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Does Baptism Save You?

Today's Question: What is the purpose of baptism?  Is it really that important? Does baptism save you? Or does the sinner's prayer save you? What does a person need to do to prepare for baptism?

Bible Answer: The purpose of this article is to show you the importance of water baptism. It will prove that the "sinners' prayer" did not take the place of water baptism. I will explain that water baptism is a sacrament, which means that God uses the outward action of baptism to impart the spiritual grace of salvation. You will learn what a person needs to do before he or she gets baptized.

My Story

            I grew up in the Assembly of God denomination and then later transferred to a non-denominational, charismatic church. They both stressed altar calls and the prayer for salvation. When the people came forward and prayed a short prayer, accepting Jesus as Lord, we believed the person was saved at that moment. Then they were encouraged to be baptized in obedience to Christ command, but there never was an explanation as to why they should get baptized, other than to obey Christ. I did not believe a person was saved when they were baptized, instead they were saved at the altar call when they prayed the sinner's prayer. I felt that baptism was secondary to the sinner's prayer; so the sinner's prayer was more important than baptism.

            This began my journey which eventually led me to view baptism as the normal means by which a person gets saved. As I studied the Word of God, I could not find the concept or practice of altar calls, yet there were plenty of examples of water baptism. Despite, what I now view as downplaying water baptism, I had a tremendous and unusual experience at my baptism.

            Although my church did not look at baptism as a sacrament, only as an ordinance1, I, nevertheless, took my baptism very seriously. I began to fast and pray and read everything I could about baptism. I read every New Testament passage about baptism. So when it was time to be baptized I was spiritual ready.

            As the minister baptized me, I had a vision. When the minister put me in the water, I found myself in the tomb of Christ where His body lay. For a moment, I felt that I was in Christ. I know this sounds sacrilegious, but I do not mean that I had a Messianic complex, rather I was being "buried with Christ in baptism" (Rom 6:4). So I felt at one with Christ at that moment.  When the minister pulled me out of the water,  I felt Christ' emotions as He was raised from the dead. I felt the exhilaration of the resurrection. No longer was I or Christ dead, but we were alive. I came out of the water weeping for joy. My weeping was so loud that people tried to calm me. Several put their arms around me and guided me out of the water, but I was still sobbing, not out of sorrow, but of pure bliss.

            What had happened to me? Was I really in Jerusalem in the tomb of Christ? Was I really feeling Christ joy of the resurrection? One thing for sure struck me: baptism was something very special. I now believe that God gave me that unusual experience, because He knew that one day I would become a pastor, and later a bishop, and that I would baptize hundreds, even thousands. To this day, I often share my experience with the candidates so they will be encouraged to believe that they "were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom 6:4).

Altar Calls v Baptism?

            Despite my supernatural experience when I was baptized, as I began to pastor, I followed suit in the same tradition, not giving much thought to the subject of baptism.  I gave altar calls and led people in the sinner's prayer and then encouraged them to be baptized, but not emphasizing it as I should. Although I enjoyed seeing people give their lives to Christ at the altar call, something very special took place immediately when I baptized them. I had to admit that I enjoyed baptizing the people more than leading them in the sinner's prayer. Why? Because there was something very powerful about baptism and it was more special than I realized. Nevertheless I continued to emphasize the sinner's prayer over water baptism. Eventually I was being bothered by my study of the Bible. I just could not find altar calls in the Bible. So where did the concept of the sinner's prayer come from?

            First of all, the sinner's prayer should be uttered at baptism. "Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16). Please notice two important steps for salvation: first, be baptized to wash your sins away; second, call on the Lord for salvation. In other words, both steps are normal for salvation. However, in recent times, evangelicals have deemphasized the washing of sins through baptism and emphasized "calling on his name." But I believe they both should be done together.

            The altar call, which is the practice of leading people in the sinner's prayer, without baptism, has its roots in Protestantism. It was made popular by DL Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. You will not find any mention of altar calls or sinner's prayer in any of the seven major creeds of the church. However, the Nicene Creed says, "we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sin".  The Nicene Creed simply repeated the first sermon of the Christian church delivered by Saint Peter, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38, KJV).  So is the Nicene Creed and the words of Peter more reliable than the traditional practice of evangelicalism? More importantly, what does the entire Bible actually teach?

Believe and be Baptized

            "He [Jesus] said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16). Jesus linked baptism with salvation. He assumes that a person who believes will follow suit with baptism and thus complete his salvation. Something important to note in the passage: Jesus did not say, "Whoever does not get baptized will be condemned."

            Today, some people become legalistic concerning baptism. They think unless you get baptized, especially their way, you will go to hell. Jesus did not stress baptism as the requirement for salvation, but stressed "belief." "Whoever does not believe will be condemned." The stress must always be on faith, not the water. At any rate, baptism is linked to salvation.

            When someone tells me, "I already accepted Christ. Why do I need to get baptized?" My answer is, "Do you want to be saved? Because Jesus said whoever believes and is baptized will be saved." At this point, people submit and say, "Yes, I want to be saved." But if we keep telling people that baptism is not associated with salvation it will devalue baptism. And today, many evangelical churches devalue baptism.

            Please recognize if Jesus considered that faith could be expressed completely without baptism, then why does He connect believing with baptism? It is clear that baptism is linked with true faith. You can't have one without the other. If you say you believe then you will get baptized.

Baptism Saves You

            "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:18-21).

            There could be nothing more clearer in scripture about baptism saving you. Peter says, "this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also...It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." What saves you? Baptism saves you. This is the words of scripture! Yet today, many evangelicals are squeamish to say that "Baptism saves you." Yet, this is what Peter says. Why do evangelicals have such problems simply quoting directly from the Bible? "Baptism that now saves you."

            This means that baptism is a sacrament, not merely an ordinance. A sacrament is an outward act that produces an inward grace. In this case, baptism is the outward act that produces the grace of salvation. Just as Christ was flesh and physical, and He forgave, healed and raised the dead, Christ gave us physical signs that impart spiritual graces. Sacraments resemble the incarnation. God who is invisible, became visible to save us. It was the visible Christ who saved people. So why does it surprise us that He ordained physical emblems to save us? In this case, Christ instituted baptism, which is a physical motif, to bring salvation to us.

            Baptism has three important things: first the physical substance of water, second the candidate makes a public confession of their faith and third the minister utters words and performs the baptism. This ceremony produces salvation.

Marriage without the Wedding?

            At this point, my evangelical friends might argue that it is superstitious to believe that baptism saves people. Yet, they have no problem believing that God uses their ceremony in weddings to wed people. If I asked a minister, "When did the couple get married? Were they married before you did the wedding? Are they married simply because they love each other ? And I assume they love each other and have expressed their love many times before the wedding. Yet, they are not married until the minister performs the ceremony. Right?"

            At this point, most ministers will agree that they are not married in God's sight until the ceremony. Why? Because marriage is a sacrament also. God uses the physical substancewedding rings, etcand the vows they say to each other before witnesses and the words uttered by the minister, who says, "I now pronounce husband and wife." This action creates the holy matrimony. You see, we do not have trouble seeing marriage as a sacrament, yet we balk at the most important sacrament of all—baptism that saves us also.

Is the Baptism in the Spirit Symbolic?

            Let me try a different approach that shows that baptism does save. Let's look at the baptism in the Holy Spirit.  The baptism in the Holy Spirit is a different baptism than water. As John said, "I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). So let me ask my Pentecostal friends these questions: Is the baptism in the Holy Spirit symbolic or real? Did a person actually receive the Holy Spirit in His fullness at the baptism in the Holy Spirit? Was there a conferring of God's grace and power at the baptism in the Holy Spirit for each believer? I think every Pentecostal would answer "yes" to all those questions. They would never see the baptism in the Spirit as a symbolic act, but a real act of God's power.

            If you have no trouble seeing the baptism in the Spirit as real and not symbolic, why do you have trouble seeing that baptism in water as real and not symbolic? Be consistent in your view of both baptisms. Don't say one is symbolic and the other is real. Both are real and produces the needful grace: water baptism produces the grace of forgiveness and Spirit baptism produces the grace of empowerment. Just as real grace is imparted at the Spirit baptism; real grace is imparted at water baptism.

Repentance

            Let's look again at what Peter says. "And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." Peter makes clear that the substance of water cannot, alone, save you. There is a requirement that the person being baptized must meet: they must "pledge a good conscience toward God." The theological word for this is "repentance." Repentance means to feel sorry for your sins with the intent of changing. There must be an intent to change in order for baptism to be a sacrament. That means, if a person gets baptized without an intent to change, then baptism cannot save him. They simply become "wet sinners." Not "cleansed saints."

            Some will get baptized for other reasons than repentance. They might be pressured by friends and family to get baptized. They might do it to succor their favor. They might get baptized so the minister will perform their wedding. There could be ulterior motives for being baptized. Any motive, other than a desire to change and live for Christ, is a wrong motive and would make the waters ineffective to cleanse you from your sins. 

            Many write to me asking if they need to be rebaptized. The answer is simple: did you intend to change at the time of your baptism. If you did not intend to change then you should be baptize. It would not be a rebaptism since the first one did not constitute a genuine baptism. The intent to change does not necessarily mean that you have completely changed. None of us have changed totally. But there should be evidence of some change after baptism.

Believe the Good News

            There is one other requirement for the candidate seeking baptism. Jesus said, "Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15). An alcoholic may attend an AA meeting and desire to change, but even if he becomes sober, he is not saved. A person must also "believe the good news" about Jesus Christ. The basic beliefs of the good news are recorded in the Apostle's Creed.

            First, you must believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. If you say to me, "Oh, Bishop Brown, I can't believe in something so incredulous." Then you cannot be saved.

            Second, you must believe that Jesus died for your sins and paid the price of punishment for you. If you say to me, "I don't believe that one man, Jesus, can die for the sins of everyone." Then you cannot be saved.

            Third, you must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. If you say to me, "That is hard for me to believe. I can't believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead." Then you cannot be saved.

            In other words, you must believe the basics of the good news about Jesus. The good news involves belief in the miraculous power of God. You cannot simply believe the core of Jesus teachingslove one otherand think this alone can save you. You must believe the gospel which involves belief in the virgin birth, the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross and His resurrection. Without belief in these, the baptism cannot save you.

            The apostle Paul confirms this, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" 1 Cor 15:3-4). He says in another place, "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9). Without belief in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, you cannot be saved.

God did not send me to baptize

            I can hear the number one argument against baptism. It is found in 1 Corinthians 1:17, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." Of course, as we said before, God looks on the human heart to see the change. The preaching of the gospel changes the heart. Preaching always precedes baptizing.

            Paul writes this because of the division of the church. People were boasting about the ministers they followed. "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (v 10).  Divisive people used baptism to prove they were following genuine apostles. So Paul said to the Corinthian church, "Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.  (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.)" (vs. 13-16).

            So the statement about God not calling Paul to baptized was said in conjunction with the division caused by baptism. Paul wanted to emphasize the spiritual unity of the Church, and he saw that people were using baptism as a means of division. He was not saying that baptism was not important (after all he did baptize some Corinthians); he was simply trying to get the church to agree about the unity of our faith in Christ.

            In any event, it is quite possible that Paul ordained others to do the baptizing. This is what Jesus did: "The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples" (John 4:1-2). Jesus delegated the work of baptism to His disciples. Although Jesus did not perform any baptisms, you cannot conclude the He did not believe in baptism, only that He ordained others to perform this function, instead of Him. This might have been the case with the Apostle Paul, at least in the province of Corinth. But surely this does not prove that baptism is unimportant or unessential to salvation.

Meaning of the Sinner's Prayer

            At this point, many of my dear brothers and sisters will say, "Now Bishop, you have challenged me in my theology about baptism. What am I suppose to do now about leading people in the sinner's prayer?" Still do it. Don't stop. Let me explain.

            Jesus gave a parable about a sinner who went to the temple to pray, and He says that the sinner prayed, "Have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Jesus says that "This man...went home justified before God" (v 14). God answered the man's prayer and justified him. Listen, God answers prayer, including prayers whereby we and others ask God to forgive us. To this day, I still lead people into praying for forgiveness. This is always a good prayer.

            I look at the sinner's prayer as an initial act of conversion and a way to receive salvation and to also prepare oneself for the full act of conversion through baptism. In other words, God can still save without baptism. After all, God saved the thief at the cross even though he had no ability to be baptized. Jesus promised him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). The thief never was baptized, but his prayer was sufficient to save him, because God knows the hearts of all people; however, we should follow through with our initial act of conversion all the way through the sacrament of baptism into full conversion.

1 A sacrament is an ordinance that Christ instituted. It is an outward action or visible sign that produces actual grace. For example, anointing the sick with oil with prayer produces health. Oil, then, becomes a visible sign of the invisible Holy Spirit. (see James 5:14-15)

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