Water baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation.
The apostle Paul, writing in the Book of Romans, chapter 4, focusing in on verses 9-10, provides an argument that the process of physical circumcision, the cutting off of the male foreskin, a practice commanded under the law of Moses, is not necessary to be made acceptable to God. While circumcision and baptism are not to be equated, the argument Paul makes is applicable to both. His argument can be presented as follows:
P1. If anyone can be acceptable to God without being circumcised, circumcision is not required to be acceptable to God.
P2. Abraham was acceptable to God without being circumcised.
C. Therefore, circumcision is not required to be acceptable to God.
The conclusion follows from the premises, making this argument logically valid. But how, one may ask, does this relate to baptism?
We can reformulate the argument using several possible individuals, including Abraham, and substitute the rite of circumcision with the rite of water baptism, like so:
P1. If anyone can be acceptable to God without being water baptized, water baptism is not required to be acceptable to God.
P2. Abraham was acceptable to God without being water baptized.
C. Therefore, water baptism is not required to be acceptable to God.
We have equally true premises, and the logic of the argument remains unchanged. Therefore, if Paul's argument in the Book of Romans against the necessity of circumcision is acceptable to the Christian (and surely it must be) then this argument against the necessity of water baptism should be equally acceptable since it follows the exact same reasoning.
We should note that Abraham is not the only example in scripture of someone being acceptable to God without having been water baptized. We also have the examples of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:47); and one of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, a man deserving of death (Luke 23:41) who at first mocked Christ (Matthew 27:44), but finally recognized Christ's true nature and was made acceptable to God through faith (Luke 23:42-43), all while dying on a cross. Indeed, water baptism is unmentioned in scripture until the entrance of John the Baptist, making it most probable that no one who was saved by faith prior to the time of Christ was baptized. This would include Noah, Moses, King David, Isaiah, Elijah, and a plethora of others who have shared our same faith.
There are a number of arguments in defense of the opposing view, the view that water baptism is in fact required for someone to be acceptable to God. Specifically, per the question that was asked, I will treat those presented by Apologetics Press, a group with strong ties to the Church of Christ, a church that teaches that water baptism is a prerequisite for salvation.
In an article dealing with objections to their view that water baptism is required for salvation, they directly address the argument I have made above, with respect to the thief on the cross:
"When we 'handle aright the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2:15), we see that the thief was not subject to the New Testament command of immersion because this command was not given until after the thief's death. It was not until Christ was resurrected that He said, 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved' (Mark 16:16). It was not until Christ's death that the Old Testament ceased, signified by the tearing of the temple curtain (Matthew 27:51). When Jesus died, He took away the Old Testament, 'nailing it to the cross' (Colossians 2:14)."
Continuing on, they explain...
"Romans 6:3-4 teaches that if we wish to acquire 'newness of life,' we must be baptized into Christ's death, be buried with Christ in baptism, and then be raised from the dead. There was no way for the thief to comply with this New Testament baptism -- Christ had not died! Christ had not been buried! Christ had not been raised!"
Note that the authors acknowledge that Abraham was not water baptized, David was not water baptized, Elijah, Isaiah, and the thief on the cross were not water baptized, at least not in the way that they claim is required for Christians to be acceptable to God. Note that they do not argue that these people were actually water baptized with Christian water baptism, and the Bible simply never informs us of this. Indeed they argue it would be absolutely impossible for these people to have participated in Christian water baptism at all.
So we see that the authors at Apologetics Press certainly agree with the second premise, P2, of my argument above. Since the argument I presented is logically valid, it is doubtful that the authors would dispute that my conclusion, C, follows from the premises, P1 and P2. Therefore, since they won't dispute the logic, and they agree with P2, it seems clear that they must disagree with my first premise, P1. Let's look at P1 again:
P1. If anyone can be acceptable to God without being water baptized, water baptism is not required to be acceptable to God.
Apologetics Press, in the same post, make the following statements:
"For a person to reject water baptism as a prerequisite to salvation on the basis of what the thief did or did not do, is comparable to Abraham seeking salvation by building an ark -- because that's what Noah did to please God. It would be like the rich young ruler (Matthew 19) refusing Christ's directive to sell all his possessions -- because wealthy King David did not have to sell his possessions in order to please God."
Based on these statements, it seems quite clear that we are absolutely correct in that these authors do in fact disagree with P1, at least as I have stated it. Let's look at P1 phrased slightly differently:
P1. If anyone can be acceptable to God without being water baptized, water baptism is not absolutely and universally required of every single individual that has ever lived to be acceptable to God.
It seems that the authors at Apologetics Press would in fact agree with this statement. I certainly agree with it. The scriptures concur. But the argument phrased in this manner really does nothing to answer the root question as it applies to anyone today -- does the Bible say that I myself must be water baptized to be acceptable to God?
Again we look at Paul's argument in Romans 4 with regard to circumcision. Note that Paul is not simply proclaiming a new doctrine on his own authority with respect to circumcision. He is not announcing "As an Apostle of the Lord I tell you that circumcision is now no longer required to be acceptable to God," and leaving it at that -- he is arguing that according to existing scripture, physical circumcision is clearly not required to be acceptable to God right now, and the reason it is not required right now is because it has never been required!
Paul's argument absolutely necessitates that there is only one way to be acceptable to God. Only one way now, only one way ever. The same way that Abraham was made right with God is the same way that you can be made right with God, the same way that Moses was made right with God, the same way that David and Noah and Isaiah were made right with God -- through faith, or trust, in Him (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28, 5:1, 10:9; Galatians 2:16, 3:11, 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:9; Hebrews 11:6).
If there are lots of different ways to be made right with God, custom tailored to different people, then Paul's argument has no grounds whatsoever. Abraham did not need to be circumcised, true, would come the reply, but that doesn't mean I myself don't need to be circumcised!
Yes it does! screams the apostle. Yes! It does! (Galatians 5:12)
There is only one way to be right with God. There has only ever been one way to be right with God. That way is by trusting Him.
But what does this look like? Surely that trust manifests itself in different ways, doesn't it? Noah built an ark. Abraham went to a strange land. Maybe for us, one may argue, the manifestation of that trust is baptism.
While there is certainly truth in the concept that trust in God manifests itself differently for different individuals, the manifestation of trust is not the same thing as the trust itself. Trusting in God produces a right relationship with Him. It also produces obedience. If a person demonstrates no obedience to God, he probably hasn't put his trust in Him. On the other hand, if a person trusts God on their deathbed, we will not see any obedience produced from that trust, including obedience in water baptism -- but it does not mean the trust was not completely real, and if it was real, a right relationship with God certainly followed from it.
Therefore, it is incorrect to say that water baptism is required for salvation, or that water baptism is required to be right with God. Deathbed salvations without water baptisms are wholly legitimate if the faith in God is legitimate. Water baptism is not required for salvation. However, it would be correct to say that someone probably isn't trusting God at all if they demonstrate continued disobedience to Him.
Apologetics Press then makes the following argument in response to our claim that being right with God comes solely and completely through placing one's trust in Him:
"To suggest that all one has to do to receive the forgiveness of God and become a Christian is to mentally accept Jesus into his heart and make a verbal statement to that effect, is to dispute the declaration of Jesus in Matthew 7:21 -- 'Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.'"
Certainly I do not dispute Christ, but Christ was clearly referring to how Christians will behave, or what results from already being a Christian, as He states explicitly in the narrative immediately preceding (Matthew 7:20) -- not how a person becomes a Christian, or what causes a person to be a Christian. As explained above, when we trust in the one true God, we will then obey Him (Luke 6:46; John 14:15, 14:24). If a person willingly refuses to obey Him, it seems most likely that they have never trusted in Him.
Further, it must here be pointed out that trust is a dramatically different concept than plain old belief, or simple mental assent. The difference between the two cannot be emphasized enough. Imagine seeing a tightrope walker cross Niagara Falls with your best friend riding on his back. Imagine being asked if you believed that the tightrope walker could carry you safely across the falls. I suppose most people, considering what they had witnessed, would say "yes." Now imagine being asked to climb on the man's back so that he can carry you. I think most people would say "no way!" This is the difference between mental assent, or simple belief, and trust, or genuine faith. Trust in God, not mental assent regarding Him, is what is required to be right with God. The book of James makes this distinction clear as the author contrasts empty mental assent with genuine trust (James 2:17-20).
The rest of the arguments presented by Apologetics Press in this particular post all fall into one of three categories. (1) The premises are false; (2) the conclusion does not follow from the premises; or (3) the conclusion is irrelevant to the topic. If I were to address them all as thoroughly as I would like, my own writing would never be read for its length. In fact, if you are still with me at this point, I applaud you. Most of their arguments, I think, fall quite quickly to the genuinely studious reader, but one in particular I would like to address here. In dealing with what they refer to as Objection #9, they write:
"Objection #9: 'The preposition 'for' in the phrase 'for the remission of sins' in Acts 2:38 means "because of." Hence, they were baptized because of sins for which they were forgiven when they believed.'
"The English word 'for' has, as one of its meanings, 'because of.' However, the Greek preposition eis that underlies the English word 'for' never has a causal function. It always has its primary, basic, accusative thrust: unto, into, to, toward."
This is simply false. While it is true that it most often has the meaning they propose, there are examples in scripture where it clearly has a causal function.
In both Matthew 12, verse 41 and Luke 11:32, we read "they repented at the preaching of Jonah" where the English word "at" is a translation of the same Greek word "eis". Clearly in this passage, "eis" has a causal function. It could be easily and correctly replaced with "because of" and the meaning would be unchanged. If, on the other hand, we replace the word "at" with "to", "into" or "unto", the sentence becomes nonsense. What's more, the book of Luke was written by the same author as the book of Acts, so not only is "eis" used in a causal sense in scripture, the exact same human author who used it in Acts 2:38 has here clearly used it in a causal sense.
That same author uses it again in a causal way in Luke 18, verse 5 where he says "otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out," where "by" is again the Greek word "eis". Yet again, it makes good sense to replace "by" with "because of", but not with "to" or "unto".
Matthew 3, verse 11 uses that same word in another interesting and highly relevant way relating to the water baptism that John administered. Matthew says that "John baptized for repentance", where "for" is again "eis". Since Apologetics Press claims that the "baptism for the remission of sins" in Acts 2:38 means a baptism that is a prerequisite for the remission of sins, it seems that to be consistent they must also claim that John's baptism was a necessary prerequisite for repentance. Since it was certainly possible for a Jew under the Old Covenant to repent without being baptized, I have my doubts that they would be consistent here with their use of "eis".
However, this still leaves us with many passages in scripture that may appear to demand the necessity of water baptism for salvation, passages that Apologetics Press repeatedly refer to. What are we to do with these passages?
Instead of handling each passage individually, an attempt worthy of an entire book, I will simply present some basic facts that the astute reader may use to interpret these passages on his own.
First, the word "baptism" need not refer to the Christian rite of water baptism, as we have been programmed to conclude. The word was never translated into English, but only transliterated from Greek. Had it been translated into English, it would have been translated "immersion" or "dipping". Whenever you see the word "baptism", replace it with the word "immersion". Sometimes we may find that the Christian rite of water baptism may not be in view when we substitute the word "immersion". (Mark 10:38-39; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; Luke 12:50)
Second, water baptism is an official ceremonial symbol of our faith in Christ. As an official symbol, a reference to baptism may idiomatically, perhaps even simply for the sake of prosaic eloquence, stand in place of that which it represents. Analogously, a signature is symbolic of official agreement to a particular proposal. Therefore, we may speak of having "signed on the dotted line" when all we mean is that we have officially agreed to some proposal, even without any actual signature involved. Thus, even when it appears almost certainly to be referring to the rite of water baptism, it may only be doing so metaphorically. (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:5; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21)
Finally, several specific "baptisms" are mentioned in scripture, including the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; Acts 11:16). This baptism may be in view at times as well, instead of water baptism. (Mark 16:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:5)
It seems to me that water baptism is indeed commanded for the Christian believer in scripture (Acts 2:38; Matthew 28:19), even as many other things are (Galatians 5:19-23, etc), but not as a precondition for, prerequisite for, or cause of salvation, which scripturally comes only and exclusively by trusting in God.