist (Matt. 3:1, 14:2, Luke 7:20, 9:19) is a noun indicating a formal title. Used in scripture only with John the Baptizer.
Baptism as a requirement for salvation:
Baptism in the ANE (Ancient Near East) often was associated with someone converting from one religion to another. This idea leads some to believe that baptism is a requirement for salvation, but the Word clearly contradicts this idea. Admittedly, there are some verses that would suggest baptism as a requirement for salvation. John 3:5 is often cited where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born of water” to enter the kingdom of God. This “born of water” can have multiple meanings:
- The water of the amniotic sack surrounding a baby in the womb.
- The ritual baptism of repentance practiced by Jews as part of their faith.
- The immersion of a new believer in Christ (our traditional view of baptism).
- A spiritual washing of the soul (cf. Deut. 30:6, Jer 31:31-34, Ezek. 11:18-20), signifying a new birth that cleanses and renews.
The first meaning is clearly not intended because it is physically impossible for a grown person to re-enter the womb, miracles notwithstanding. While the second may be possible, it is unlikely that Jesus intended this as He came to proclaim a New Kingdom, not the one the Jews were in at the time. Also important to note that even if Jesus intended this definition, He followed the “born of water” with a requirement to also be “born of the Spirit.” The third is also not likely as this form of baptism did not yet exist and it was only after Jesus’ death that this became a common practice.
That leaves us with the last option, of which Nicodemus would have been familiar. This option was the option Jesus was advocating. Further, in looking at the Greek, the word “and” is the Greek word kai, and can be translated either “and” or “even.” If it’s translated “even,” it casts a whole different light on the issue and supports the idea that “born of water even the Spirit” means the spiritual regeneration that comes from repentance. “Water” and “Spirit” are often synonymous in the Old Testament.
Acts 2:38 is also used by those that claim baptism is a requirement for salvation. This also fails the context test when studying the Greek. Here the word “for” is examined and found to have several possible definitions including “in order to be,” “because of, as the result of,” or “with regard to.” Most scholars agree the proper interpretation of this passage should read “because of” or “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ because of the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Also, both John 3:5 and Acts 2:38 must align with other scriptures that clearly fail to demonstrate water baptism as a requirement for salvation.
The Bible tells us that salvation is by faith alone (see John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5 to name a few verses in support of this). If baptism is a requirement for salvation, Paul is remiss in his failure to insist on it in multiple verses throughout his writings.
Lastly, baptism as a requirement for salvation is contrary to the nature of God. Consider two examples.
The first is the thief on the cross we read about in Luke 23:32-43 with Jesus saying to him “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Clearly the thief was not baptized, yet he would enter the Kingdom with Jesus. Some would argue the thief died under the OT law (before the NT) but this logic fails when we consider the salvation of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.
Second is an objection that contradicts the idea that God is love. Consider a scenario whereby a person truly receives Christ as their Lord and Savior, say perhaps on a Saturday night service and has plans to be baptized the next day in church. They are killed in a car accident on the way home that evening, never making it to church the next day. Would a loving God consign that person to hell for failure to complete the act of receiving Jesus? This is completely contrary to His nature.
For a further discussion of this issue, I recommend D. A. Carson’s commentary, The Gospel According to John.