When you read the book of Acts, you see a simple thing over and over: the apostles take the Gospel to new people, bringing them to confess faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized. Taking this as a cue, therefore, you would naturally think that baptism is a vital, normal, essential part of the process of Christianizing people. And you would be right.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be right for the right reason and the people who disagree with you wouldn’t be wrong for the right reason either.
See, there are several sorts of arguments which commonly arise over the place of baptism in the Christian faith. People argue about whether one can be a “real” Christian without being baptized. People argue about who is “authorized” to perform a genuine baptism. People argue about whether baptism is symbolic or sacramental. And people argue (endlessly) about what particular details are essential to a proper baptism. Sadly, although these questions make wonderful discussion topics, those discussions wind up being most successful only at leading the participants away from the truth for the simple reason that they miss the whole point.
In Matthew, there is a very famous passage called the Great Commission, where we are instructed to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [us].” One of the more common observations about this passage is that we are told to “make disciples” and not mere converts.” A disciple, we are then usually told, is a “serious” Christian who “really commits” to following Jesus by studying the Bible and obeying God’s commands. This is a fine observation cautioning against a real problem of one-night stand evangelisms which leave abandoned newborns strewn about the sidewalk. But it again misses the big point staring readers right in the face.
Why does this passage (along with all the events in Acts) connect discipling so closely with baptism? Not because of what discipling means, but because of what baptism is. The problem is that baptism isn’t about water or what words get said or by whom or even the metaphysical reality underlying it (or not). Instead, baptism is the rite of indoctrinating a new believer into a support and identity structure which Christians call a church. Baptism makes you part of the family. Not in a vague sense or part of some general family, but in a very specific sense and part of a very particular family: the one which surrounds you as you are baptized.
Just as children are born into a family, newly born-again Christians are baptized into a church. And when you start to think of baptism this way, you suddenly realize what’s really going on in both the book of Acts and in the Great Commission. The point about disciples is that they differ from “mere converts” not by sincerity or knowledge but instead by the fact that they can only become fully mature and healthy Christians by being part of a discipling community. And whereas for us baptism has all-too-often come to mean some individualistic ceremony, baptism for the early Christians (and for most of the centuries of Christians after them) meant incorporation (literally “to make part of a body”) into a particular group of the faithful.
That’s why I have to laugh a bit at the mischief I intended in selecting the title for this thought. The people who read it probably assumed I was going to offer some semi-definitive answer about whether baptism saves or not. Perhaps, already armed with their own answer to that question, they hoped I would finally align myself with them (or else with those they can safely dismiss as heretics). Shouldn’t the recognition of such impulses alone concern you?
The fact that we are inclined to take such an essential feature of Christianity and turn it into a pretext for theological squabbling should serve to reveal the big problem we should really be addressing: our concept of Christian salvation itself as an individual matter. We want to know which particular mechanisms or tests to perform so that “I” can know that “I” am saved or that “he” is not when a much better view would notice that the Bible is saturated with the notion of “us” being a holy community, “a city on a hill” if you will, who (as a group) will show that we are Jesus’s disciples by our love one for another.
So is baptism necessary?
For the fulfillment of God’s basic purpose for all human beings: being tightly connected to Him and to each other as bundles of loving interaction, bearing burdens, sharing treasure, and functioning as an organism (or body or house) rather than as bits and pieces of random Christian flesh distended from each other by the thought-habits of a culture virtually incapable of thinking about human nature communitatively.
And lest some of you reading this develop a false sense of comfort from the fact that you “attend” church regularly or even “belong” to a congregation, allow me to notice that these are not the Biblical standards at all. Family is what family does, not just the shared name on legal forms or an address held in common. Family involves service and heartbreak and intimacy and proximity and interaction and history and a whole host of other things that offer a comparative test by which far too many “churched” Christians seem far more similar to the “unchurched” than they do to truly integrated members of a Biblical community.
Can a person be a Christian without being baptized? The question you should instead ask is whether a person can be a Christian by himself, to which the Bible gives a resounding denial. And if you think salvation entails anything less than membership in a robustly flourishing community of believers glorifying God by their society rather than merely their individuality, you have been sold a line of theology so thin it will barely hold the weight of even the most miniature Bible.
That’s why I say that baptism is necessary for salvation, neither for the reasons you normally hear nor in refutation of the denials you often encounter, but because of what baptism fundamentally is and how it fits Biblically with the entirety of the Christian message about God’s plan and purposes for humanity.