I had someone ask me about this as a result of a Bible study they were attending. The leader of this particular study told the person that baptism was required in order to go to heaven, and they were going to hell because they didn’t believe that. Here is my response.
So what does the Bible actually have to say about it? Let’s start where the proponents of such teaching start, in Acts 2:38.
Acts 2:38-39: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call’.” Peter is being obedient to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus said to “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. Baptism was not required as an element of salvation—this would suggest that some work in addition to the cross of Christ was required, and therefore renders salvation by grace impossible. Baptism was important because of the physical identification of a spiritual transformation. Jesus tried explaining to Nicodemus in John 3 that the physical could not render a spiritual conversion—only the Holy Spirit of God, working through the atonement of Christ, can accomplish the required spiritual change in a human to bring them into righteous standing with God. Where the English translation renders “for the remission of sins”, it is more accurate to the Greek to say “because of the remission of sins”. This is a huge distinction: as a result of the remission of our sins, water baptism powerfully symbolizes what Christ has done for us at the cross, but it is only symbolism.
Corinthians 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” Paul is not saying people should not be baptized, but is pointing out that the proclamation of the Gospel is the priority. To advocate the necessity of any work—baptism included—renders the sacrifice of Christ worthless.
Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Paul erases any doubt whatsoever in this verse as to the nature of that which actually saves a person. There is no work that can possibly make us righteous before God—“All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Grace, by its very definition, is unmerited favor—receiving a gift without any effort at having earned it. The grace by which we are saved is not our own—God has given it to us. If we have anything to add to the cross, we can brag about it. This is why salvation is not dependent upon any work of mankind other than the reception of the forgiveness Christ offers, and even that is made possible, according to the apostle Paul, by the faith God gives us.
1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” Again, Paul is emphasizing the spiritual over the physical. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts that makes us righteous, not our own efforts.
Romans 6:3-4: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Again, Paul is not talking about physical baptism here, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit as we are identified as partakers of the cross.
Luke 23:40-43: “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ In the most obvious refutation of the requirement of baptism for salvation, Jesus tells the thief next to Him who believed that later that day he would be with Jesus in heaven. Since the thief clearly had no opportunity for believers’ baptism, either baptism is not a requirement for salvation, Jesus lied to him, or Jesus made an exception to salvation (which would require Jesus to lie, since He makes very plain time and again that He alone was the Way).
Water baptism is a symbol of spiritual baptism, and to suggest it as a requirement of salvation is to create an emphasis on a physical work of man that Scripture does not support. Don’t be surprised if they won’t believe or accept what you’re teaching, but remember that we as believers stand on the Word of God, not human tradition. Just because someone has always believed something does not make it right.