Is Baptism “Essential” for Salvation? Reconsidering the Wording of the Question

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!

The Blade

This entry was posted in Ministry, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Is Baptism “Essential” for Salvation? Reconsidering the Wording of the Question

  1. Gayleen Beavers says:

    I absolutely do not agree with your article. You said “even if God has appointed baptism as a NECESSARY part of the N.T. process of Salvation” and then go on to “relative”. Do you know better than God with your relativity. Is everything relative?
    I believe that Baptism is the point where a person is saved. I accept what God says not what “expert theologians” say.

  2. Thinkosopher says:

    I like your post but it raises some other issues/questions. This comment is a bit long but I hope to bring these things up to help foster the discussion since they normally never get brought up in this debate.
    I would strongly question the distiction between absolute and relative necessity since it does not appear in Scripture. I agree that faith is an “absolute necessity” but there is nothing to keep it defined as such other than the historical precedent of Augustine’s uninspired opinion. There are nonbelievers who say they “want” to believe “but cant” due to perceived intellectual barriers. We cannot create artificial distinctions ad infinitum to satisfy what appear to be problems from our human perspective.

    I strongly question the concept of exeptions to the plan of salvation. Maybe you could elaborate on it some more. Although I agree insofar as God alone having the authority to theoretically make exceptions to his commands/decrees as he sees fit, he has revealed to us that has decided to not do so when it comes to obeying the gospel. Scripture cannot be broken, and God must uphold his word because of his nature and character.
    “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” – 2 Thess 1:7-9

    All who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. (Gal 3:27). And those not wearing the garments at the great wedding feast provided by the groom are cast into outer darkness. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Matt 22:11-13. (There is always the passage in Matt 7 about believers being rejected after working in Christ’s name.) These passages describe people who desire to do right and are convinced they are in good standing with God, yet God goes out of his way to explain he will not make exceptions in the end.

    It seems that most of the time I hear about potential exceptions, the point is brought up in a way that almost seems demeaning toward God. As if God didnt realize the potential for people to become lost in deserts, etc when deciding the conditions necessary for salvation. A case could be made that maybe God provided ample opportunity prior to the extenuating circumstances, and God could be providentially using the scenario to bring a wicked man to divine justice. The point is that these are not oversights on God’s behalf with respect to the plan of salvation.

    • prasor says:

      Thinkosopher, my reply here is in reference to your comment that “absolute” and “relative” necessity are not found in Scripture. I concur, and that’s my point. These terms are introduced by Cottrell and myself after thinking theologically and philosophically about the question of whether there are any exceptions to baptism. In this regard, this is an opinion held by us. But note that the term “essential” is also not found in Scripture and is based upon theological and philosophical thinking. As such, we humans will differ on our conclusion to the question.

  3. Michael Hines says:

    I came to the conclusion years ago there was a difference between “essential” and “absolutely essential.” Questions came to my mind about individuals who, from all appearances, trusted Jesus explicitly and completely but were either ignorant or misled concerning the nature and purpose of baptism. A Lutheran, for example, is raised to see baptism as sprinkling. He does not know the Greek terms and the dictionary defines baptism as immersion, sprinkling, or pouring or sometimes merely “a religious ritual associated with Christianity.”

    I came to two conclusions about such circumstances. First, it is my responsibility to teach the true meaning and persuade obedience. But there is the possibility that the individual, taught by learned men in his denomination, might not accept my teaching. Second, I concluded the answer to whether such a fellow is saved is not mine to give. It is way above my pay grade!

    Having said that, would I receive such an individual into membership of a local church? (Open Membership) No! I do not have authority to do that. But to judge his acceptance or rejection by God is not mine to offer. Do I have a personal conviction about it? Yes. I would remain concerned for the individual’s salvation and would continue, if given the opportunity, to attempt to lead the individual to the waters of baptism.

    I do know this. “He who believes and is baptized (immersed) will be saved.” And I also know, “He who does not believe will be condemned.” What God will do in cases of ignorance (particularly when not willful), extreme cases (conversion in the desert), or extreme illness I simply do not know. Will God take a man’s sincere trusting faith as sufficient? I don’t know, but I’m not confident of it. All too often attempts to subvert Scriptural teaching are merely efforts to avoid submission to Christ.

  4. Harold Orndorff says:

    Claiming that baptism is essential surely does detract from what we do, in fact, learn from scripture. A fair conclusion is that baptism is the time when God has promised to “move” us into the category of the saved. So, is it essential? The claim made here doesn’t speak directly to that. Since that is what the Bible teaches, that is all we need to teach. We have no promises from God about other times and situations, so we simply have nothing to teach about those speculations.

    That, at least, is how I have approached the matter.

    • prasor says:

      Thanks, Harold, for your comments. I entirely understand your perspective here. The only issue I have with your position is that, practically, someone is going to ask our opinion on this matter when teaching on baptism. What do we say? Nothing? Punt? (Sorry, I’m a big football fan.) We provide answers and opinions to a host of other theological and biblical questions, so why can’t we proffer one on baptism, as long as we are clear it’s not a “thus saith the Lord?”

  5. Alvin Schaub says:

    We need to stop playing word games here. Essential means just that. Granted if god chooses to save someone without baptism then that is his business. We are still obligated to teach that baptism is necessary to be saved. Anything else is placing ourselves on an equal level with God.

    • prasor says:

      Alvin, thanks for your comment. Perhaps a review and a deeper reflection on what was written would be profitable, considering most of your comment is discussed in the article and it’s unclear you have entirely grapsed my position?

  6. Gary Kurtz says:

    My two cents…Interesting comments. I believe that we are saved by grace through the blood of Jesus, as probably everyone here does. I also believe that baptism is the NT equivalent to circumcision in the OT. Circumcision entered Abraham and his family into a covenant relationship with God. Paul shares in Colossians 3:10-13 that baptism is the circumcision made without hands. I would assert that we are then saved ONLY through Christs blood PLUS NOTHING. It seems blasphemous to me then to make baptism any part of our actual salvation process. WE SHOULD BE BAPTIZED to enter us into a NT covenant relationship with the Lord. As with many things tho there are exceptions to the rule- God is not limited by anything – (i.e. Elijah and Enoch not seeing death, the thief on the cross not being baptized yet Jesus says He would see him in Paradise…). It would seem we are asking the wrong question by asking if salvation is essential for salvation. A better question was posed by Paul in Corinthians when he suggested that we “test ourselves to see if we are in the faith”. Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  7. Gary Kurtz says:

    Correction: Colossians 2:10-13. Sorry for the typo!