There exists a great deal of confusion on the question of baptism's role in salvation. Many contend that baptism is a work. Therefore, based on one understanding of passages like Ephesians 2:8-9, they argue it cannot have a role in salvation. Others acts as if all one has to do is be baptized in order to be saved. Some "baptize" infants that their souls may be saved, later confirming their faith after catechismal instruction. Still others believe the baptism that saves is baptism of the Holy Spirit, some even contending this is accompanied by a "baptism" of fire. In other words, there are many ideas regarding baptism, all of which cannot be correct at the same time.
What does the scripture actually teach about baptism's role in salvation?
There are many places we can begin such a discussion, but it seems appropriate to observe the words of the apostle Paul,
"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." (Ephesians 4:4-6)
From this passage, we can discern a few things about baptism that are essential to any understanding we might have of this topic.
- Considering the imporantance of the items listed here, baptism is clearly an important topic.
- There is only "one baptism" that saves. The question is which baptism is in view.
- This is a topic Christians should be unfiied on, not divided over.
So, what is baptism?
Baptism is actually a term we borrowed from the original Greek language from which the New Testament is translated. The term baptidzo means immersion. Therefore, understanding what the term means raises the question: In what are all Christians universally immersed in the New Testament? Is it fire? Is it the Holy Spirit? Is it water?
Baptism of Fire
John the Baptist spoke of this baptism (Matt. 3:11). From every indication, baptism in fire seems to be a reference to being cast into hell. This is where the chaff shall be burned up (Matt. 3:12). Some have taken this to suggest an inward cleansing, tying it to what happened on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. However, the tongues of fire spoken of in Acts 2 is a simile, really having nothing to do with the image John the Baptist portrays. Instead, it typifies the eternal condemnation John describes in Revelation 20:9-15
Baptism of the Holy Spirit
John the Baptist also spoke of the miraculous sign of baptism (or immersion) in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:12). While the Holy Spirit was imparted mirculously by the laying on the apostle's hands (Acts 8:18-19), there was a sign that we can only confirm as occuring twice in the New Testament. It happend the first time in Acts 2, as Peter and the rest of the apostle were gathered in the upper room (Acs 2:1-4). We know this was what John spoke of because Jesus told His apostles not to depart from Jerusalem unti this event happened (Acts 1:5). This was the sign of the prophet Joel (Acts 2:16-18).
Closely connected is our second occurance of Holy Spirit baptism. This occurs when Cornelius and His household had the Holy Spirit mirculously fall upon them (cf. Acts 10:44-46). We find a confirmation of this as being what was spoken by John the Baptist and equated to what happened in Acts 2 in Acts 11:13-17. There are no other occurences of this miraculous manifestion of the Holy Spirit revealed to us in the New Testament. All other occurrences of the imparting of the Holy Spirit were accomplished by the laying on of the apostles' hands (cf. Acts 8:18-19). The sign of baptism of the Holy Spirit preceded the first Jews being added to the kingom of heaven, as well as the first Gentiles. These were significant events.
Baptism of Water
These two examples directly lead the idea of baptism, or immersion, in water. Even as the disciples were still recovering from their surprise that the Gentiles had received the same baptism as the apostles, Peter immediately asks the question...
"Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord." (Acts 10:47-48a).
If baptism of the Holy Spirit already saved them, why command them to be baptized in water? Over and over again, the example of water baptism is expressed throughout the book of Acts as disciples came to faith in Jesus Christ. It is tied directly to an initial act in the process of finding salvation. The Ethiopian eunuch serves as a perfect example (cf. Acts 8:26-40), though we can cite many others. Here you have a man who had Christ preached to him starting from Isaiah 53. In the course of study, baptism in water must have been mentioned (though it is not mentioned in Isaiah 53), because as they passed some water, the eunuch asked, "See, here is water, what hinders me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:35-36).There is no mention of baptism of the Holy Spirit or fire, but baptism in water is mentioned. Phillip said that if he believed, he could be baptized. Then he and eunuch went down into the water and Phillip baptized the eunuch. There was no delay, suggesting a sense of urgency to this act. There was no questioning it as a work, and therefore unnecessary. There was only a simple obedience to the divine command. This is a consistent pattern throughout the book of Acts, to include the apostle Paul (Acts 22:16). The eunuch eventually went on his way rejoicing, having now had his sins washed away (i.e., the remission of sins), just as Jesus taught and commanded (Luke 24:46-47; cf. Acts 2:38; Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16).
In considering this question, we not only have New Testament commands and examples, we have teaching that suggest that baptism was typified in the Old Testament. We are even told that "baptism -- saves..." Peter, calling upon the story of Noah, describes eight souls who were "saved through water." He further states that there is an antitype which "now saves us -- baptism" (1 Pet. 3:20-21). Space fails to consider the lavar of washing, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Naaman's cleansing and such. Suffice it to say, water baptism plays a significant role throughout Scripture.
Therefore, we believe baptism in water is not an optional aspect of salvation, but is the act that initiates our salvation (Rom. 6:1-6), adds us to Christ (Gal. 3:26-27), leads to the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and accompanies any example of salvation in the New Testement.