The Necessity of Holy Baptism
Recently, I was asked a question about Holy Baptism: Is it true that unless a person is baptized in water, he or she cannot be saved? In short, Is water baptism necessary?
The answer to this question is both simple and complex. It will be found in Holy Scripture and will be interpreted and practiced across the history of the Church. The simple answer is: Yes. According to the word of Jesus in John 3:5-6, Holy Baptism is necessary for salvation:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
However, there is a great deal more to the correct understanding of this answer than a simple word or a single Scripture verse. I hope that you will take the time to read the following sections. If nothing else, please read the Conclusions.
Commentary on John 3:5
The literal meaning of this passage is clear. That which is born of flesh is flesh. “Flesh” refers to the physical body which is naturally born, lives, and dies. “Flesh” also refers to the flesh nature or sin nature which deserves God’s judgment and condemnation. Jesus contrasts birth in the flesh with birth by the Holy Spirit. That which is born of Spirit is spirit. The Spirit provides a new birth, a birth from above, by means of water and Spirit, that is by Baptism.
Nicodemus, to whom this message is addressed, could not help but remember the combination of water and the Spirit in the Genesis creation story, Genesis 1:1-2. As a Pharisee and scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, this reference would be most apparent to Nicodemus. Jesus establishes a parallel between God’s first creation by means of water and the Holy Spirit, and God’s new birth or new creation in Baptism by the same means. Paul echoes this understanding in his epistles, 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15, when he writes that those who are in Christ have become a new creation.
Nicodemus the Pharisee, probably was familiar with the Baptism of John. In chapter 1 of the Gospel of John, we learn that the Pharisees sent their representatives to ask John the Baptist the meaning of his Baptism (John 1: 19-28). The Baptist declared that his was a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). John’s ministry was done in obedience to God’s command, and provided the forgiveness of God. As such, John’s Baptism required sincere repentance and genuine faith. That is to say, it was not effective ex opere operato, but faith was a prerequisite of its efficacious operation.
Similarly, we can expect that Nicodemus knew the pronouncements of John the Baptist. John openly had proclaimed that he was not the Christ. He (John) baptized with water for repentance, but the One who was coming after him would be mightier by far and would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist had declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1: 29). Presumably, Nicodemus had heard of these pronouncements. Surely, as he spoke with Jesus, the Pharisee was making many connections. Did Nicodemus note the connection between the prophecy of Isaiah 53 and the pronouncement of John the Baptist regarding the Lamb of God? Was Nicodemus making the connection between the proclamation of John about One who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, and the Baptism that Jesus was describing with water and the Holy Spirit? The full meaning of this Baptism would not become clear to Nicodemus until after the humiliation and exultation of Christ. But, soon Nicodemus would fully understand the nature of being born of the Spirit through Baptism into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Baptism in the New Testament
The New Testament teaches that Christian Baptism is an act of God that gives divine gifts of spiritual grace and power.
Holy Baptism is commanded by Christ:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20)
Holy Baptism bears the promise of Christ:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. (Mark 16:15)
Holy Baptism gives forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit:
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
Holy Baptism joins one to the death and resurrection of Jesus:
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
Holy Baptism provides circumcision made without hands:
In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)
Holy Baptism is a washing of regeneration:
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:4-6)
Holy Baptism saves you:
The patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience–through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:20-21)
It is clear from these passages that God has instituted Holy Baptism as a gift of His grace. In Baptism, God is the active agent fulfilling his merciful promises. Through Baptism, God gives the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit; a joining to the death and resurrection of Jesus, killing the sinful flesh and raising up a new spiritual creature; a circumcision not made with hands, the removal of sin; the washing of regeneration; and the blessing of a good conscience. In short, Holy Baptism saves!
It is Jesus who baptizes, through water and the Holy Spirit, as John the Baptist teaches in Luke 3:16 and John 1:32-33. Baptism is God-at-work. Christ is the active agent. The water plus His Word of command and promise (by virtue of His Holy Spirit) are His means of grace. Because Baptism conveys God’s gifts of grace, we call Baptism “Holy.”
For this reason, to reject Holy Baptism is tantamount to rejecting the salvation of Jesus Christ. Rejection of Baptism is deliberate disobedience of His divine command. This has been the interpretation of the Church across the ages. The next section is a very brief overview of baptismal necessity across the ages.
The Necessity of Baptism Across the Ages
Justin Martyr writes of Holy Baptism in c.151 AD:
Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” …And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Justin Martyr, The First Apology: Chap. LXI–Christian Baptism.)
Tertullian writes of the necessity of Baptism in c.203 AD:
When, however, the prescript is laid down that “without baptism, salvation is attainable by none” (chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, “Unless one be born of water, he hath not life”), there arise immediately scrupulous, nay rather audacious, doubts on the part of some, “How in accordance with that prescript, salvation is attainable by the apostles, whom–Paul excepted–we do not find baptized in the Lord?” (Tertullian, On Baptism: Chap. XII–Of the Necessity of Baptism to Salvation.)
In c.253 AD, Cyprian of Carthage writes of those martyrs of the faith who die before water baptism:
The case of the catechumens; asking if any one of these, before he is baptized in the Church should be apprehended and slain on confession of the name, whether he would lose the hope of salvation and the reward of confession, because he had not previously been born again of water? …They certainly are not deprived of the sacrament of baptism who are baptized with the most glorious and greatest baptism of blood, concerning which the Lord also said, that He had “another baptism to be baptized with.” But the same Lord declares in the Gospel, that those who are baptized in their own blood, and sanctified by suffering, are perfected, and obtain the grace of the divine promise, when he speaks to the thief believing and confessing in His very passion, and promises that he should be with Himself in paradise. (Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian: LXXII, 22.)
Cyril of Jerusalem teaches his catechumens the necessity of Holy Baptism in c.350 AD:
If any man receive not Baptism, he hath not salvation; except only martyrs, who even without the water receive the kingdom. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, III, 10.)
Similarly, Augustine writes of unbaptized martyrs of the faith in the year c.419 AD:
For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism. For He who said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where He no less absolutely said, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” (Augustine, The City of God, Book XIII, Chap. 7.)
There are many other examples of prominent theologians from the time of the Early Church through the Middle Ages who have maintained that baptism is a necessity. Such was the legacy that was left to the Great Reformer of the Church, Dr. Martin Luther, who in 1529 wrote of the necessity of Holy Baptism in his Large Catechism:
Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved, so that we are not to regard it as an indifferent matter, like putting on a new red coat. It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted. …What God institutes and commands cannot be useless. Rather, it is a most precious thing, even though to all appearances it may not be worth a straw. (Luther, The Large Catechism, Fourth Part: Concerning Baptism, 6-8.)
“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but, as the words say, “to be saved.” (Ibid., Concerning Baptism, 24-25.)
The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1992, declares the same:
The Lord himself confirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation (John 3:5). He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them (Matt. 28: 19-20). Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, VI. The Necessity of Baptism, 1257.)
1. Baptism is necessary. First and of most importance, we believe the direct and literal meaning of the Word of God: Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” In addition, Baptism is necessary because Jesus has commanded it (Matt. 28: 19-20) and because the Bible declares that it is Christ Himself who baptizes (Mark 1:8). To reject Holy Baptism is tantamount to rejecting the salvation of Jesus Christ. Rejection of Baptism is deliberate disobedience of His divine command.
2. Holy Baptism provides a new, and necessary spiritual birth. Its gifts include: the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, being buried and raised with Christ, washing of regeneration and spiritual birth, and being saved. Clearly, these are not the acts of humanity, but the gracious gifts of God. Holy Baptism is not a symbol, a token, or a human declaration; it is a means of God’s grace.
3. Though Baptism is necessary, both Scripture and Church History have offered some special exceptions. For this reason, the Church across the ages has delineated between what may be called normative practice and absolute practice. Though it is normative that the Christian be baptized, it is not absolutely necessary. Though it is normative that persons who come to faith will immediately be baptized, there are exceptions. Early Christians recognized martyrdom as a special exception to the rule of water Baptism. Another exception was for one who had the desire to be baptized, but who was prevented. Some theologians made an exception for infants who died prior to the eighth day, upon which they would have been baptized. Furthermore, it was recognized that there was a special relationship between faith and Holy Baptism. When one received faith, the first act of obedience to God’s Word was to be baptized. Conversely, if one were baptized as an infant, he or she received Christ and salvation, and therefore had received faith.
4. Scripture teaches that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). But, the Word of Christ takes several forms: the incarnate Word (Jesus in Flesh), the written Word (Holy Scripture), the preached Word, the sacramental Word (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and where two or more are gathered in His Name. God is present and gives His gifts through each of these means of grace. In this way, we see that faith may come before Baptism or through Baptism. Whenever faith is first given, the Bible teaches that we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:5, Col. 2:13). We could not choose God (John 15:16) or do anything to get or choose faith. We could not do any work to merit His grace or salvation. We were passive recipients, dead in our sin! So, whether we received God’s gifts of forgiveness, faith, and life as infants or adults, it was God who acted and who alone deserves the credit: not we, ourselves.
5. Some may object that infants cannot choose God or have faith. While it is true that none can choose God including infants, it is not true that infants cannot have faith. Did not John jump in his mother’s womb when the Messiah came to visit (Luke 1:41)? Were not whole households baptized according to the Word of God (Acts 16:15 and 16:33)? Does the Bible not teach that Baptism is a circumcision not made with hands, fulfilling a Jewish celebration that took place on the infant’s 8th day? Does Christ not teach that of such is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 19:14)? Though it is true that faith is required in order to receive the gracious benefits of Baptism, it also is true that the infant receives such grace through Baptism.