Water Baptism is an outward sign of an inward commitment, but baptism is not required for salvation. Sadly, some legalists completely and utterly misinterpret and misapply the Scriptures regarding water baptism and so they promote a very dangerous false teaching that baptism is required for salvation. This is a heresy.
Among other things, we need to look at the overall Bible context of the passages on baptism. We also need to carefully look at everything the Bible teaches on salvation as well, not just isolated cherry picked Scriptures or half verses that some people think support their erroneous case for water baptism as being required for salvation.
For example, baptism legalists typically only quote the first half of Mark 16:16. They omit the very important 2nd half, “But he that believes not shall be damned.” Notice how the 2nd half does not say he that believes not and is not baptized shall be damned. The fact that there is no mention of baptism in the 2nd half of this verse shows that the emphasis for salvation here is not on baptism but rather on belief.
The full verse reads: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved but he that believes not shall be damned.”
Let’s look at a little more context by also reading verses 17 and 18:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Notice the signs that follow them that BELIEVE not them who are baptized. Again, the emphasis is on belief not baptism.
Now let’s look at a little more context and let’s apply a little more common sense, let’s go up to verse 15: “And he said unto them, Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
The word gospel means “good news”. It is simply not good news that if you cannot find water and if you cannot find someone to immerse you in water that you will be dammed to hell regardless of how much faith you have in Christ and how much you love God!
In fact, we are automatically baptized in the Holy Spirit when we are saved. Water baptism is not a requirement of salvation. If it were, someone could not come to Christ on their own by reading the Bible if they lacked someone else to immerse them in water. That would make no sense and sometimes we need to apply some simple common sense to our Bible studies.
Many miss the big picture by over emphasizing baptism passages to the exclusion of the rest of what the Bible teaches on salvation. One could make the same mistake by overemphasizing and isolating other verses out of context such as Acts 2:21, “….whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” and then incorrectly thinking that all anyone needs to do is just verbally “call” on the name of Jesus and never believe from their heart. Such would save no one.
Of course we know that If someone calls on the name of the Lord in the deep profound way expressed in Acts 2:21, then they certainly must be saved because they could not call on Him in such a deep way otherwise. When we also balance Acts 2:21 with other verses on salvation, such as those that teach us that we must believe from the heart in order to be saved, then we immediately see that salvation has nothing to do with calling on Jesus in an empty way and nothing to do with getting dunked in water. If we isolate certain verses and exclude other important verses, we can be quickly led astray, not by the Bible, but by our own misinterpretations of it. And no Scripture is subject to private interpretation.
Also, the Bible doesn’t repeat itself over and over. If it did, it would become too big to read. It is understood that we must read the whole thing in context in order to gain proper overall understanding. This is what many are missing.
Some baptism legalists argue, “If water baptism is not required for salvation then why did Jesus instruct John the Baptist to baptize Him as an example for all of His followers to pattern even though He being God didn't needed to be baptized?”
First, Jesus was not getting saved when He was baptized and so this passage doesn’t even apply to the argument. But nevertheless they have answered their own question: As an example for all of His FOLLOWERS to pattern! And those followers are already followers! If they are truly followers of Christ then they are already saved (one does not follow from the heart without true belief). Baptism is just the next major recommended step in our Christian walk.
Some also ask, “And why on the Day of Pentecost would He (the Holy Ghost) instruct though the Apostle Peter, that people should be baptized in His Name after they repented?”
The answer: As an outward public sign of their inward commitment and as a sign of the salvation that they already have.
Now take all this into context with the rest of what the Bible teaches on salvation and baptism and we quickly see the bigger picture that faith in Christ alone is what saves, not baptism. We know that faith from the heart is required for salvation, not mere head knowledge. For example, many faithless people believe in the historical Jesus just as they believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a historical figure. But this is mere head knowledge and is an empty head-based belief that does not save. One must believe from their heart that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to save them from their sins and that without His sacrifice no one would be saved. This goes way beyond head knowledge into what some might call “heart knowledge” and true belief.
Also ALL top Greek scholars and theologians resoundingly concur that baptism is not required for salvation. And yet some silly legalists actually think that they know more than these experts? Baptism as a requirement for salvation is not remotely what the Bible actually teaches by any stretch of the imagination. It is a grievous heresy. Someone would need to isolate and misinterpret various passages in the Bible in order to come up with this nonsense, which is exactly what many are doing.
If someone believes that they must be baptized in water in order to be saved then their full faith and trust is not in Jesus Christ. They simply do not believe in His finished work at the cross. That is a very dangerous state to be in. And unless those who spread this error repent, they will be accountable to God for those that they lead astray. Messing with the Gospel and the requirements of salvation is a huge anathema. May all baptism legalists repent.
P.S. There are actually other good reasons why Mark 16:16 and other baptism related passages are not saying that water baptism is required for salvation, but we will have to leave that for possibly another time.