Does Baptism Save?

There’s two ways to view baptism: sacramental or non-sacramental. Those who view baptism as a sacrament understand it to be a means of grace, i.e., a vehicle through which God confers his grace on the believer. Those who view baptism as a non-sacrament understand it to be an ordinance, i.e., a command given by Jesus that should be obeyed by believers.

One’s view of baptism will determine how they answer the question “Does baptism save?” Those who view it sacramentally will say, “Of course!” Those who view it non-sacramentally will say, “Of course not!” The sacramental view understands the sacraments as something God does that believers get to participate in. The non-sacramental view understands the ordinance as something believers do because God commanded it.

This is why you’ll often find people arguing about “works salvation” when the issue of baptism’s salvific significance comes up. The non-sacramentalists understand baptism as something we do, so it’s a work, and a work can’t save lest it give us reason to boast. The sacramentalist, on the other hand, sees it as something God has done in order that we may be saved, so there’s no reason to boast since the work is Christ’s and we’re simply allowed union with it.

And this, of course, determines how we read passages like 1 Peter 3:21; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; and Mark 16:16, among others. The sacramentalists take these verses at face value. Baptism saves. Baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Non-sacramentalists have ready objections: the passage in Mark may not be original, but even if it is, it doesn’t say that one who doesn’t believe and is not baptized will condemned; 1 Peter is speaking symbolically; Jesus spoke of natural birth with his reference to being born of water; etc.

Where do you stand on the question? Does baptism save, and if so, in what way?



11 thoughts on “Does Baptism Save?

  1. I never use the word consensus, since I think it presupposes that the majority of scholars at any given moment in history will have the correct answer, which is really laughable in light of modern biblical scholarship. On the other hand, a lot of really competent new testament textual critics who don’t agree anything else, agree on this one thing, that nothing in the manuscripts we have on hand beyond Mark 16:8 is original. So that is sort of bringing in consensus by indirection.

  2. I never understood the argument that Jesus is saying one must be born of natural water. I mean, seriously, the Gospel of John is saying that being physically born is a requirement for entering the Kingdom? Or am I missing something?

  3. I would make the analogy to the bronze serpent in the OT: it is a physical means by which the word (or, promise) of God is communicated (in the broad sense, not strictly in the “conveying of information” sense) to His people. It has real saving power, just as the serpent did, because it is God’s chosen means accompanied by His promise that by this means, ordained by Him, we are saved.

  4. Nick, one can view baptism as a sacrament, but not a saving ordnance (doesn’t seem as those you present this option). As a matter of fact, this is the standard Presbyterian position. No one I know, in the Presbyterian camp, believes that Baptism saves, but we believe it is a sacrament.

  5. I would agree with Jeff. I do see it as a sacrament, but not as a saving work.

    I’ve wrestled with this issue a lot, due to my upbringing in the Church of Christ and attending a Christian Church (Stone-Campbell) university (though I am no longer apart of that movement). I find that the question “does it save?” to be too limiting. It is almost a bad question.

    Our salvation is not limited to an event. It is a process, one that will not be complete until our resurrection. Is baptism a part of this salvation process God has initiated in Christ? Definitely. I’ve never seen a “Christian” make it who refuses baptism. But is baptism the basis for our salvation, and will a person be condemned who is not baptized, yet has faith in Christ? I believe the answer is no.

  6. The question here, as I understand it, is about means. What is the means by which I enter into union with Christ? By what instrument(s) do I become a Christian? I see no biblical reason not to see baptism as symbolic and thus an ordinance, just as a gradually progressive life of dying to self is indicative of new life in Christ. As I read Scripture it is clear that grace is the means and faith is the instrument of my salvation (Eph 2:8-9) and the measure of my standing before God (Rom 5:1). That baptism is closely aligned to grace and faith is as much an historical/cultural matter as is anything else (see my essay “Against Baptismal Regeneration”. Recently I posed this same question on my blog. There is a large constituency of Christian churches here in my area that are adamantly for baptismal regeneration. When speaking with a pastor about this, the question was posed to me “Why wouldn’t someone want to get baptized after committing their life to Christ?” to which I responded “How is that relevant to the question about means of salvation?” It’s a red herring when one points to evidence of rather than causal means for a state of affairs.

  7. Hey, I definately agree that one doesn’t have to be baptized to be saved,being saved is an issue of the heart just as the thief on the cross next to Jesus had no works to get in to paradise, his heart was repented,however if you are not in a deathbed situation as believers we should be baptized as well as partake in communion and any other biblical commands to walk as Jesus walked.

  8. C. Stirling: Yet there are those who argue that vv. 9-20 are original and they bring a lot of evidence to bear on the subject. It’s interesting how those verses appear in every Bible, even those translated from critical texts that consider the verses additions, isn’t it?

    Brian: Gotcha. Do you think it’s necessary for entrance into the community? In other words, is it an identifying feature of being a Christian?

    James: Same here. Who wouldn’t qualify on that count? It’s not like demons or angels are running around trying to be born again. In The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity Ben Witherington has a chapter in which he makes a case for natural birth in John 3 and it’s probably the lamest thing I’ve read in the whole book.

    Tom: Good analogy. I spent some time in the Book of Concord yesterday reading up on baptism and there was plenty to agree with. I was pleased to find that it has to Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles right in there! Thanks again!

    Jeff: Your right, I didn’t present that option. I didn’t even think of it. But I have to admit that I’m somewhat confused by the Presbyterian view of the sacraments (at least from reading the WCF). I can’t see what distinguishes it from a non-sacramental view other than the use of the word sacrament. Any help you can offer on that front would be appreciated. Thanks.

    Seth: I definitely agree with you that salvation is a process (justification, sanctification, glorification), so then I’d change the question to say something like, “Is baptism necessary for initial or final salvation?” Let’s view it as an ordinance; something Jesus commanded. If Jesus commanded it for those who have already been saved initially, and they refuse to heed that command, will they be saved finally? And we’re talking about those who have a chance to be baptized and don’t do it. Not those who never had a chance but would have done it given the chance.

    Paul: Ahh, but that’s the issue. Salvation is certainly by grace through faith, and if one views the sacraments as means of grace, then none of that has changed. They’re God’s way of conferring his grace to believers. Also, is there not room in our understanding of the sacraments fr both symbolism and reality or type and antitype? I’m interested to know if you see a “gradually progressive life of dying to self” which “is indicative of new life in Christ” as symbolic. I only ask because of the “just as” that connects it with what you said about baptism as symbolic.

    Beau: That views baptism as a “work.” What if it’s not a work and it’s a “means of grace” (as I suggested the other night)? And you agree that deathbed conversions are the exception, not the rule. Would that thief had been baptized given the chance? Probably. I’ll also point out that Jesus referred to his death/crucifixion as a “baptism,” which he said his disciples would be baptized with (Mark 10:38-39), so one could argue that the thief received that baptism. But now the same question I asked Seth; if baptism is just an ordinance, something Jesus commanded, can a person who has the means and opportunity to be baptized be saved finally if they neglect or refuse baptism?

  9. Well,I believe anyone truly converted would desire to be baptized and wouldn’t neglect the opportunity,however,lets talk about the extreme,person comes to church hears the word of God,repents of there ways realizes Jesus is the way,truth,and life after service sits down with the Pastor over joyed with their soul being saved and asks the Pastor whats next? Without hesitation Pastor hands them a bible and says read the new testament and we’ll be baptizing you wed. night before bible study.Then the once happy face turns to terror and says they suffer from ablutophobia (phobia of bathing or washing) or aquaphobia (fear of water), now just for the record I believe any phobia to be demonic,but just as Jesus said some demons or strongholds will take fasting and prayer to remove,so, back to the matter at hand in the event this deliverance takes much longer then a night of prayer would we tell this person they have been truly converted?

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