Historically, the Christian tradition I have been a part of (the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) has believed and taught that baptism is the time a penitent believer in Jesus Christ receives salvation. Thus, it has become common nomenclature to say that “baptism is ‘essential’ for salvation.” This phrase has become so common and standard that it has often been used as a litmus test for biblical fidelity. If you do not believe that baptism is essential for salvation, then you are, by definition, a defector of the faith–someone who no longer believes in Scripture and authority of God’s Word.
But is this phrase a good way to state the view of baptism that the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have historically held? I contend that it probably is not, and we ought to reformulate the statement, particularly jettisoning the term “essential.” The reason is because “essential” carries with it the idea of absolute necessity with no exceptions whatever. This is what “essential” means. Thus, the question is really this: “Are there any exceptions whatsoever to being baptized to be saved?” This question, now properly formulated, cannot be answered by pointing to a passage in the Bible and quoting it. No where in Scripture can a person point with his finger a verse that states, “Baptism is essential for salvation and you cannot be saved at all without being baptized–no exceptions.” This idea, or conclusion, is inferred or must be argued for by putting together multiple passages of what Scripture does say about baptism and reasoning to this conclusion. Thus, the question must be answered philosophically and theologically rather than merely quoting the Bible.
Since the question as asked must be answered philosophically and theologically, the answer will vary from person to person. In fact, the question of exceptions to baptism has been answered in various ways by various people throughout church history. One significant example is the one given by the great theologian and philosopher Augustine. He emphatically believed that Scripture taught that baptism is for salvation, but he also allowed for exceptions, such as a person who is martyred for Christ but had not been baptized. He called this “baptism of blood,” and he stated that this is sufficient in lieu of (water) baptism for salvation. Augustine also supported the idea of “baptism of desire,” which took a person’s desire to be baptized as sufficient in cases when it was impossible for a person to be baptized, such as a disabled person or for some reason no water was available for baptism.
Interestingly, the great theologian of the Christian Churches, Jack Cottrell, agrees with this assessment, contending that at least “baptism of desire” is a valid exception to (water) baptism for salvation. [See his blog HERE.] Thus, logically, he would have to say that “baptism is not ‘essential’ for salvation.” In fact, he does just this, by making a distinction between “absolute necessity” and “relative necessity”:
I believe that it is appropriate and sometimes essential to make a distinction between what is absolutely necessary for salvation as compared with what is only relatively necessary. The idea is that even if baptism has been appointed by God as a necessary part of the salvation process in the New Testament age, it still has only a relative necessity and can be dispensed with in extraordinary circumstances. Faith, on the other hand, is an absolutely and inherently necessary condition for salvation. It is conceivable that one could be saved without baptism, but not without faith.[1; emphasis mine]
Perhaps, then, we ought to rephrase the question to be more biblical and more accurate: “Does the Bible teach that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, i.e., for salvation?” This is an easy answer for all in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ tradition: Yes! But is it essential? Are there exceptions? Are there more exceptions even to “baptism of blood” and “baptism of desire?” This depends. Ultimately, God knows, and we as humans will continue to hold different theological and philosophical opinions to the question. One thing, however, we must keep in mind is that, whether there are exceptions or not, we must never be afraid to teach the conviction we have concerning the doctrine of baptism. Cottrell’s words serve as a great reminder and concluding thought on this matter:
In this connection, though, we must be careful to guard against an error that is quite common within Protestantism, namely, a glossing over of the distinction between absolute and relative necessity as it refers to baptism. It is common practice to cite a situation in which water baptism for a believer is impossible (e.g., lost in a desert) and to conclude from such that baptism has no necessary connection with salvation at all. That is to say, an example that proves at most that baptism is not absolutely necessary is used to prove that it is not necessary even under ordinary circumstances. This is a non sequitur: it does not follow. In any normal situation where water baptism is at all possible, it IS a condition for salvation: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).[2, emphasis mine]
Peace to You!