Must a person be baptized to be saved?

In Mark 16:16 Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” which at first glance seems to drop a very strong hint, that “Yes, a person needs to be baptized to be saved.”  No baptism equals no salvation. Could it be any more clear than that? 

So, if I don’t take the necessary step of believing and being baptized I won’t be saved, right? But isn’t that basing my salvation on things that I do? Or put another way, doesn’t it mean my salvation depends on me – on my belief, first of all, and then on me being baptized too? And does that mean I won’t be saved until those two conditions are met?

No, it doesn’t mean that, because God sent his Son to save us by his death on the cross – meaning we were all saved long before we believed – or even knew anything about – God or baptism. So it can’t be our belief or baptism that saves us, because only Jesus’ death has the power to save. 

And at some point in our lives that dawned on us, didn’t it? It suddenly became clear that when Jesus yelled out on the cross, “It is finished,” it meant his death had saved the world from the eternal death hanging over us, caused by human disobedience to God and lack of trust in him. In his death it had all been forgiven and buried. That job was done. 

The big question then becomes: “Do I believe it?” Do I believe that the job of my salvation from eternal death – caused by my ignorance, disobedience and lack of trust – was completed by Jesus’ death on the cross? Or as Romans 3:24 phrases it – do I believe that I’m “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”? 

I was “justified freely by his grace,” take note, not by my obedience, my works, my faith, or anything I do or did, including believing and being baptized. “For it’s by grace you have been saved, through faith – and (even that faith) not from yourselves (too); it is the gift of God, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), so that no one can boast.” So even my belief was a gift from God. And God didn’t wait for me to believe and be baptized to save me either. He made me “alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions,” verse 6. 

I came “alive with Christ” – meaning my life was altered to the very depths of my being – when I grasped what Jesus had done for me. And it happened without me adding one stitch of belief on my part, or baptism. But the sign that proved this had happened to me was my belief. I grasped what Jesus had done for me. I acknowledged that it was only because of him that such a salvation had been made possible. It was a clear sign that the salvation Jesus had won for humanity on the cross had, and would, continue in its fullness, in me. And if I’d also come across those verses on baptism, and I wanted to be baptized, that too would be an acknowledgement and a sign that I’d been gifted by God with a grasp of his salvation through Christ alone, and the fullness of his salvation would continue in me.

But baptism would be a sign of that, not a requirement. Not being baptized would not damage or affect my salvation at all, because my salvation had already been secured in Jesus’ death. But there’s more salvation to come, where Jesus now lives his life in me, and belief and baptism become lovely signs, therefore, that this salvation would be happening to me as well. 

Why was Jesus baptized?

John the Baptist was really surprised when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but Jesus’ reply in Matthew 3:15 was: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” 

But why was Jesus being baptized in John’s water baptism so necessary in fulfilling all righteousness? John’s baptism was all about “confessing sin” (verse 6), and “producing fruits in keeping with repentance” (verse 8), neither of which Jesus needed to do.  Jesus didn’t need to confess to, or repent of, anything. But the Jews of that day, or Israel as a whole, did. They were the ones in desperate need of confessing their sins and producing fruits in keeping with repentance, because they had fallen far short of what God had called them to be and do.

God’s purpose for Israel had been clearly stated back In Isaiah 49:3, that “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” And in verse 6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Unfortunately, Israel had failed miserably in fulfilling those two purposes, and God had punished them severely for it, by sentencing them to many years in slavery to pagan nations. And.even after they’d been freed from captivity in Babylon, they were still under the thumb of the Romans 400 years later in Jesus’ day.

But God had sent Jesus to change all that. To prepare Israel for Jesus’ coming, God sent John the Baptist in advance, telling the Jews in Matthew 3:1-3 to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – taking a quote right out of Isaiah again, about “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” in Isaiah 40:3. It resulted in Jews “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” going to John to “Confess their sins,” verses 5-6, and be baptized by John in the Jordan river.

And John baptized them “with water for repentance,” verse 11, but that wasn’t enough to make up for Israel’s failure in fulfilling God’s purpose for them. Their baptism in water was only preparation for the one who could make up for it, the one coming after John who would “baptize” them “with the Holy Spirit,” verse 11.   

But before Jesus could baptize those Jews with the Holy Spirit, God needed Jesus himself to be baptized in water too. Not for his own sake, but for Israel’s sake. The Israelites had clearly proved throughout their history that they could not confess their sins or produce fruits for repentance sufficiently enough to make up for all their failures. Their baptism in water, therefore, was only pointing them to the one who could. Only Jesus in his baptism could “fulfill all the righteousness” of confession and repentance they had been unable to fulfill themselves. His baptism could, and would, do that, not theirs.

The message was clear, that only in Jesus could true confession and repentance be made, sufficient enough to take away the sins of Israel. He was doing it for them, in other words, because only he could. But this would be the great beginning of God “bringing back those of Israel I have kept” and “restoring the tribes of Jacob,” in their mission of being “a light to the Gentiles” and bringing “God’s salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6 again).

Or as Peter phrased it in Acts 3:26, “When God raised up his servant (Jesus), he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” And that “turning from their wicked ways” began with Jesus’ baptism fulfilling the confession and repentance the Jews and Israel had been unable to do themselves. But with that righteousness now fulfilled by Jesus, salvation from sins could now spread from the Jews to the Gentiles too, thereby fulfilling John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the (whole) world.” That righteousness would now be fulfilled in Jesus too, all pictured so perfectly by his baptism.

Is baptism necessary?

I was asked recently if there are two baptisms for Christians, because in scripture it looks like we need both a baptism with water and a baptism with the Spirit. And I can see why a person would think that, because in Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one who is more powerful than I….(who) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Two baptisms are mentioned.

And then in Acts 19, Paul bumps into some disciples in Ephesus who’d been baptized with water by John the Baptist but hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet, so he had them “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verses 1-6. Two baptisms again, first with water, and then with the Holy Spirit.

But then in Ephesians 4:5 Paul talks of Christians having “one Lord, one faith and one baptism,” not two baptisms, so which baptism is he referring to – baptism with water or baptism with the Spirit? It can’t be just baptism with water, because Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that baptism with water wasn’t enough for receiving the Holy Spirit. But if he meant only baptism with the Spirit in Ephesians 4, why do so many Christians feel a baptism by water is necessary too?

And when Christians talk about “the sacrament of baptism,” do they mean water baptism or baptism with the Spirit, or both?

Christian tradition leans towards both baptisms, including water baptism, due to several examples of water baptism in the New Testament – Jesus himself being baptized in water (Matthew 3:13-16), Jesus’ disciples baptizing people in water (John 4:1-3), and Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in water (Acts 8:36-38). There are several other verses leaning toward baptism with water too, like Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38, but all these verses about water baptism occur in the early stages of the New Testament church. By Ephesians 4, however, written by Paul near the end of his life, there was just “one baptism,” and that, according to Paul in Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27 was being “baptized into Christ.” And Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that water baptism did not baptize those disciples into Christ. Only a baptism with the Holy Spirit could do that (Acts 1:5, 8, Acts 8:14-17). 

Did Paul’s understanding of baptism evolve, therefore, as it dawned on him that it was only immersion or baptism into Christ – and all that God had accomplished in Christ for him – that counted in his life, and not anything that he did himself, including being baptized with water? 

Paul stated clearly that “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20. And he knew this understanding had been given to him by “the grace of God” (through baptism with the Holy Spirit), verse 21, and not by anything he did, whether it be his obedience to God, his faith, or being baptized with water.  

He realized that Jesus was his life (Colossians 3:4), meaning there was nothing he need do to help, complete or add to what Jesus had done for him, including water baptism. His life was immersed in Christ, not in water.   

There is just one baptism, therefore, and that is the one with the Holy Spirit, that immerses us in the life of Christ, the life that Jesus himself lives in relationship with his Father, made real in and to us by the Holy Spirit.

Water baptism, therefore, is not necessary for a Christian to become a Christian, but if a person wishes to be baptized with water to acknowledge and respect all that Jesus has done for him, then be baptized in water, but not as a requirement or a magic bullet that suddenly makes a person Christian. 

What makes me a good Christian?

I’d like to be a good Christian, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year for the simple reason that Jesus died for me. God also sent Jesus to demonstrate through his life and teachings what a good Christian is. It’s a person who loves God and loves neighbour, which Jesus did to perfection.

So I’ve got my motive for being a good Christian – Jesus’ death – and I have my example of a good Christian too – in Jesus’ life. And he left us a very clear example as well. In his love for God he didn’t veer off track one bit from God’s will in his thoughts, actions, words, and reactions. Even when faced with the prospect of excruciating suffering, either from physical torture or the mental stress of people making ridiculous accusations against him, he was able to resist his own feelings and emotions and stick to God’s will for him.

And his love for neighbour was just as amazing, because there wasn’t a person in need he refused to help. He never condemned anyone for being ignorant either. The only people he called to account and threatened with hell were the religious hypocrites who demanded perfect obedience to God from others, but fell far short of perfect obedience themselves.

So he set quite the example of compassion, mercy, wisdom and anger, all finely balanced, perfectly timed, and customized to each person’s need. I’d love to be able to imitate him. We have a whole list of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount too, which if we all lived in tune with would make our world a very different place. Imagine if we all lived by the Golden Rule, for instance, of treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

So now I’m left with a perfect motive for being a good Christian, and a perfect, practical example in Jesus’ life and teachings, and how he dealt with people, both the ignorant and the hypocrites.

But how on earth do I live up to such an example? Must I be consciously thinking about it every waking second of each day, even when tying my shoes, going shopping, or checking the dog for fleas? Is that how I stay on track to what makes a good Christian? Is it up to me?

No it isn’t, and it wasn’t for Jesus either. He openly admitted he could do nothing of himself, and it was only the Father working in and speaking through him that the miracle of his life and death were possible. Which is why Jesus knew we’d need help too -which he gifted to us in the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is now the one at the controls of our lives. It’s he who reminds us of Jesus’ teachings, he who gives us the words to speak, he who corrects our thoughts, and he who gives us the love for God and neighbour we need to be good Christians. And his comforting, correcting help is being directed by both the Father and Jesus too, so we now have the aid of the entire God family on our side every waking second of each day.

What I’d love to be next year, then – the best Christian I can be – is based on me simply believing that and getting on with life, no matter how basic, tedious, or troubling it is. And I can look back at the end of each day and see the difference the Holy Spirit made, that even in my excruciatingly stressed out or boring life, or in the mistakes I can see I made, underlying them all is the Holy Spirit keeping my love for God and neighbour intact and growing, because he’s the one that makes me a good Christian, thanks to Jesus dying for me and kickstarting the New Covenant.

What is the purpose of this temporary, finite, stressed out life of ours?

To a Christian the purpose of this temporary life of ours is to be willing to go where we don’t want to go, because that’s what life was all about for Jesus. That’s how Paul phrased it in Philippians 2:5-11, that Jesus came as a human to do what God wanted and “God exalted him to the highest place” for doing so. And as Paul says in verse 5, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ,” and if it is then God will exalt us too.

We have our purpose clearly spelled out for us, therefore, as to why we’re alive in this temporary, finite, stressed out body of ours that one day dies. Simply put, it’s doing what God wants and he will exalt us. And that sounds great until you realize God also took Jesus in directions during his human lifetime that stretched him way beyond his comfort zone (Matthew 26:38, Hebrews 5:7).

But why did God do that to him? Because the test God put to us humans from the very beginning in the book of Genesis was: Would we go in the direction he wanted us to go?

If the answer was “Yes,” then God could proceed with the glorious and highly exalted purpose he had for humans as rulers and guardians of this planet.

If the answer was “No,” then that was the end of humans – unless and until a human existed who was willing to go in the direction God wanted, come what may.

And Jesus was the first to volunteer. He lived a life of going exactly in the direction God wanted, regardless of what happened to himself. As a result, God opened the door to anyone else willing to follow Jesus’ example, and to those who said, “Yes, I understand your purpose for this temporary existence of mine, and I’m going for it,” God promised he would provide all the help they needed to keep going, no matter how stressful life became, just as he provided that help for Jesus (Hebrews 5:7).

And as a Dad I understand how God must feel toward a child who is willing to go in directions he or she would rather not go. I believe there is nothing God is more proud of than a human who accepts that this is what this temporary, finite, stressed-out human life is for, and throws his lot in with God’s purpose, trusting God every step of the way to keep his head above water and keep on serving others as Jesus did, no matter how this life turns out, because he totally believes God will exalt him to a new, unending, thrilling life next.

Is Christianity in sync with climate change?

I was asked recently if any Christian minister stood by 15 year old Greta Thunberg when she started her school strike for the climate outside the Swedish parliament building on August 20, 2018. 

No, I discovered, she was alone that day from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm. So, what has been the Christian response to her since, and are any Christian ministers standing by her now?

Well, we know one Christian minister who isn’t. He’s the senior pastor of the Texan megachurch First Baptist Dallas who had this to say: “Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis, Chapter 9, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.”

So is that excuse enough for all Christians to not stand by Greta? Or more to the point, is it excuse enough for me to not stand by her? 

I had to think about that, because if I believe what God promised in Genesis 9:11 that “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood (and) never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth,” then I shouldn’t be worried about global warming either, should I? It frees me up to get on with my life, even if what I’m doing contributes to global warming and sea levels rising. It doesn’t excuse me ignoring global warming or my contribution to it – of course not – but it does take the worry away that we’re on an irreversible course to self-destruction. 

That being said, God also says I should love my neighbour, and Greta is my neighbour, and a very worried one at that. She’s young and scared, like many others her age. And not surprisingly, when she’s living in a culture that’s bombarding her with highly convincing scientific graphs and warnings that if things continue much as they are then she and billions like her are in for a miserable existence that’s making many young people wonder if they should even be contemplating having children of their own.  

And that does concern me. I’d like to be able to console her, therefore, but how? What can I dig out from my Christian armoury of Scripture that on the one hand doesn’t excuse us for what we’re doing to the planet, but on the other hand doesn’t paralyze us with fear?

Well, for me, it’s slicing down to the bare bone of why I’m a Christian, as voiced by Paul in Acts 17, starting in verse 26. “From one man God made all the nations, deciding their rise and fall and determining their boundaries, his purpose being that anyone in these nations could seek him, feel their way toward him and find him, and discover he’s not far away at all. And no wonder, since it’s due entirely to him we have life, that we function, and are who we are. Your own poets said it well, that we are his offspring. Our very nature comes from him.”   

So, Greta, that goes for you too. You were made by God, you share his nature, and you are who you are at this very time in history doing what you do, because this is what God created you for. And here’s hoping that in the gifts and dreams you have that you come to see you are so like God, who made you the way you are to make it easy for you to come to know him. And in knowing him you’ll realize just how much he loves you and deeply appreciates you valuing the marvellous world he created. 

He also appreciates us when we realize we’ve treated his planet home abysmally and we seek his forgiveness and help to change. And change we must because he will bring all those who’ve caused and contributed to the destruction of people’s lives and the ruining of the environment to justice. No one gets away with anything (verses 30-31). And we know all this is true because the one doing the judging was resurrected from the dead (verse 31).

In other words, Greta, there really is a God who has the power to make your dream of a better world come true. So carry on what you’re doing, because what you cannot accomplish now you’ll have the chance to be part of correcting later when all nations are called to account for their actions. 

So I’m all for standing beside you as a Christian minister, if only to let you know you’re loved for nothing more than being you. But it’s also to let you know that God wants this world taken care of and we Christians had better be in sync with that too.        

“Show me the miracles that prove God’s Kingdom is here already” 

In Luke 7:19 John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Jesus, “Are You the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we be looking for someone else?” So it sounds like there was an element of doubt in John’s mind that Jesus was truly the Messiah, which is jolly useful in case someone asks us for proof today that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  

Jesus’ answer was simple. He’d been “curing many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and he’d given sight to many who were blind too,” verse 21. So his reply to John’s two disciples in verses 22-23 was: “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: that the blind get their sight back, the crippled and lame are now walking freely again, lepers are cleansed, deaf people hear perfectly, dead people are raised back to life, the good news of salvation is being preached to those who are lost and needy, and people are being blessed in all sorts of ways when they aren’t offended by me.”

Just look at the obvious results of my ministry, Jesus is saying, because they speak for me – with the added hint, that “Isn’t this exactly what you expected from the Messiah as evidence it’s him?”  

Well, no, it wasn’t, which is why John had sent his disciples to Jesus to find out if he was truly the Messiah, or not. They were expecting a conquering Messiah diving in with all guns blazing to drive out the Romans and restore Israel to its former glory, just like the good old days of David and Solomon. Jesus, however, was identifying the Messiah through a different sort of “conquering.” It was just as powerful but in a totally different way. Jesus wasn’t being the big hero, charging in with the cavalry to save the day, he was meeting people’s much greater needs. He was answering people’s personal needs, rather than deliverance from their enemies as a nation. 

It was their first inkling of what the Messiah was truly all about. It hearkened back, though, to three chapters earlier at the Nazareth synagogue when Jesus had read from the Isaiah scroll that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” Luke 4:18-19. And he ended the reading with, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” verse 21, referring to himself as the fulfillment of that prophecy. And for the next three and a half years Jesus proved he was the one Isaiah was talking about by doing all those miracles for people. 

And these were the signs that God’s Kingdom really was “near at hand,” just as Jesus had stated back in Mark 1:15. 

One could legitimately ask, then, “Where are those miracles being fulfilled today? If they are the signs that God’s Kingdom is here on the Earth already, then show me where the blind are getting their sight back, the crippled are walking freely, those with incurable diseases are being healed, the deaf can hear, and people imprisoned by all sort of addictions and phobias are being freed of them, just like they were in Jesus’ day. Everybody who asked Jesus for healing got it, but does that happen today? ” 

One could also legitimately ask, though, “But did all those miracles Jesus performed actually accomplish much? He healed hundreds of people fromawful diseases and birth defects, but at the end of his ministry he only had a hundred and twenty dedicated followers. And most of them even doubted it when they were told he’d been resurrected from the dead, just as he’d predicted.” Miracles of the kind Jesus was performing back then, therefore, weren’t the the most convincing proof of the kingdom being “at hand” (John 14:24). 

So what would be convincing proof, and especially for people today, who would likely find all kinds of excuses for dismissing miracles as real?

Well, Jesus lifts things up a a notch with little hints like John 14:27, when he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus was offering the miracle of never being anxious or afraid of anything, from simply trusting him to provide it (verse 14). 

He also promised joy and love to those who trusted him. People would love their enemies and know joy in suffering, including when people hated and persecuted them. These were much greater miracles of mind and heart. And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to provide them in full to us too (Colossians 2:9-10). So all we have to say to people who want proof God’s Kingdom is here already, is along the same lines as what Jesus said to John’s disciples: “Just look at what you see and hear happening,” which in our case would be what they see and hear happening in us personally. What they see and hear are meant to be the most incredible miracles of all, the ones that we humans of ourselves are never able to make happen, like love, joy and peace in the most impossible circumstances. 

They are also the miracles we need most personally to navigate through this world. Wouldn’t I just love to have no anxious thought and peace beyond understanding, for instance (Philippians 4:6-7)? Well, they’re ours for the asking and trusting. Because that’s what the Kingdom of God is all about. It’s all about a God who loves us, knows our needs exactly, and provides the power in our minds and hearts to meet those needs (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).