As I write this, I’m in a country where ‘baptismal regeneration’ is a widely held doctrine. For any who have not encountered this, it’s the belief that water baptism (as distinct from baptism in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; 1 Cor 12:13)) is necessary for someone to become a child of God, to have new life, and to obtain salvation from the penalty of their sins. In what follows we will defend the Bible’s teaching – from Romans chapter 6, for example – that believers’ water baptism is a public recognition of an inner change previously brought about by God through faith on our part. Upon baptism, the Christian believer resolves to live to please the Lord. I well remember my first attempt at outlining orthodox New Testament teaching on Philippine soil. It was June 2003 and the room was comfortably full with some 40-50 persons giving rapt attention, and with their Bibles open. I was speaking through an interpreter and this, although accurately done, elongated the process.

The feature, however, that really lengthened the study was its thoroughly interactive nature. I was still covering ‘first base’ on the New Birth when the first interruption came. “Born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5): doesn’t this reference to water allude to a believer’s baptism in water? And does it not prove that such a baptism is a required part of what it means to be re-born? And in this way we possess salvation from the penalty of our sins?” It should not seem strange to us that this opinion is encountered. It has a long history, stretching back, it would seem, at least as far as 110-165 AD and the time of Justin Martyr who wrote: ‘He that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever … For the Lord says: “Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven”’ (1).

Speaking elsewhere of those under instruction, he said: ‘Then we bring them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated’ (2). The problem with this interpretation of John 3:5 is that it makes an inaccurate assumption that ‘born of water’ refers to water baptism. Is there a better way of understanding the Lord’s combined use of water and the Spirit in relation to the spiritual renewing of our nature which is a necessary condition for qualification for the kingdom of God?

There is, for in verse 10 of the same chapter the Lord challenges Nicodemus’ ignorance of the relevant Old Testament background which Nicodemus as the teacher of Israel was expected (by the Lord) to have understood. Note the reference to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’ in the context of inner spiritual transformation that’s found in Ezekiel’s writing: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean … and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:25-26). This linking of ‘water/washing’ to the Spirit’s work at (Israel’s future) conversion indicates Titus 3:5 is a more helpful clarification of John 3:5. After that first encounter in Davao City, I’ve repeatedly come across those of different denominations who advocate that, without water baptism, we cannot be assured of divine forgiveness and a place in heaven. Some others, with a kindred spirit to ourselves in seeking to return carefully to the New Testament Scriptures, stumble at the early hurdle of Acts 2:38.

Surely, they say, this verse which talks of “being baptized … for the forgiveness of … sins” in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is all the proof we need that baptismal regeneration is an essential part of the established New Testament pattern of teaching? However, before we could conclude that, we must apply the safeguard of comparing scripture with scripture, allowing verses where the meaning is plain, to govern our understanding of texts where the meaning is less clear. Such a survey shows that it’s most likely that the verse we’ve mentioned was some kind of special requirement to attest to the genuineness of faith commitment of those Jews belonging to the generation who had put Christ to the cross. When we compare Acts 10:43 with 19:2, the settled pattern of Apostolic teaching is clarified: forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit are granted to those who believe, prior to their water baptism (which is found in Acts 10:48 and 19:5 respectively).

Paul sends a clear signal in 1 Corinthians 1:17 by saying: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” .If it is taught that baptism is necessary for salvation, how could Paul make such an emphatic distinction? Generally, advocates of the belief that baptism in water is necessary for salvation rest their case strongly on Mark 16:16. If only subjected to a superficial review, this verse seems to make their case clearly: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” If anyone wishes to be contentious on the basis of this verse, they must be faced up with the second part of it which focuses on the critical element of belief alone among those who are not to be condemned. I often point out that I, too, am a baptized believer and I know that I am saved, but the Scriptures (including this one) teach that it’s crucially my faith in Christ’s atoning death that has saved me from future condemnation before a holy God.

It’s also worthwhile pointing out that the concluding section of Mark’s Gospel – of which this verse is part – is not found in early New Testament manuscripts. As a result, we can by no means be certain that this is part of the inspired original text. It’s foolhardy to base a doctrine upon a singular text whose authority can, at least, be debated. Usually, as the debate unfolds, there comes an anticipated appeal to 1 Peter 3:21 which says:

“Corresponding to [those brought safely through the waters of Noah’s flood], 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.”

It’s necessary to think rather carefully here. At the time of the devastating, worldwide Flood in the days of Noah, the ark was the vehicle to save its occupants from the watery judgment; but the waters themselves were the vehicle that saved the very same persons from the previous corrupt world. The former seems to typify salvation from the penalty of sins; and the latter, salvation from a corrupting society in which we may in all good conscience have to endure suffering when doing what is right. Only in this last sense does – or can – baptism be said (correctly) to ‘save’ us. A baptized follower of the Lord Jesus can helpfully consult their conscience regarding their intended actions: is this activity consistent with my advertised identity as a follower of Christ? And with this, Acts 22:16 can be satisfactorily shown to be in agreement.

Let’s look at the verse: “… be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Set at the time of Saul’s dramatic conversion, these are the words of God’s servant, Ananias. Saul had encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus highway. He too, had been a high-profile opponent of the Christian persuasion, and it might be argued (as in Acts 2:38), that the public act of water baptism was accordingly and again exceptionally required of him. It’s not necessary to understand the text in that specialized way, however, but in a way that applies to all believers. Believer’s baptism is intended to be a watershed event in one’s life (Rom.6:4; cf. 1 Pet.3:21).

By saving faith we are not the same person we once were in God’s sight (Romans 6:6) and following our water baptism we are not to live as we once lived (in our sinful past lifestyle) (Romans 6:11-12). So, the washing of Acts 22:16 can be viewed as the cleansing of our ways, the removal of past vices, and the demonstration of a new lifestyle no longer dominated by obvious sin. In a land like the Philippines where the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-9 is so effective against the error of a reliance on good works for salvation, it’s sometimes found to be helpful to observe that baptism as a rite or ordinance, is a ‘good work’ which we do in obedience to the Lord’s command and, as such, it cannot bring salvation from sin’s penalty.

Space forbids, sadly, from expounding the overwhelming biblical case for salvation by faith alone, upon repentance. We leave it therefore for the reader to satisfy himself or herself that this is the irrefutable mainline teaching of the New Testament, beginning with such texts as John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24, etc. By the way, I’ll never forget the sequel to the 2003 seminar we mentioned by way of our opening remarks. As the answers given above were publicly shared, the debaters fell silent and loud ‘Amens’ punctuated the air in praise of God who had confirmed His Word.

References: (1) Justin Martyr, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.7, p.456-457 (2) Justin, First Apology, chant 61.

Bible quotations from NASB.