As we read through the New Testament, we see how many Christians were converted to Christ by means of faith and baptism (Mark 16:16). The question we want to answer, however, is baptism essential for salvation? Of course, this question has existed for many centuries. In fact, whether baptism is essential for salvation has been the greatest issue facing “Christendom” since Gnosticism in the second and third centuries. Why is baptism so controversial? Because it is a “heaven or hell” issue.
Most of the religious world, claiming to be associated with Christ, reject the idea of baptism being essential for salvation. Most religious groups believe a person is saved the moment they believe (mental assent) before, and without, baptism. However, they also teach that those of us teaching baptism’s necessity, are adding to the finished work of Christ on the cross. So, we are said to be guilty of perverting the gospel (cf. Gal. 1:6-9). Moreover, if baptism is not necessary for salvation, then there will be many more souls entering into heaven than not, and those of us who teach its necessity are doomed. However, if baptism is necessary for salvation, then there will be many more souls condemned for refusing and/or rejecting baptism.
The following is the overwhelming “majority” view of the religious world concerning baptism:
“No, water baptism is not necessary for salvation. But you might ask, “If the answer is no, then why are there verses that say things like …baptism that now saves you…” (1 Pet. 3:21) and “…Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38)? These are good questions, and they deserve a good answer so we will look at these verses later. But for now, the reason baptism is not necessary for salvation is that we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8) and not by faith and a ceremony (Rom. 4:1-11).
So, here we see the majority view of how a person is saved – by “faith only” (mental assent). However, the majority view is divided into several other groups.
Some teach the Holy Spirit, supernaturally, provides the necessary faith, as a gift (because they cannot produce said faith on their own due to their inherent human weakness), and once they are given this faith, they are saved that very moment, before and without baptism, and can never fall from grace.
Then there are those who teach the Spirit must illuminate the mind, to understand God’s word, the Bible, and then they receive their faith via the word of God (Rom.10:17), and when they do, they are saved that very moment, before and without baptism.
Still, others teach that when one hears the gospel message, and through their own will, determination, and volition, accepts and trusts it, then they are saved that very moment, before and without baptism.
However, the “minority view” teaches salvation by faith, but not by faith only (Jas. 2:19-26). Rather, when one hears the gospel message,, and through his own will, determination, and volition, accepts and trusts it, and then repents of his sins, as well as confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior, and then is immersed (baptized) in water for the forgiveness sins, then one is saved, having obeyed the Lord by making the correct application of His word.
At the heart of the divide over baptism is one particular passage: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins ….” (Acts 2:38). This one passage alone proves baptism is essential for salvation.
Most of the controversy over this passage has to do with the little Greek word, eis. This little word means, “to or for, in order that, on account of, to obtain, unto, towards.” While having various shades of meaning, the word eis always looks forward and is always used prospectively. However, to get around the force of this word, as well as the force of the verse, some scholars, while correctly providing the lexical meaning of the word, decided to add another little nuance to its meaning. They put forth the unfounded assertion that the word eis may also look backwards or retrospectively. In others words the word can mean “because of.”
Of course, no evidence was provided for such an assertion and the Scriptures hardly support such a claim. Every time eis is used, it is used prospectively of something. For instance, Paul writes: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:10). Here we see “believeth unto” (to or for, in order that, on account of, to obtain, unto, towards) righteousness. One does not come to believe because he is already righteous, rather one believes unto (to or for, in order that, on account of, to obtain, unto, towards) righteousness. Same with “confession.” One does not make confession because one is already saved, rather one makes confession unto (to or for, in order that, on account of, to obtain, unto, towards) salvation. In fact, even repentance is said to be unto (to or for, in order that, on account of, to obtain, unto, towards) life (Acts 11:18).
Moreover, Matthew writes, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Here is the exact same phrase as is found in Acts 2:38—“for the remission of sins.” Even though several verses have been quoted, all I need is one to show that eis never looks backwards or retrospectively, and this one is verse is chief. Jesus did not shed His blood because of the forgiveness of sins, rather He shed his blood eis (for, unto) the forgiveness of sins—so that sins could be forgiven, not because sins were already forgiven. And here we see the absolute destruction of such an assertion.
While, the discussions over the years regarding the word eis have been instructive, and the truth has been firmly established concerning the purpose of baptism being “for (eis or unto) the remission of sins,” we do not need the very phrase to establish our case. So, pretend, for a moment, that the phrase “for the remission of sins” is not found in the verse, making it read, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ ….”
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter told the gathered crowd that Jesus was the Son of God because of the miracles he worked in their presence (Acts 2:22-23; John 3:1-2). Yet not a soul in the crowd is recorded to have objected. Peter told them all that Jesus was proven to be the Son of God by the prophecies He fulfilled (Acts 2:25-28). Yet not a soul in the crowd is recorded to have objected. Peter also preached to them that Jesus was proven to be the Son of God by His bodily resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:29-32). Yet not a soul in the crowd is reported to have objected. Finally, Peter tells them, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
Peter just got done telling them they had killed their long-awaited Messiah. They had killed the Son of God knowing the Father was with Him in working miracles. They had killed the Son of God knowing He fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. They had killed the Son of God knowing that He was resurrected from the dead. They had murdered the Son of God, the only remedy for their sins, and now they knew it.
So, fearing hell and eternal separation from God, they cried out, “Men and brethren what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Why did they ask what they should do? Because they knew they were lost in their sins and were presently standing before God without having any forgiveness for murdering Jesus. Verily, how would you feel if you were in their shoes, having done what they had done? How could you live with yourselves for having murdered the Son of God.
Peter, who loved his Jewish brethren, and knowing the remedy, responded enthusiastically, excitedly, and joyfully, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” What were they to do? Repent and be baptized! Who was to repent and be baptized? Every one of you! By what authority? In the name of Jesus Christ! But why were they to repent and be baptized? Because they murdered Jesus the Christ and were dead in their sins. Without repentance and without baptism they would never have been forgiven for murdering Jesus. However, they took advantage of the remedy Peter gave them, and three thousand souls were added to the church that day (Acts 2:41, 47).
But the reality is, the phrase “for the remission of sins” is indeed there, and it simply buttresses the fact of the necessity of baptism. Now if eis is “because of”, then were they supposed to repent because of having forgiveness of their sins already? Of course not. But as with baptism, “to ask is but to answer.”