The Necessity of Baptism:
Definition of Terms:
The sacrament of Baptism held great significance in the early Church. It was considered necessary for the remission of sins and initiation into the Christian community. Baptism symbolized spiritual cleansing, rebirth, and incorporation into the body of Christ. Early Christian writings, such as the Didache and the writings of the Church Fathers, emphasize the importance of baptism as a sacrament. It was seen as an act of faith and obedience to Christ’s commandments. Overall, baptism played a central role in the early Church as a vital step in the life of a believer.
The concept that Baptism is necessary for salvation can be illustrated solely by Scripture;
- Mark 16:16 – “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This verse emphasizes the link between belief, baptism, and salvation, suggesting that baptism is an essential step towards salvation.
- Acts 2:38 – “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Here, baptism is closely associated with repentance and forgiveness of sins, indicating its importance in the process of salvation.
- Acts 22:16 – “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” The act of baptism is seen as a means to wash away sins and invoke the name of Jesus, further affirming its role in the salvation process.
- Romans 6:3-4 – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is seen as a symbolic participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, signifying the believer’s new life in Christ.
- 1 Peter 3:21 – “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This verse emphasizes that baptism is not merely a physical act but a spiritual appeal to God for a clean conscience, facilitated by Jesus’ resurrection.
- The most famous New Testament evidence for the efficacy and necessity of baptism is in John’s Gospel. When Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus by night, Jesus says that a person cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born again. Nicodemus asks how a man might enter again into his mother’s womb and Jesus corrects him, saying, “No one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3-5). From the earliest days of the Church this passage has been understood to refer to baptism, and this interpretation is virtually unanimous down through history.
- Acts 16. The jailer cries out, “What must I do to be saved?” and Paul and Silas reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). It would seem here that there is no demand for baptism. However, verse 33 says that “immediately they were baptized.” Baptism therefore seems to be the way one makes the faith commitment.
To many people’s minds, the idea that something as seemingly superfluous as Baptism being necessary for eternal life borders on the realm of superstition. This begs the question of why Christ would institute such a ritual in the first place. To fully understand the reasons why baptism would be considered necessary for salvation, it helps to first understand the concepts of Original Sin, Covenant Theology, and Baptism’s relation to Circumcision.
Baptism & Original Sin:
The doctrine of Baptism is deeply intertwined with the doctrine of original sin. Because all humanity bears the consequences of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:12-19), where sin and death entered the world through one man’s transgression, we need to be born again in Christ to be saved (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). In order to be born in Christ, we must be baptized as in John 3:3-5, Christ says;
“Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God… Unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Christ speaks of being “born anew” through water and the Spirit, referencing Ezekiel 36:25-26, which foretells the cleansing effect of water. Acts 22:16 further underscores the cleansing aspect of baptism, as Paul instructs to be baptized to wash away sins in the name of the Lord.
Baptism is not just a ritual but a transformative act. When baptized, we are buried with Christ and become members of His body, as seen in Romans 6:4 and 1 Corinthians 12:13. Through baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and become new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Circumcision & Covenant Theology:
The ideas of baptism and circumcision are closely related to covenant theology, a theological framework that examines the biblical concept of God’s covenants and their continuity throughout Scripture. The covenants in the Old Testament find their ultimate fulfillment and unity in the person of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant. Covenant theology emphasizes the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises and types in Christ. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), and His life, death, and resurrection establish the New Covenant, which brings about forgiveness of sins and spiritual regeneration. Circumcision, as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant, prefigures and finds its fulfillment in the sacrament of baptism under the New Covenant.
The Jewish view of covenant and salvation differs from some Christian perspectives. In Judaism, the concept of covenant is central to their understanding of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. It is not limited to individuals but encompasses the entire nation. It is a collective relationship between God and the Jewish people, emphasizing obedience to God’s commandments (mitzvot) and the fulfillment of their unique role as a chosen nation. While some Jewish traditions do believe in personal salvation and the afterlife, the primary focus remains on communal responsibilities and the hope for a future Messianic redemption. Individual salvation, as often emphasized in certain Christian teachings, is not the central theme in Judaism’s understanding of the covenant and God’s relationship with His chosen people. Instead, the emphasis is on communal responsibilities and adherence to the covenant as a whole.
In the Bible, the comparison between baptism and circumcision highlights the spiritual significance of baptism as a rite of initiation into the Christian faith, just as circumcision was a significant rite for initiation into the covenant of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. There are several Old Testament verses and events that prefigured the concept of baptism in the New Testament. These prefigurations highlight the continuity between the Old and New Covenants and provide symbolic connections to the act of baptism.
In Noah’s Ark and the Flood (Genesis 6-9), the floodwaters washed away the wickedness of the world, and Noah and his family were saved by entering the ark. This foreshadowing of baptism, where water symbolizes cleansing from sin, and the ark represents safety and salvation. The Apostle Paul makes a connection between the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, implying that passing through the waters is a type of baptism. The Crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 3-4) into the Promised Land is seen as a foreshadowing of baptism, symbolizing a transition from the old life to the new life in God’s covenant. When the Israelites were thirsty in the wilderness, God commanded Moses to strike a rock, and water flowed from it to quench their thirst (Exodus 17:1-7). This event is a prefigurement of baptism, where the rock represents Christ, and the water represents the Holy Spirit and the life-giving grace poured out through baptism.
These connections between the Old and New Testaments provide a rich theological understanding of baptism’s significance in the Christian faith. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14). It marked the physical separation of the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. In the New Testament, baptism serves as the sign and seal of the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:28), which expanded to include the Gentile nations (Galatians 3:28). Thus, both circumcision and baptism serve as signs of initiation into God’s covenant community. Circumcision marked one’s inclusion as part of God’s chosen people, while baptism signifies entry into the body of Christ, the Church.
Circumcision and baptism also share symbolic meanings related to cleansing, purification, and transformation. Circumcision represented the need for a purified heart and a holy life, anticipating the inner transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit through baptism. Circumcision involved the cutting away of the foreskin, signifying the removal of impurity and the call to live a holy life. Similarly, baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin and the believer’s spiritual rebirth into a new life in Christ (Romans 6:4). These comparisons are illustrated in Paul’s letters, especially in Colossians 2:11-12 and Galatians 3:26-29.
In Colossians 2:11-12, – “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Paul connects the spiritual significance of circumcision, which involved the removal of physical flesh, to the act of baptism. Baptism is seen as a spiritual circumcision, where the “body of the flesh” is symbolically put off, representing the believer’s identification with the death and resurrection of Christ.
In Galatians 3:26-29, – “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Paul emphasizes the unity of believers in Christ, regardless of their background. Through baptism, they become children of God and heirs according to the promise made to Abraham. Circumcision, which was previously a defining marker for the people of Israel, is no longer a requirement, as faith in Christ and baptism now serve as the means of initiation into the new covenant community.
The Church Fathers:
The early Christian Church viewed baptism as a crucial and necessary rite for the initiation and incorporation of new believers into the Christian faith. The early Church understood baptism as a sacrament through which the believer experienced spiritual regeneration. Baptism was seen as more than a symbolic act; it was believed to convey grace and to spiritually unite the believer with Christ’s saving work. Baptism also marked the formal entrance of individuals into the Christian community. Through baptism, new believers were incorporated into the body of Christ, the Church.
Early Christian writings, such as those by the Apostolic Fathers (Christian writers from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries), emphasized that baptism was essential for the forgiveness of sins and the regeneration of the believer. It was seen as the means through which a person was cleansed from their past sins and born again into a new life in Christ. The writings of early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Augustine, defended the practice against various heretical beliefs that downplayed its importance.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165 AD) wrote extensively about baptism and its significance. Justin compared baptism to circumcision, arguing that just as circumcision was required for the Old Covenant, so baptism is necessary for the New Covenant. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 202 AD) emphasized that baptism washes away the stain of original sin inherited from Adam. Irenaeus likened baptism to the circumcision of the heart, echoing the idea found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6), where God called for a circumcision of the heart rather than just the flesh. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD), a North African theologian, wrote extensively on baptism and defended the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), one of the most influential theologians in early Christianity, viewed it as the means of original sin’s forgiveness and the initiation into the Church.
An Absolute Necessity?
While Baptism is the normative means of receiving God’s grace, it is not necessary in an absolute sense for salvation. God’s saving grace is not confined to baptism, and He can work in extraordinary ways beyond the sacramental context of Baptism. In situations where a person is unable to receive the sacrament of baptism but desires it sincerely, the Church has always recognized the concepts of “baptism by blood” and “baptism by desire.” These are considered as an exceptional extension of the ordinary means of baptism.
If a person is martyred for their faith before receiving the sacrament of baptism, their bloodshed in witness to Christ’s truth acts as a substitute for baptism, and they receive the grace of salvation. This is referred to as Baptism by Blood. If someone who, through no fault of their own, is unable to be baptized sacramentally, or is unaware of the teachings surrounding baptism, but earnestly desires to be united with Christ and live according to His will, then they can still receive God’s saving grace. Their explicit desire for baptism reflects a genuine openness to God’s love and forgiveness. This is referred to as Baptism by Desire.
Both “baptism by blood” and “baptism by desire” are firmly rooted in God’s boundless mercy and His desire for all to be saved. These extraordinary means show that God’s grace can operate outside the confines of the sacrament, while also affirming the importance and significance of baptism as the ordinary pathway to receiving His grace.
This concept can be likened to medication: medicine is the standard way of treating illnesses, but it doesn’t imply that God cannot heal someone through other means. On the other hand, we should not put God to the test and expect to be healed by some extraordinary means, but rather we should seek out medical advice when we are ill. Likewise, baptism is the normative way that God set in place for us to receive His grace. Baptism’s intent, however, was not to restrict our access to God’s grace, but rather to give us a tangible sign so that we could be assured that we had received His grace.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.'”
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
1 Peter 3:21:
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:21-22:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Church Father Quotes:
The Shepherd of Hermas
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I [to the Shepherd], ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly . . . are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]” (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).
“Without baptism, salvation is attainable by none” (ibid., 12).
“We have, indeed, a second [baptismal] font which is one with the former [water baptism]: namely, that of blood, of which the Lord says: ‘I am to be baptized with a baptism’ [Luke 12:50], when he had already been baptized. He had come through water and blood, as John wrote [1 John 5:6], so that he might be baptized with water and glorified with blood. . . . This is the baptism which replaces that of the fountain, when it has not been received” (ibid., 16).
Hippolytus of Rome
“[P]erhaps someone will ask, ‘What does it conduce unto piety to be baptized?’ In the first place, that you may do what has seemed good to God; in the next place, being born again by water unto God so that you change your first birth, which was from concupiscence, and are able to attain salvation, which would otherwise be impossible. For thus the [prophet] has sworn to us: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you are born again with living water, into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’” (Homilies11:26 [A.D. 217]).
Origen of Alexandria
“It is not possible to receive forgiveness of sins without baptism” (Exhortation to the Martyrs 30 [A.D. 235]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“[T]he baptism of public witness and of blood cannot profit a heretic unto salvation, because there is no salvation outside the Church.” (Letters 72:21 [A.D. 253]).
“[Catechumens who suffer martyrdom] are not deprived of the sacrament of baptism. Rather, they are baptized with the most glorious and greatest baptism of blood, concerning which the Lord said that he had another baptism with which he himself was to be baptized [Luke 12:50]” (ibid., 72:22).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who even without water will receive the kingdom. . . . For the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism, saying, ‘Can you drink the cup which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized [Mark 10:38]?’” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10 [A.D. 350]).
Gregory of Nazianzus
“[Besides the baptisms associated with Moses, John, and Jesus] I know also a fourth baptism, that by martyrdom and blood, by which also Christ himself was baptized. This one is far more august than the others, since it cannot be defiled by later sins” (Oration on the Holy Lights 39:17 [A.D. 381]).
“It would tend to the ruin of our souls if, from our refusal of the saving font of baptism to those who seek it, any of them should depart this life and lose the kingdom and eternal life” (Letter to Himerius 3 [A.D. 385]).
“Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is the taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood” (Panegyric on St. Lucian 2 [A.D. 387]).
Ambrose of Milan
“But I hear you lamenting because he [the Emperor Valentinian] had not received the sacraments of baptism. Tell me, what else could we have, except the will to it, the asking for it? He too had just now this desire, and after he came into Italy it was begun, and a short time ago he signified that he wished to be baptized by me. Did he, then, not have the grace which he desired? Did he not have what he eagerly sought? Certainly, because he sought it, he received it” (Sympathy at the Death of Valentinian [A.D. 392]).
Augustine of Hippo
“There are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptism, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance; yet God does not forgive sins except to the baptized” (Sermons to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15 [A.D. 395]).
“I do not hesitate to put the Catholic catechumen, burning with divine love, before a baptized heretic. Even within the Catholic Church herself we put the good catechumen ahead of the wicked baptized person” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:21:28 [A.D. 400]).
“That the place of baptism is sometimes supplied by suffering is supported by a substantial argument which the same blessed Cyprian draws from the circumstance of the thief, to whom, although not baptized, it was said, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise’ [Luke 23:43]. Considering this over and over again, I find that not only suffering for the name of Christ can supply for that which is lacking by way of baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart [i.e., baptism of desire] if, perhaps, because of the circumstances of the time, recourse cannot be had to the celebration of the mystery of baptism” (ibid., 4:22:29).
“When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body. . . . All who are within [the Church] in heart are saved in the unity of the ark [by baptism of desire]” (ibid., 5:28:39).
“[According to] apostolic tradition . . . the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal. This is the witness of Scripture too” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]).
“Those who, though they have not received the washing of regeneration, die for the confession of Christ—it avails them just as much for the forgiveness of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism. For he that said, ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5], made an exception for them in that other statement in which he says no less generally, ‘Whoever confesses me before men, I too will confess him before my Father, who is in heaven’ [Matt. 10:32]” (The City of God 13:7 [A.D. 419]).
Pope Leo the Great
“And because of the transgression of the first man, the whole stock of the human race was tainted; no one can be set free from the state of the old Adam save through Christ’s sacrament of baptism, in which there are no distinctions between the reborn, as the apostle [Paul] says, ‘For as many of you as were baptized in Christ did put on Christ; there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . ’ [Gal. 3:27–28]” (Letters 15:10 [A.D. 445]).
Fulgentius of Ruspe
“From that time at which our Savior said, ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5], no one can, without the sacrament of baptism, except those who, in the Catholic Church, without baptism, pour out their blood for Christ, receive the kingdom of heaven and life eternal” (The Rule of Faith 43 [A.D. 524]).
Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer:
“Baptism is a most wonderful thing, which God alone works and accomplishes, but He does it through a visible, created means. Baptism, therefore, is a divine work, not a human work. God Himself baptizes. … In baptism, God takes hold of us. It is the external water which does such things, not just plain water but the Word of God in and with the water” (Sermons on the Small Catechism).
“Baptism is a pure and splendid water of divine grace, and is of such great excellence and power that it not only purges away sin and death but also procures the righteousness of God and eternal life” (Large Catechism).
“The soul is baptized with the Holy Spirit and clothed with the divine Word, while the body is washed with pure water. The former, that is, the soul, is washed by the Spirit and the Word from sins, death, and hell, and the latter, that is, the body, is washed by water for purity” (Sermons on the Small Catechism).
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer:
”Baptism is the sign of initiation by which we are received into the fellowship of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be washed and purified by his blood, that we may be sanctified by his Spirit, and, finally, invested with the righteousness of Christ and made heirs of eternal life” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.1).
“We assert that all the benefits conferred by baptism are apprehended by us as often as we are touched by a sense of divine grace” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.9).
Ulrich Zwingli, Protestant Reformer:
“Baptism is a solemn act by which God adopts us for his children, and makes us the heirs of his kingdom” (Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli).
“The sacrament of baptism is a sign of the covenant and the remission of sins” (Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli).
Thomas Cranmer, Protestant Reformer:
“Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the church, the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Spirit are visibly signed and sealed” (Book of Common Prayer, Public Baptism of Infants).
John Wesley, Protestant Reformer;
“Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized, but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth” (Sermon 44, “The New Birth”).