The Bible’s Answer
According to the Bible, yes, baptism does save us (1 Peter 3:21). It is a means of grace that God uses to grant us the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Baptism is water joined with God’s Word (Ephesians 5:25–26). Water by itself does nothing. However, when God attaches his Word to it, it becomes life-giving water; through it, God—by the power of the Holy Spirit—delivers to us the benefits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:4–6).
Christians Get Baptised to Freely Receive Salvation
It is not an exaggeration to say that, in every passage of Scripture that talks about what baptism does, baptism always brings about salvation for the passive recipient. Furthermore, baptism is never stated to be a good work that humans do for themselves; rather, it is a good work that is done to them. Who, then, could be the baptiser except the Triune God, into whose name we are baptised (Matthew 28:19)? In his first epistle (letter), the Apostle Peter declared:
… when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 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 Peter 3:20–21, ESVUK)
According to Peter, baptism corresponds to Noah’s ark, through which Noah and his family “were brought safely through water.” Baptism saves because, in it, God brings us safely through water from spiritual death to eternal life in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” We do not get baptised simply to show others our faith. We do it so that our evil consciences may be “sprinkled clean” with “pure water” (Hebrews 10:22) and to put on Christ (and, thus, his righteousness) (Galatians 3:27).
Furthermore, Peter declared to the Jews on Pentecost: “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” (Acts 2:38). He also said that baptism is for both adults and children (Acts 2:39). In other words, when we are baptised, we receive all the benefits that Christ won for us on the cross from the Holy Spirit, who comes on us in baptism. There is nothing in this passage, nor the ones above, which would suggest that only figurative language is implied. Clearly, then, baptism is not merely symbolic; God actually saves us in baptism.
In Baptism, We Die with Christ and Are Raised with Him
In addition to giving us salvation and the forgiveness of sins, one may also be surprised to learn that, spiritually speaking, baptism kills us. The Apostle Paul teaches us that, in a very real way, baptism unites us to Jesus’ own death and resurrection:
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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3–5)
In baptism, Christians are “buried with [Jesus Christ],” and “baptized into his death.” In other words, baptism buries or drowns the power of the old sinful nature within us. When Christ died, he took our sins with him and, thus, put away sin (Hebrews 9:26), which means that, when we are buried with him in baptism, our sins are atoned for (dealt with). Furthermore, since we are baptised into Jesus’ death, and he was raised never to die again, baptism also guarantees our future resurrections to life eternal in Heaven (see also John 5:28–29).
Furthermore, Paul’s words, “in order that … we too might walk in newness of life,” indicate that we also experience a present-day resurrection the moment we are baptised. Just as it drowns the power of the old sinful nature in us, our new self is raised in its place, which is sanctified by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17). In another epistle, Paul wrote: “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 [Jesus] from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). Here, we see again that the resurrection life is a present reality, which means that we ought to set our minds on the things that are above, for Christ is our life (Colossians 3:1–4). In baptism, we are born anew (John 3:5).
Baptism Gives Us the Assurance of Salvation
Baptism is crucial since it alone can give us the assurance of salvation. This is because baptism is a perfect work of God, especially God the Holy Spirit (John 3:5–6; Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5), in which we receive eternal life and the forgiveness of sins, as shown above. Because we receive this when the physical water is applied to us, accompanied by the words of Christ (the Trinitarian baptismal formula), this means that our salvation in baptism is objective—set in time and space. Paul wrote:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)
While our faith in Jesus may be weak at times, God’s work and promises in baptism are never weak but perfect, which is why we can always look back to it as a sure and steadfast anchor for our faith. This is why we do not (and should not) ever need to get rebaptised, since there is only one baptism for Christians (Ephesians 4:4–5). Whenever we face doubts about our salvation, we should assure ourselves with Jesus’ words: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Baptism: Normatively Necessary for Salvation, But Not Absolutely Necessary
The Lord Jesus Christ taught that baptism is necessary for salvation when he declared: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Jesus also commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations by baptising and teaching them (Matthew 28:19–20), and Paul wrote that baptism is the beginning of our new life in the church (1 Corinthians 12:13). This means that baptism is not merely an optional part of a Christian’s life: every true Christian needs to get baptised. It is both a free gift of God’s grace and a command of Christ.
Sadly, though, it is true that some Christians may die before they are able to get baptised, even though they desired to. Does this mean that they will go to Hell? Not at all. In this instance, we would do well to remember the second part of Christ’s words: “but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). It is not the absence of baptism that condemns a person; rather, it is a person’s lack of faith. A person who refuses to get baptised shows contempt towards the blessed sacrament; most likely, they would not possess genuine saving faith (John 15:8–10).
In the case of a Christian who desires to get baptised but dies beforehand, they would be saved through their God-given faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8–9), which they received from the Holy Spirit when they heard or read the gospel (Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 12:3). We would also do well to remember that the thief on the cross was saved, despite the fact that he was not able to be baptised (Luke 23:42–43). Baptism, though crucial, is but one of God’s means of grace.