Does Scripture Say Baptism Is Necessary to Be Saved?

Someone asked if I could address the relationship between salvation and baptism in Scripture, because they have a friend who believes that you cannot be saved unless you are baptized. In this person’s view (and they are part of a denomination that believes this), the physical act of baptism washes you from your sin. They cite Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

For years I taught biblical interpretation at a Bible college. One of the things we discussed is that Scripture must always be compared with other Scripture. God doesn’t contradict Himself. The Bible is its own best interpreter. If a particular text, in this case Acts 2:38, seems to violate what many other texts teach, we need to question our interpretation of that text.

The many biblical texts insisting that we are not saved by works, but by faith, should lead us to seriously question an interpretation that says being baptized—or any other external act we can do—is part of what saves us. Our salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone (Romans 3:22-30; Romans 4:5Galatians 2:16Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:9). Note that our faith is not a work, as some people wrongly state. A work is an external action, such as praying, giving, evangelizing, attending church, or getting baptized. Salvation should result in these works, but it never is caused by them.

Acts 10:44-48 is a key text because it’s so clear that these people were saved first, had already received the Holy Spirit, and only THEN were baptized. The order is critical. Please read that text to see what I mean.

First Corinthians 1:14-17 ends with “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel...” This demonstrates that baptism is not necessary to salvation, because if it were, Paul would not separate it from the gospel message.

Acts 2:38 makes it clear that baptism is vitally important, and it certainly is. But other passages show repentance involves placing saving faith in Christ. The same Peter who spoke the words of Acts 2:38 also preached a gospel message in the temple (Acts 3:12-26). In these fifteen verses, Peter makes no reference to baptism but says this: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). What wipes out sin? Repentance, which in the larger context involves turning to Jesus as our Redeemer to save us from the condemnation of our sins.

If baptism is necessary for our sins to be forgiven, why didn’t Peter say so in Acts 3? Why didn’t Luke, who recorded these words, add that baptism is essential to being saved?

I am not resisting the teaching of Scripture. If it teaches baptism is necessary for salvation, I will gladly believe it—and if Acts 2:38 were the only passage we had, you could conclude baptism is necessary for salvation. But it does not stand alone! It is only one of many passages speaking of salvation.

Baptism is wonderful, and the spiritual impact of my own baptism remains vivid. And many baptisms I have witnessed are to this day incredibly powerful. I remember like it was yesterday baptizing my mother and seven years later my closest friend Steve Keels, and after that baptizing my own daughters. I don’t want in any way to minimize baptism, or for any believer to refrain from being baptized! I just want us to believe all that Scripture says instead of clinging to just a portion of it out of context, when doing so could distort the nature of salvation.

Baptism is something we do, or choose to have done to us, and is therefore a work. Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7, and Romans 5:1 are just a few of the verses that demonstrate salvation is by faith alone, not by works. Think of the thief on the cross who placed his faith in Christ and was promised by Jesus he’d go to Heaven. Obviously baptism wasn’t necessary, or even possible, for him. He couldn’t be baptized, go to synagogue or church, put money in an offering box, offer a sacrifice, or make restitution to all the people he stole from. All he could do was turn to Jesus and love and trust Him and ask Christ to remember him in His kingdom. And Christ’s breathtaking response was, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” We are all like that thief on the cross—we have nothing to contribute, nothing we can do to qualify us for salvation.

Notice too that the thief wasn’t the only example of someone declared saved without being baptized. Jesus said this of the penitent woman who anointed his feet: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:37-50). Clearly she was not baptized prior to her salvation.

The same is true of the tax collector (Luke 18:13-14) and the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2). Each of them experienced forgiveness of sins apart from baptism. When Zacchaeus demonstrated a changed heart and the fruit of repentance, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). No time for nor mention of baptism.

Jesus didn’t tell the apostles they were spiritually cleansed by baptism. He said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). He spoke that word and they simply believed it and placed their faith in Jesus and His words. That’s how salvation happened for the apostles.

Some claim baptism is not a work. But isn’t a work anything we do? Don’t multiple passages (for example Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5) say no good work can earn our salvation, and that faith in Jesus, by His grace, is all that saves us? We trust in the work of Jesus on our behalf, and as vitally important as it is, getting baptized is an act of obedience following our salvation, not a means of obtaining salvation. 

As circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant, baptism is a sign of the New Covenant. God makes clear that circumcision doesn’t save. Circumcised people can be lost; uncircumcised people can be saved. God says there is an inner circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit (Colossians 2:11-12; Romans 2:29). Likewise there is an invisible baptism of the heart into Christ that happens at conversion. Water baptism is an outward symbol of the inward reality that preceded it. The relevant point related to baptism and circumcision is that salvation is always a matter of the heart, not an external action.

In Acts 2:38 Peter calls upon new believers to prove their genuine repentance by being baptized. This is similar to Jesus calling on the rich young ruler to prove his genuine repentance by giving away his riches (Luke 18:18-27). In both cases, by God’s grace, the faith and repentance and consequent salvation were to precede the outward demonstration.

If I had a friend who believed baptism is necessary for salvation, and is deeply ingrained in a denomination that believes this, I would gently challenge them to look at what Scripture actually says—ALL of Scripture, not just a few isolated verses.

While there are many treatments out there on this subject, here are a few of the best online resources I’ve found in terms of clarity and helpfulness:

First, if you share only one resource with a friend, I would go with this first one. It has a clear and accurate handling of the Greek language used in Acts 2:38: Does Acts 2:38 teach that baptism is necessary for salvation?

One of the main points, which I know from studying New Testament Greek, is that the Greek preposition EIS does not always mean “for/resulting in/to get” but often means “because of/as a result of.” Hence Acts 2:38 can be translated, as the Amplified Bible renders it, “Repent [change your old way of thinking, turn from your sinful ways, accept and follow Jesus as the Messiah] and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ BECAUSE OF the forgiveness of your sins…”

Second, this next article is good, but I would skip his handling of the Greek text at the beginning because he gets technical and confusing. But after that, it gets very good: Baptism and Acts 2:38

Third, this 10-minute video is helpful, though it would be better without using the King James Version which most people don’t use these days. Still, he makes some excellent points: Acts 2:38: Baptism for salvation? No!

Finally, here’s a blog I wrote on the meaning and importance of baptism. It was part a devotional series and includes a video of NFL linebacker Demario Davis talking about baptism. 

Let me finish by saying this: even though baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is certainly necessary for discipleship. It is strongly emphasized in Scripture and is a matter of obedience.

Baptism is a powerful display symbolizing the believer’s death to sin, burial (beneath the water), and resurrection to new life in Jesus (Romans 6:11; Colossians 2:12). Rising out of the water represents the cleansed new life (Romans 6:4).

Jesus told His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Wherever the Good News of Christ is proclaimed, new believers are to be baptized in a joyful ceremony. Philip shared the gospel with an Ethiopian official who, when he saw water, expressed his desire to be baptized (Acts 8:35–36). 

If you know Jesus but haven’t been baptized, by all means you should do so. It’s not optional. Jesus said, “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments.” And no commandment is more basic or central than to be baptized, thereby publicly proclaiming your identity with Jesus first, and His people second. 

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries