Is Baptism Essential Or Necessary?

Is Baptism Essential Or Necessary?

(Don Hooton)

In discussions about the role of baptism in conversion, people sometimes defrock baptism of its purpose by saying it is necessary but not essential. But is there a valid distinction in those words? Listen to what says. Essential as a noun is “a basic, indispensable, or necessary element; chief point.” As an adjective, it is “absolutely necessary; indispensable.” Necessary as a noun is something necessary or requisite; necessity. As an adjective, it is something “essential, indispensable, or requisite.”

         “Discipline is essential in an army” is the way the dictionary illustrates the word. For “necessary,” the dictionary illustrates with “it is a necessary part of the motor.” Is there a substantive difference between the two? If discipline is essential to an army, is it not necessary? If the part is a necessary part, is it not essential? The army and the motor will never work the way it is supposed to work without either constituent element. Even in the dictionary’s definition, it says that something essential would be a “necessary element.”

            Hence, the statement that “baptism is essential” is just as correct as saying that “baptism is necessary.” A simple reading of the New Testament shows that baptism is a fundamental element of our human response to Divine grace – even as faith (Ephesians 2:8) and repentance (Acts 20:21). If faith and repentance are necessary, then so too baptism. If necessary, they are essential since they are a “basic, indispensable or necessary element.” Making critical differences in the meanings of these words is baseless.

So, to what is baptism essential? Church membership? No. I believe the Bible says baptism is necessary and essential to receiving salvation. Jesus says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned”   (Mark 16:16). This salvation is the result of Divine forgiveness of sins. When Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), his statement declared that baptism is essential to one’s own personal salvation. Very few challenge that belief and repentance are necessary responses to receive salvation. Yet these very passages connect baptism to the same salvation promised on belief and repentance. Baptism is not an outward sign of an inward grace. It is essential to the salvation that grace will bring.

            Paul was told, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Ananias’ statement indicates clearly that Paul needed baptism: “Get up” – “washing away your sins” is evidence that for Paul, salvation, new life and the significance of the death of Jesus were inherently connected to baptism. Peter also wrote, “Baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

            Martin Luther wrote: “Baptism has been instituted that it should lead us to the blessings (of this death) and through such death to eternal life. Therefore IT IS NECESSARY that we should be baptized into Jesus Christ and His death.” (Commentary on Romans, 6:3 Kregel Publications, p. 101, my emphasis)

In questioning the essentiality of baptism, some turn to the thief on the cross. They say he was saved without baptism so therefore, baptism may be necessary but not essential. The fact is Jesus saved him. “Today with Me in paradise” seems pretty conclusive. However, the announcement to save came even before Jesus’ death. It came before His resurrection. It came before His Ascension when “He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle …having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). Jesus promised salvation before He had secured it in Heaven because He could. Exceptions do not invalidate God’s expectations.

            Furthermore, Jesus saved the thief before the Apostles were commissioned to carry His words, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” It was before the Holy Spirit told Peter to tell the Jews at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). It was before the Holy Spirit told Ananias to tell Paul to “get up and be baptized” so he could “wash away his sins.” Jesus could save at His command. But Jesus commanded what He wants people to do to be saved and what to be told to be saved. What humble servant would care to argue His command with The Master?

Baptism is necessary. Baptism is essential. And baptism is essential to those who want to receive the blessing of forgiveness. For just as faith is necessary because it is “impossible to please Him” without it (Hebrews 11:6), then “unless you are born of water and the spirit you cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), as spoken by Jesus, demonstrates the same about baptism. Baptism is both necessary and essential to pleasing Him and to receiving from Him the blessings of His redemption and His pardon.