FALSE DOCTRINE: Baptism is important but it is not necessary for salvation

Acts 2:36-41 (HCSB)
36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!” 37 When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Brothers, what must we do?” 38 “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 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.” 40 And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them.

It’s hard to imagine how God could make it any clearer that everyone needs to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and for them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit than He makes it in Acts 2:36-41! Through Peter, He clearly answers the question posed by the broken hearted people, ‘Brothers, what must we do?’ with the most thorough response possible. Through Peter, God says, ‘Repent and be baptized’ and then just in case anyone felt exempt from this command, He adds, ‘each of you’, quickly annihilating anyone’s notion that this did not apply to them. Why does God command everyone to repent and be baptized? Again, I can’t imagine how God could be any clearer as He continues through Peter, ‘for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Notice the specificity of these words. God does not say, ‘for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit’ in general, but instead says, ‘for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’, making it personal and individual for everyone listening. But not only does God make it clear to everyone who was physically present and listening to what Peter said that day that they needed to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and for them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, this passage is unique in another way. What God says next through Peter even uniquely and undoubtedly answers the question about how to apply this passage to the lives of those who would live in the years after these events. God continues, ‘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’. This establishes that this promise is to everyone, everywhere and at any time after this promise was made. Now obviously, this promise wasn’t for the people before this promise was made, but again, for those after this promise was made. But not only does God make it as clear as He does with the precision of the wording of this passage, God even allows us to the see a real world example of how the 3000 people who were physically present on that day responded to this promise. They all repented and physically got baptized!

Yet, in the face of all of this extreme clarity, 2000 years later most people teach that baptism is important but not essential for salvation, i.e., for the forgiveness of one’s sins and for one to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In fact, I believe that this is the most important, most widely taught, most damaging and quite frankly most maddening false doctrine that is taught today. It is so widely taught that it is very common for not only many different churches to teach it but it is also common for many well educated scholars and theologians to teach it! For instance, even though the Net Bible ‘is a completely new translation of the Bible with 60,932 translators’ notes [and] was completed by more than 25 scholars – experts in the original biblical languages – who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.’ and even though it renders Acts 2:37-41 as:

‘2:37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one 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. 2:39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” 2:40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” 2:41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. ‘

…we still shockingly read the following footnotes from The Net Bible concerning this text:

“ExSyn 369-71 discusses at least four other ways of dealing with the passage: (1) The baptism referred to here is physical only, and εἰς has the meaning of “for” or “unto.” Such a view suggests that salvation is based on works – an idea that runs counter to the theology of Acts, namely: (a) repentance often precedes baptism (cf. Acts 3:19; 26:20), and (b) salvation is entirely a gift of God, not procured via water baptism (Acts 10:43 [cf. v. 47]; 13:38-39, 48; 15:11; 16:30-31; 20:21; 26:18); ”

The passage says, ‘Repent and be baptized, each of you, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. What is confusing about that? What about the charge that this view suggests that salvation is based on works? First, James 2 says:

James 2:14-26 (HCSB)
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder. 20 Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21 Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. 23 So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

So while it is true that we are not saved by the merits of our works, our works are what prove our faith is real, and our real faith is what saves us. So if someone wants to call baptism a work, it is simply a work that proves our faith is real, i.e. that we believe and accept God’s promise, just like the 3000 did on the day of Pentecost.

Secondly, if someone wants to call baptism a work, what makes the other ways people teach that someone becomes a Christian less than a work than baptism? For example, If someone considers baptism a work, shouldn’t that person also consider praying Jesus into one’s heart a work as well? Is praying less than a work than being baptized? I say this to prove the faultiness of the logic behind this flimsy argument.

The one thing I do agree with from this footnote from The Net Bible, however, is that everyone who says that one does not need to get baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and for them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit has to somehow ‘deal with’, i.e. explain away, Acts 2:36-41 (and many other passages) in order to maintain this view.

Another example of this false teaching is from Billy Graham who states this on his web site:

“Q: Is baptism necessary for salvation? Mr. Graham has stated: “I believe baptism is important, and I have been baptized. But I think we violate the Scriptures when we make baptism the prime requirement for salvation … Paul’s central theme was Christ and His saving power. Although he spoke of baptism, he said: ‘I thank God that I baptized none of you … lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name’ (1 Corinthians 1:14-15).” “Baptism is a conclusive act of obedience and witness to the world that we are Christ’s. I believe in it wholeheartedly. In our crusades we don’t baptize because we feel that this should be done by the local pastors—and that if I baptized, some people would say they had been baptized by me, and that would be putting the emphasis on the wrong person. To one who has received Christ, baptism is a necessary and meaningful experience. But, I must say with Paul: ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 1:17).” “You may know that we urge immediate and extensive Bible study for each convert. As the Scripture is reviewed, the place of baptism will surely be discovered. If baptism were a requirement for salvation, we would certainly say that. But you couldn’t support that knowing, for example, that the thief on the cross had no opportunity for baptism or church membership. Yet on his confession, paradise was secured. Jesus said to him, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).” ‘

First, here is the first passage Billy refers to:

1 Cor 1:13-17 (HCSB)
13 Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say you had been baptized in my name. 16 I did, in fact, baptize the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with clever words, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied [of its effect] .

So in 1 Cor 1:13-17, Paul was addressing divisions in the church. He was not saying that he was glad that he didn’t baptize some of the people in Corinth so that they wouldn’t think that baptism was necessary for salvation, but so that they wouldn’t think that they were baptized into his name. In fact, although many people try to use this passage to prove that baptism is not essential for salvation, the fact that Paul says ‘Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?’ gives even further support that baptism is essential for salvation! How? Well, Paul asked these questions as rhetorical questions, that is, he asked these questions to make a point. In order for the questions he asked to be rhetorical questions, the questions had to have obvious answers, or the points would not be made. So the very question, ‘Or were you baptized in Paul’s name’ shows that Paul understood that his hearers would know that they were actually baptized into the name of Jesus and the only way he could know this is if it was common practice for Christians to be baptized in the name of Jesus. In other words, the thought process of those who heard these questions probably went something like this: ‘Is Christ divided? No way! Was it Paul who was crucified for me? No way, it was Jesus Christ who was crucified for me! Was I baptized in Paul’s name? No way! I was baptized in Jesus’ name.’ So again, the fact that Paul asks the question, ‘Or were you baptized in Paul’s name’ shows that the common practice of Christians was to get baptized in the name of Jesus.

Also, all one has to do to figure out what Paul didn’t mean in this passage is to look at the rest of the New Testament and at everything else Paul did say. The truth of the matter is that Paul absolutely taught that baptism is essential for one to be saved, and just like one would expect, he got baptized himself, to wash his sins away.

So what about the thief on the cross that Billy uses to try to prove his point? The answer to that question is as simple as Billy’s argument is flimsy: The thief lived before the promise was made.

Another example of this false teaching is from The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry that defines itself on its website as:

‘CARM is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Its purpose is to equip Christians and refute error. Christianity is under attack everywhere and we need to articulate our faith intelligently and biblically. To this end, CARM offers a concise, comprehensive explanation of the Christian faith along with logical analysis of errors in popular beliefs, both secular and sacred. It is easy to use, written for the layman, and covers a huge range of topics.’

Yet, we read this article from their site:

James 1:19-27 (HCSB)
19 My dearly loved brothers, understand this: everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, 20 for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil excess, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; 24 for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who acts—this person will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious, without controlling his tongue but deceiving his heart, his religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 2:14-26 (HCSB)
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder. 20 Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21 Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. 23 So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

The above passages makes it clear that if someone says he has faith, but does not have works, his faith cannot save him! Let me say that again: The above passage makes it clear that if someone says he has faith, but not have works, his faith cannot save him! It also says that faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. and that faith without works is useless! And as if it wasn’t clear enough, the passage continues by saying, and I quote, ‘You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone’ and, ‘For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead’.

What does all of this have to do with the article about baptism? Well, many times having prior knowledge or a preconceived notion about something can be helpful in the pursuit of truth since understanding seems to build on top of other understanding much like bricks are built on top of other bricks to build a tower, for example, but if this prior knowledge or preconceived notion about something is flawed, this knowledge can actually become a blocker of other truths. In the above article, the author seems to have a preconceived notion that there is no place whatsoever for works in the salvation process. After he cites Matthew 28:18-20, for example, which reads:

Matt 28:18-20 (HCSB)
18 Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

, he comments:

“If baptism is necessary for salvation then it must also be true that teaching disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded is necessary as well. But this would be salvation by works.”

Another example is after he cites, John 3:1-8, which reads:

John 3:1-8 (HCSB)
1 There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Him at night and said, “ Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”4 “But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8 The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

, after he lists 5 possible meanings of this passage and after he mentions the 5th possible meaning, he comments:

“The water refers to the water of baptism as a requirement for salvation. But this would mean we were not justified by faith. It would be adding a ritualistic requirement to salvation.”

Another example is after he sites Acts 2:38, which reads:

Acts 2:38 (HCSB)
38 “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

, he comments:

“The Oneness argument says that the word “for” means that you are getting baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sins. Again, if this is what is meant, then we are not receiving the forgiveness of sins when we believe, but after we have performed a ritual. There’s no way around this. Is a ritual also required for our salvation? Is there a work we must perform in order to be saved? Biblically, a work is a ritual, a law that must be followed. Circumcision was just such a ritual, a ceremony. Paul condemns the Judaizers for adding that ritual, that ceremony to the grace of God. He condemns them because they added a ceremonial requirement to salvation. This is heresy and Paul rightly condemned it. Baptism is a ritual. It is a ceremony. If it is necessary for salvation, then a ritual must be observed in order to obtain Christ’s forgiveness. This is salvation by grace and ritual, not salvation by grace through faith. Faith occurs when you believe. You are justified by faith when you believe, otherwise you’re not justified by faith. So, this verse cannot mean that we have to be baptized in water in order to have our sins forgiven.

Also, if we are to understand this verse to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation, then we must also understand that repentance is necessary. But this is a problem because it would require that we be good in order to be saved – but this amounts to justification by works. Of course, we are supposed to repent of our sins, but it is not the repentance of sins that brings us salvation; rather, it is salvation that brings us repentance because unbelievers don’t turn from their sins, only believers do only the saved seek to honor God.”

And there are more examples of this in the article but these examples are sufficient to show that the author’s preconceived notion that works have nothing at all to do with the salvation process, prevents him from looking at the plain meaning of the text. The obvious problem is that the passages in James makes it clear that works are involved in the salvation process and that the author’s preconceived notion is flawed at best.

So while the Bible is clear that baptism is essential for salvation, most people teach that baptism is not essential for salvation.

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