While baptism is an important act of obedience, it isn’t necessary for salvation. The only requirement for salvation is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ ( John 1:12-13; 3:16-18; 6:28-29 ; Ephesians 2:8-9 ). In the first century, baptism always followed immediately as the first step of obedience, so much so that it is often mentioned alongside of faith as part of the “package” that brought a person into the body of Christ ( Matthew 28:19 ; Mark 16:16 ; Acts 2:38 ). However, passages like John 1:12-13 , Romans 3:21-31, 4:1-12, 5:1 , and Ephesians 2:8-9 make it clear that it is God’s grace through faith alone that bring salvation.
The misunderstanding by those who teach that baptism is necessary for salvation stems in part from a failure to recognize that the New Testament was written by people who were familiar enough with baptism to understand that it was the normal means of expressing conversion. In that context, early Christians would be less likely than ourselves to misunderstand the symbolism in the apostle Paul’s words:
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).
He could use the expressions “baptized into Christ,” “baptized into His death,” and “buried with Him through baptism into death” with the confidence that his readers would realize that he was using the language of symbolism. Obviously baptism doesn’t cause us to die physically with Christ or to be buried in the tomb where His body was placed. It expresses our desire to live a victorious Christian life and symbolizes our identification with Jesus Christ through faith, by which we share in the benefits of all He did for us.
We recognize symbolism, for example, in the wedding ring. A ring doesn’t physically cause unending love and devotion, it symbolizes these qualities. Likewise, wearing a gold band doesn’t make the wearer a faithful spouse. Its symbolism is an outward expression of an inward reality and can be a helpful reminder of fidelity.
Verse after verse in the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, clearly affirm salvation by grace through faith alone. Abraham, David, Moses, Daniel, and a host of Old Testament people were never baptized and yet are heroes of the faith, heirs of salvation. The dying thief who repented was promised companionship with Jesus in Paradise even though he died without baptism ( Luke 23:43 ). If we interpret the few passages that seem to make baptism a requirement for salvation in the light of the hundreds that declare salvation is by faith alone and the many that clearly make baptism a symbol, we will find them in perfect harmony with the great body of biblical truth.