This week we look at the role of baptism in the Christian faith. Molly G. writes, "I'm saved and believe in God and try to follow his word. So, I am I going to Heaven, or am I supposed to be baptized too? I thought baptism was like publicly stating your belief and being saved was the personal thing between you and God. Can you clear this up please?"
Many Christians believe that baptism is a distinctly Christian rite, but this is certainly not the case. Before John the baptizer came on the scene, the Jewish faith had been practicing a form of baptism for some time. This baptism, often called "proselyte baptism," was required of those who were not Jews, but chose to convert to the faith. Exactly how this baptism was performed is unclear, although scholars tend to agree it was probably a full immersion that represented a total cleansing.
When John began his ministry, he declared that his baptisms were performed as an act of repentance: "He [John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3.3). From this, and parallel verses, many in the church came to believe that baptism was a mechanism God used to forgive sin. In Colossians 2.11-12 we read that Jesus' death and resurrection brings about the "putting off of the sinful nature" and that we participate in that with baptism. The issue was further supported by such commands, "Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins'" (Acts 2.38a). And so many began to teach that without baptism, sin could not be forgiven-which put a lot of souls in jeopardy. Indeed, for some time this was the predominate teaching of the Church and is still held by many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Christ.
However, this isn't the last word on the subject.
From early on there was sharp disagreement on the subject of the necessity of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The Scripture indicates that "salvation" is dependant primarily upon faith. In probably the most famous of all verses we read, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes on him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3.16). Note that this verse says nothing about baptism, but much about belief. Indeed, Jesus not once suggested baptism was necessary for salvation. Further, a rather significant example of an unbaptized, yet repentant, thief serves as a clear example that baptism is not necessary: "Then he [the thief on the cross next to Jesus] said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise' (Luke 23.42-43).
So, if baptism isn't necessary for salvation, why get baptized at all?
Baptism, according to those churches that refute the necessity of the rite, is less about getting into heaven and more about obedience. Initially, John the baptizer demanded repentance and baptism; however, John's command to be baptized can legitimately be interpreted as a mark of repentance rather than as a means of repentance. The difference is that a mark of repentance is an outward sign, or a demonstration, of an inward change. In other words, baptism was a public profession of repentance. When Jesus and his disciples began baptizing it was apparently somewhat different than John's baptism (John 4.1-2); we don't know for sure what those differences were, but we know that there was some sort of difference (cf., Acts 18.24-26). At least one of those differences was that baptism was done in the name of Jesus and that, at least in the book of Acts, baptism was often marked by an empowerment of the Holy Spirit. But again, there is no indication that baptism, in whoever's name, was necessary for salvation.
The reason for getting baptized, therefore, is not because it's necessary to get into heaven, but because Jesus commanded it. There are several reasons why Jesus would want his disciples to be baptized. For one, it symbolizes publicly the death of the "old" and the birth of the "new" (Romans 6.3-4) and formalizes that commitment. Secondly, it is a rite of passage into the body of Christ, i.e., the Church (1 Corinthians 12.13). And finally, it pictures our own death and resurrection into eternal life (Colossians 2.11-12).
So, does Molly need to be baptized to get to heaven? Much of the church would say no. But whether or not Jesus commanded baptism as necessary for salvation is really irrelevant-he commanded it, and that ought to be enough for anyone claiming to be a follower of Jesus.