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Jon A. from North Carolina asks:
Mark 16:16 teaches that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” In Acts 8 the eunuch had no “crowd” for whom to make a demonstration; after hearing the gospel, he commanded the chariot to stop so he could be baptized. Where does the Bible ever separate salvation from baptism? And where do we find that baptism is simply an “ordinance” or symbolization, when verses like Acts 2:38, Galatians 3:27, John 1:11-12, and 1 Peter 3:21 seem to say otherwise?
This is an important question that needs a clear answer. There are two primary errors that we can fall into when it comes to our view of baptism. The first is to treat baptism as if it saves ex opere operato, as if something in the water or the ritual itself confers regenerating grace to the recipient.
The second, and more common error in evangelical circles, is to treat baptism as an optional add-on to the Christian life. This error usually arises from right motives: we want to keep the gospel free from any intrusion of works-righteousness, and baptism might seem like a work. However, this view misunderstands the biblical connection between baptism and saving faith.
While the Bible never separates baptism from saving faith, it does distinguish baptism from saving faith. This tension we must hold if we are to faithfully “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Faith and Repentance
We see the connection between baptism and saving faith all throughout the New Testament. Although more evidence could be adduced, in the interest of time, we will look at just two examples that demonstrate this connection.
First, when we read the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts, we notice that baptism is closely linked to faith and repentance. The apostle Peter's “gospel invitation” on the day of Pentecost was, “Repent and be baptized. . . . So those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:38, 41). This is the normal pattern that recurs time and time again throughout the Book of Acts: repentance and faith immediately lead to baptism (see also Acts 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5). Commenting on Acts 2:37-38, F. F. Bruce rightly states, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in NT.”
Second, because baptism commonly followed so closely on the heels of repentance and faith, the New Testament simply assumes that all believers have been baptized (Gal. 3:27). Tom Schreiner points out the remarkable lack of discussion on the topic in the epistles: “It is striking that there is no sustained discussion of baptism in any of the epistles, presumably because the NT authors were writing to those who were already believers and to whom the significance of baptism had been explained upon conversion.”
This only makes sense if the earliest disciples were obeying Jesus' command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).
Baptism and Saving Faith
The flip side of this discussion is that the Bible distinguishes between baptism and saving faith. While the reception of the apostolic word and baptism go together, the text does differentiate between them (Acts 2:41). When Cornelius and those in his house heard and believed, they immediately received the Holy Spirit, which in turn provided evidence that they ought to be baptized (Acts 10:44-47).
Throughout his epistles, Paul stresses that it is faith in Christ that saves. Paul doesn't denigrate baptism. Rather, baptism is a sign that points to the power of the gospel (Rom. 6:3ff.). Baptism is meant to function as a visible sign, not only to the person being baptized, but to the entire Christian community who witness the initiation, that Christ has conquered sin and death, and that we conquer in him.
That's also the point of Peter's reference to baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Genesis 6, and then says that God has brought us through the waters, just as he brought Noah and his family through the waters. The waters Peter refers to here are the waters of judgment. As Christians, we have come through the waters of God's judgment because Jesus first went through the waters of judgment for us (Mk. 10:38). Our baptism points to his baptism on Golgotha. Christian baptism is the New Testament's way of identifying with that judgment and Jesus' victory over it. In baptism, we are reminded of God's pledge to bring us through the waters of judgment and raise us up with Christ.
The saving element is not the waters themselves (the removal of dirt from the body), but an appeal to God for a good conscience (confession, repentance, and faith). So baptism functions as a sign pointing to the objective work of Christ and to its subjective effects in the believer. Some prefer to call this an ordinance, because it was “ordained” by our Lord. Others prefer to call it a “sacrament,” because baptism is a means of grace by which Christ displays the gospel to us. While neither term comes from the Bible, both concepts are biblical. Baptism is a visible representation of the gospel and its effects in the life of God's people.
In this small space, I can't begin to say everything necessary. For further study, I would recommend checking out Thabiti Anyabwile and Ligon Duncan's booklet on baptism and the Lord's Supper and the sermons on baptism here on The Gospel Coalition site.