Nothing is made clearer by the New Testament Scriptures than baptism is essential for salvation. As is true with any other commandment given by God, baptism alone does not save. As is also true with any other commandment given by God, one is not saved without baptism.
An understanding of why God commanded baptism and grasping why baptism is a burial would help many who hear the Gospel to accept its absolute essentialness in obedience to the Gospel. Thus, those two facets of why God has given us this command are the subject of the following discussion.
Why did God command baptism? Part of the answer lies in the fact that all men have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Sin is filth of the soul, as dirt is filth to the human body. How is filth washed away from the physical body? The answer is by water. If sin spoils the soul, and it is by the blood of Christ one is cleansed, it seems hard that anyone would fail to understand that water is both symbolic of the cleansing from sin by the blood of Christ and the point at which the blood is applied. Thus God commanded baptism in water as the means of applying the blood of Christ in order to wash away one’s sins.
Why is baptism a burial? The complete answer to this is recorded by the apostle Paul in Romans 6. A close study of the entire chapter will convince anyone of the necessity of baptism. Verses 3-6 explain:
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
At the time of one’s knowledge that he has sinned, he understands that he is spiritually dead. When the physical body is dead, what is done with it? It is buried. Since the man guilty of sin is spiritually dead, what is done with that old man? He is buried. He is buried in the grave of baptism wherein he is washed from his sins by the blood of Christ, via his obedience to God’s command to be baptized. He is then raised from the water, even as Christ was raised from the dead on the third day. He now walks as a new man in a new life as a servant of righteousness instead of a servant of sin as was the old man. Why water and why a burial is not hard to understand. For many what it is an unwillingness to accept baptism. They often do so because they have isolated one verse from the rest of Scripture, that one being John 3:16.
John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Christ came preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). If the Jews of his day had any difficulty understanding why baptism was essential in John’s work, we are not told. When Jesus instructed the apostles to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, He declared the essentiality of baptism for salvation (Mark 16:16). The apostles had no difficulty grasping why baptism was part of the command. When the apostles answered the question of “what must we do” on the day of Pentecost, baptism for the remission of sins was commanded. The people that day never had a problem understanding it. In every single instance of individuals in the book of Acts who complied with the Gospel, all were baptized. None of them said I don’t need to be baptized. They understood it and they believed the message of God, not a message of man.
Why should anyone today fail to understand and accept the simple words of Peter in 1 Peter 3:21? “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:” The answer is that there is no reasonable cause to not understand what baptism is and its role in the plan devised by heaven to save man who dwells upon the earth.