In his eulogy for Senator John McCain former vice president Joe Biden brought out a statement that senator McCain had made when he converted to the Baptist denomination. Senator McCain stated that he did not need to be water baptized because it would not add to his spiritual advancement. Of course there are many who would disagree with the senator’s statement. Not that they were or are judging him. But the question is raised, “Baptism. Is it necessary for salvation?”
It is a fair and necessary question which one must answer. But the answer should be based on scripture.
What exactly is baptism according to the scripture
If one goes by Hollywood films and the Catholic church one might get a totally incorrect concept of scriptural baptism. If one goes by evangelical denominations and some “full gospel” groups one might still get an incorrect concept. So, what is this baptism that the Bible talks about.
There are two descriptions of baptism in the Old Testament. The first is when the children of Israel were leaving the bondage of Egypt and they came against the Red Sea. The picture drawn here is the total separation from, or death to, the old way of life. The Israelites had been the servants of the Egyptians. But after passing through the Red Sea they were freed from that bondage because the Egyptian army was destroyed. The Israelites became dead to the Egyptians. Never again were they in bondage to them. This image of baptism presents the freedom from sin as one dies to his old way of life.
The second is presented when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the promised land. The contrast of the Jordan River baptism to the Red Sea baptism is this: The Red Sea parted and then came back together and brought death to the flesh therein; The Jordan River did not part but ceased to flow from above while the Israelites crossed over. The Jordan River presents an image of the Holy Spirit coming from above and baptizing those who are crossing into the Promised Land. The baptism of the Holy Spirit gives life, instead of taking life.
So we see that baptism was necessary if the Israelites were going to receive the Promised land. The old life had to die and the new life had to be empowered from above.
So, baptism in its presentation must first of all picture a position of dying to one life and then moving forward to beginning a new life of promise.
New Testament baptism
Now we come to the New Testament. What does it say about baptism? The New Testament begins with the preaching of John the Baptist who baptized for repentance of sin. It is made clear throughout the New Testament that there is a difference between the two baptisms. It was not enough to just have John’s baptism after the coming of the Holy Spirit. There must be the baptism in the Name of Jesus.
Jesus was baptized by John, but not for repentance. Jesus never sinned. He always did what His Father did. But He said that He was being baptized to “fulfill all righteousness”. He was setting the example of one who earnestly desires to be pleasing to The Father by being baptized according to the scriptures. He was to become “sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God” in Him.
Is physical baptism necessary for salvation and right relationship with God? Let us look at the example of the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus told him that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day. That man never got baptized in this world, but he went to heaven. He repented and then he committed himself to Jesus. Would he have been baptized if it were a possibility? I think so. But he was not. If it were a necessary act to be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then Jesus lied to him. Jesus never lied.
So, the true picture of baptism must present a picture of someone dying to an old way of life and then a new way of life beginning. To be clear and to the point, sprinkling or just pouring water over someone does not paint a picture of dying to anything. So, scripturally speaking, many, so called, Christian denominations do not carry on baptism as spoken of in the Bible. Of course, this has been promoted in popular Biblically based films of Hollywood. Most of these films were not interested in Biblical truths but in making money with movies. So adherence to scripture was not a top priority. Still the word got out.
The Greek word translated to “baptize” in the New Testament was a word which meant to be totally immersed into something. It also meant that one was under the total influence of something or someone. We have a phrase which we say that someone who is drunk is “under the influence” of alcohol. That is what the word means when we are baptized into Christ Jesus. We become totally under the influence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
A real picture of Biblical baptism
If we were literal in our baptism ritual and did it according to the Bible, we would take people into a pool of water and would lay or push them under the water and never let them come up. Of course we can not do that because that is against God’s Word. But I use that as an example. Just as baptism is a type, or symbol, of what has taken place within our spirit, it lets the world know that we are no longer the same person but are a new creation.
So, to the question of “Is baptism necessary for salvation?”, the scripture shows that physically speaking it is not. But spiritually speaking it is. If the “old man” has not died, then there is no “new creation” so it does not matter how many times one gets baptized, it will profit them nothing.
In Galatians 6:15 Paul the Apostle put it this way: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision(physical baptism) nor uncircumcision(not being physically baptized) avails anything, but a new creation. So, the physical act of baptism has nothing to do with your right relationship with your Lord. But, because you have a right relationship with your Lord you earnestly desire to please Him in every way. And just as He desired to please His Father in fulfilling all righteousness, so shall we delight to please Him by following Him in physical baptism.