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Is Baptism Essential To Salvation?

Is Baptism Essential To Salvation? poster

I am thinking especially of two or three things in connection with this topic. First, is baptism essential to salvation? A great many people think it is, but I want to let the Word of God answer that question. And then if we find that it is not essential to salvation, another question arises: Why then baptize at all? In the next place, I am thinking of a slightly different question: Has water baptism any place at all in this present dispensation of the grace of God or has it been done away with altogether? If not, just what place does it have?

I am going to ask you to notice one verse which I want to use, not exactly as a text, but as a starting point: 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” You will notice the very definite statement, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Now I submit in the very beginning of this discussion that if baptism is really a part of the Gospel, it is quite unthinkable that the apostle Paul should have used this language regarding it. Certainly if baptism is really part of the Gospel, (and we are saved by obedience to the Gospel), if it is necessary that we be baptized in water in order to be saved, in order to ensure our eternal security with Christ in glory, it is unthinkable that the great apostle to the Gentiles, whose one object was to win as many souls as he possibly could to a saving knowledge of Christ, should actually say that Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach the Gospel. You must distinguish between that which saves and that which, at best, has certainly a secondary place.

What is it that saves? The answer to this question comes out very clearly in that midnight interview with the jailer of Philippi. There was that man who, a little while ago, had been so hard, so stony-hearted, so utterly indifferent to the sufferings of Paul and Silas that after scourging them, he had thrown them into an inner prison with their feet fast in the stocks while he had gone off to sleep caring nothing about the suffering they were going through. But God reached down His hand of power, laid hold of that prison, and shook it to its foundation until the doors were opened and the prisoners’ bonds were actually loosed. And then that jailer, awakened, literally thrown from his bed, and feeling sure that all the prisoners had escaped, and realizing that he was responsible to the Roman authorities, seeing nothing but disgrace ahead of him, was about to kill himself when the apostle Paul cried, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). The man’s conscience was reached, he was laid hold of by the Holy Spirit, broken down before God, and deeply exercised about his sinfulness. He called for a light and sprang into where the prisoners were and falling down trembling before them, he put the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

I submit that if ordinances had anything to do with salvation, that was the time to speak of them. If people are saved by baptism or by partaking of the Lord’s Supper or if there is any other sacramental observance that has to do with salvation, that was the time to insist upon it. Here was a man in great earnestness and deep anxiety, he wanted to be saved, he wanted exact information. Surely an inspired apostle would not trifle with such an one by only giving him a part of the Gospel.

If you are one who believes that ordinances have saving value, either alone or connected with faith, let me ask you if someone came to you with the questions, “What must I do to be saved?” what would you tell him? Think seriously, what would you say to the man who came to you and said, “I am in deep distress about my soul, I want to be saved, I want to know that I am right with God, what must I do?” What would you tell him? What did the apostle Paul tell him? Without a moment’s hesitation, without beating about the bush he came directly to the point and said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). “Oh,” says somebody, “but undoubtedly he must have added a great deal to that, he must have given him much additional information, he could not have left it there.”

What right have you to say that? We read, “Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:6). I do not know, you do not know what else the apostle may have added but what the Holy Ghost has told us is that he said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Notice what he said and what he did not say. He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” He did not say, “believe about the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are many people today who believe a great many historical facts about the Lord Jesus Christ, they believe in His ability to save, they believe in His willingness to save, they believe that He has saved thousands of others; but it is possible to believe all these facts about the Lord Jesus Christ and not be saved. The apostle’s word is, “Believe in (or on) the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

What is it to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? It is to put your heart’s trust in Him, to put your confidence in Him. A lady was in deep trouble about her soul. It happened that she was a college-bred young woman who had given some time to the study of Greek. She was reading through the Greek New Testament and had come to the early chapters of the Gospel of John. She was in great distress about her soul, she wanted peace with God, and though she had talked with a number of Christian workers, there were questions in her mind that had never been answered. She was not clear about the way of life. Reading in the third chapter, she came that wonderful portion which Martin Luther called the “Miniature Bible,” the verse you all know so well, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” She looked at the Greek word for “believeth” and she knew it was translated that way but she stopped and said to herself, “Wait a minute. I have seen that word just a little bit before. Where did I see it?” And her eye ran back through the chapter but she did not find it there so she went back to the second chapter and came to this verse, “Now when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed on his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (John 2:23). They believed in Him as a miracle worker but that does not save sinners, it is trusting Him as the only begotten Son of God that saves sinners. But she read on, “But Jesus did not”—and there she found exactly that same word only she knew it was not translated “believeth” in the English Bible—“commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for He knew what was in man.” She said to herself, “That is remarkable, there is exactly the same Greek word rendered ‘commit’ that in chapter 3:16 is translated ‘believeth.’” And in a moment the truth of the Gospel burst upon her soul. Jesus did not commit Himself unto them because He knew they were not genuine, because He knew they could not be trusted; but “he that committeth himself unto the Son of God hath everlasting life.” “Oh,” she said, “He can be trusted. Now I see it. I am just to hand myself over to Him,” and she passed from death unto life. All down through the Christian centuries, myriads, yea millions of poor sinners have ventured their all upon that word of the apostle, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,” and they have found salvation, life, peace, and the joy that comes from a purged conscience and the knowledge of sins put away.

Let us consider another passage. Our Lord links baptism with believing. In the last chapter of Mark’s Gospel, He gives His great commission to His apostles and sends them out unto the Gentile world. I wish you would notice particularly that they were sent unto the Gentile world to which you and I belong, not the Jews, as some ultra-dispensationalists tell us today. He said unto them, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” And then He added, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Observe, He does not say, “He that is not baptized shall be damned,” He says, “He that believeth not,” because after all, it is through believing that we are saved.

What place then does baptism have? It is the outward acknowledgment of our salvation, and clearly enough in apostolic days it is linked with faith. You find it put that way in the book of Acts. But somebody says, “That is only when they were dealing with Jews.” Let us turn to that part of the book of Acts where we read of the Word of God going into Corinth. Paul wrote to these Corinthians, you remember, and said that he was very glad that he had baptized none of them except Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanas. But that does not mean that he neglected baptism for in the eighteenth chapter of Acts where we get the account of his visit to Corinth, we read in verse seven, “And he departed thence, and entered into a certain man’s house, named Justus, one that worshipped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue. And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house.” Crispus is one of the men that Paul baptized. It must have been a great victory when that chief ruler of the synagogue believed, for the synagogue, you know, was at enmity with the Gospel, and so I am sure Paul found great joy in baptizing Crispus. “And many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized,” not baptized in order to save their souls but baptized because they had believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. Their baptism was the frank, open confession of their new relationship. They had taken Him as Saviour and Lord and they acknowledged that in their baptism.

Why did Paul seem in some sense to make light of this as though he almost ignored Christian baptism? If we read carefully the first chapter of Corinthians, we will see what was in his mind. These Corinthians were becoming factional, sectarian; the assembly at Corinth had not been divided into different denominations as we are today but there were factions within the one church there and they were making a great deal of special leaders. Paul says, “Ye are yet carnal…and walk as men, for while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?” They said, “I am of Paul; and I am of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ,” and he feels then they are acting like babes and not like matured believers. It is just baby talk when you find Christians making a great deal of leaders. Who are these leaders? Simply ministers given by God to the whole church and we are not to single out certain ones and say, “I am of this one or I am of that one.” Neither must Christ’s name be made the head of a party. It was just as bad to say, I am of Christ,” as though putting others in a different group altogether, as it was to say, “I am of Paul, or of Cephas or of Apollos.” Some were saying, “I like an earnest exhorter, I am of Peter.” And others, “Well, give me Apollos, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scripture. I like a flaming evangelist.” Some said, “I prefer a teacher like Paul.” Still others said, “you can have your Paul, your Apollos, your Cephas, I am satisfied without these. I am of Christ and the rest of you are not.” This is carnality, he says, and he adds, “I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius…also the household of Stephanas lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.”

The danger was that if Paul had done the baptizing, a certain group would go strutting around and saying, “I am of Paul, he baptized me, I have the real thing, I was baptized by the great apostle to the Gentiles.” He did not always do the baptizing therefore, but others who were with him did. He did not ignore it but if people would make parties, he was glad he could say that he had not baptized many of them. He could not condone this factionalism, this sectionalism in the church of God, but that he did not refuse baptism is clear because he says here, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” and then shows that the one great unifying name is the name of Jesus for it is in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are baptized, and we are to own Him as Lord of all.

But somebody says, “Just what place does it have? If we are saved by grace alone, what more is there?” It is a picture, a wonderful picture, God’s picture of death and burial and resurrection with His blessed Son. “Oh,” you say, “then you think that nobody has been buried and raised with Christ unless he has been baptized according to some particular form?” No, we believe that all Christians are identified with Christ in His death, His burial, and His resurrection but we also believe that in baptism we have a wonderful picture of it all. It is the Gospel acted out. I can remember when I ignored baptism. I thought I was wiser and more spiritual than those who practiced it and for six and one-half years after I was converted I refused to submit to baptism. But I stood one day watching a little group as they were baptized in a river out in California and though my heart was opposed at first, as I saw that quiet service, I said to myself, “This is apostolic, this is what they did in Bible times. Why should I fight against it?” I went home and took down my Bible and my concordance and turned to the words “baptize” and “baptizing” and went all through the New Testament and noticed every Scripture in which these words were found and I said, “If I want to be subject to the will of God in all things, I too must confess my Lord in baptism.” As I stood on the beach of the Pacific Ocean and saw those billows rolling in and breaking upon the shore as I was about to be baptized, there came home to me the words of the forty-second Psalm, “All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me,” and I understood as never before that when my blessed Lord went down into death for my sins, all the waves and billows of God’s judgment against sin rolled over Him, and He was overwhelmed and said, “I sink in deep mire where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me” (Psalm 69:2). He went down into the depths of the floods of judgment. “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts” (Psalm 42:7). But He came up in triumph,

“He arose a victor o’er the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign.”

As I stood there, I realized as never before what it meant for Jesus to go through the judgment for me. They were singing a little hymn:

“Around Thy grave, Lord Jesus,
Thine empty grave we stand,
With hearts all full of praises
To keep Thy blest command.
By faith our souls rejoicing,
To trace Thy path of love
Through death’s dark angry billows
Up to the throne above.

“Lord Jesus, we remember
The travail of Thy soul,
When through Thy love’s deep pity
The waves did o’er Thee roll.
Baptized in death’s dark waters,
For us Thy blood was shed,
For us, Thou Lord of glory,
Wast numbered with the dead.

“O Lord, Thou now art risen,
Thy travail all is o’er,
For sin Thou once hast suffered,
Thou livest to die no more.
Sin, death, and hell are vanquished
By Thee, the Church’s head,
And now we share Thy triumph,
Thou first-born from the dead.”

The memory of the step I took that day has brought blessing to my soul all the years since. Baptism is one’s own frank confession that, “I deserve to die but Christ has died for me, and so I recognize that I am identified with Him in His death. The world has cast Him out, refused Him, but I will take my place with the One that they rejected.” Thus the waters of baptism become in figure like the cross of Jesus coming between the believer and the world that has spurned Him.

But somebody says, “Suppose one has already been baptized by the Holy Spirit. Why then should he ever stoop to water baptism?” In the tenth chapter of Acts we have Peter preaching, not to the Jews but to the Gentiles, and he tells of the Lord Jesus, the sinner’s Saviour. In verse forty-three he says, “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” My dear friend, if you are unsaved, if you are longing to know your sins forgiven, if you want to be sure that your guilt has been put away, let these words sink into your heart. “To Him—to Jesus—give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.”

I shall never forget the first time I stood in the Boston Public Library. A friend of mine had taken me up to see Sargent’s marvelous frieze of the prophets. On the left side were some of the prophets, others were in front of me, and more on my right. The whole wondrous prophetic company had been depicted in that marvelous painting by that great artist. Moses was in teh center and the rest of them grouped about him. There was something about that picture that literally enthralled me. I was silent five or ten minutes as I studied those paintings and then turn to my friend I said, “There is an expression on every face that suggests that they are looking on to something that has not yet come. They seem as though they are peering down through the ages and looking on to something in the future.” My friend said, “Turn around.” When I had come up to the lobby, I had not noticed what was at the other end. I turned about and there was that great painting of the crucified Christ—my Saviour, depicted hanging on that tree. “Oh,” I said, “I see it, ‘To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins’.” Do not add anything to that, it is not necessary. Salvation is settled and secure the moment you trust in Jesus.

Now notice, “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished…because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. (These were the same miraculous signs that took place on Pentecost.) Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 10:44–48). You may say, “But are you sure it was the baptism of the Holy Ghost that they received?” Yes, listen to Peter telling the story when he gets back to Jerusalem. Chapter 11 verses 15 to 17, “As I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that He said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ: what was I, that I could withstand God?” Baptism in water is a privilege, a precious privilege granted to those who already believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as their own personal Saviour. It is not superseded by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, otherwise it was folly to baptize this Gentile group of converts to Christ.

Let us turn particularly now to two other Scriptures which I want you to notice briefly. In one of them we have a baptized man lost and in the other, we have an unbaptized man saved. Who was the baptized man who was lost? In the eighth chapter of Acts, we read of Philip going to Samaria and preaching Christ. There was a great man there, great in his own estimation and great in the estimation of some of the ignorant people; his name was Simon. He heard the Word and intellectually believed and was baptized with the rest but when Peter came down and laid his hands on those young converts and the Spirit in great power fell on them, Simon stood looking on and the desire to be somebody took possession of him and he said, “I will give you money if you will give me the power you have,” and Peter said, “The money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money…thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.” He was a baptized professor and yet was a lost man. Baptism has nothing to do with saving the poor sinner. It regenerates no one, it is only an outward sign of allegiance to Christ. Here the baptized man was unreal.

On the other hand, let me take you to Calvary. There hangs a man nailed to a cross beside the blessed One on the center cross. That dying robber’s feet are nailed to the tree, he can take no step; his hands are nailed to the tree, he can do no work. But the Spirit of God convicts him and he recognizes in the Holy Sufferer on that central cross the divine King of the Ages and says, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:43), and Jesus said to him, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The thief could not be baptized and Jesus does not say anything about an ordinance but He takes that man on confession of his personal faith in Him and says, “That settles everything, you will be with me in paradise.” If you are saying, “Oh that I knew my sins were put away, oh that I knew that my soul was saved! I am willing to be baptized, I am willing to do anything if I can only blot out my sin,” let me assure you on the authority of God’s Word, there is nothing left for you to do. Jesus died and did it all, long, long ago, and all that remains now is that you come to Him as a repentant sinner and put your heart’s trust in Him as your own personal Saviour. You will be saved for eternity. And then if the lord shows you that it is His will for you to be baptized, I am sure you will be glad to do it. That is a question of loving obedience to the word of the One who redeemed you.

Is baptism essential? Essential to what? Essential to salvation? No. Only one thing is essential to salvation and that is personal faith in the Lord Jesus. But it is essential to obedience. As a believer you want to be obedient, you want to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, do you not? Then trust Him and obey Him as you go on through life. “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.” He commanded his disciples to baptize. He has never repealed this. To set His words aside is a most serious thing. “Obedience is better than sacrifice and to harken than the fat of rams.”