Many in Christendom teach that water baptism is a prerequisite to receiving the salvation for which Jesus Christ suffered and died. They regard baptism as a “sacrament,” “a means of grace.” Water baptism is essential to salvation, they say.
Certain Scripture passages, taken by themselves, could convince the reader that water baptism is essential to salvation. Mark 16:16 says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Acts 2:38 states, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 22:16 reads, “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). (Emphases added.) Those who hold to baptismal regeneration cannot understand our proclaiming salvation as the free and unmerited gift of God apart from works. To them this amounts to a denial of the Scriptures and a bold departure from the truth of God.
The seal of a sinner’s salvation
Many regard baptism as the “seal” of one’s salvation. Drawing upon the analogy of circumcision, which in Romans 4:11 is declared to have been in the case of Abraham “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised,” they tell us that water baptism is a “seal” of the covenant of grace. If a single passage of Scripture declared water baptism to be the “seal” of the new covenant, there would be nothing left for faith to do but receive it. But since such a verse does not exist, we are compelled to ask what may be the seal of God upon the born-again believer.
In Romans 8:8 and 9, Paul stated, “They that are in the flesh [a state of unregeneracy] cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” So we learn that the regenerated are distinguished from the unregenerate by the presence within them of the Holy Spirit of God. In Ephesians 1:13 and 14 we read that having “believed,” we “were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” In Ephesians 4:30 we are exhorted not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in Whom “ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” The Holy Spirit then, not water baptism, is the seal of the believer under grace. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the believer’s assurance of salvation. The question now arises, What Scriptural conditions qualify a sinner for the gift of the Holy Ghost?
Illustrations in the book of Acts
In reading Acts 2:38, 8:14–17, and 10:44–48, we must be impressed with the fact that the candidates in these three instances reveal a remarkable dissimilarity. In the first instance the candidates were instructed, “Repent, and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ” if they would receive the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the next instance it appears that the Samaritans had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus yet did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John prayed and laid their hands upon them. In the last passage, baptism was not administered until after the gift was received, and there is no record of prayer or the laying of hands.
Some insist that repentance and baptism are qualifications for salvation; others add prayer and the laying on of hands; others take the position that faith in the Word alone qualifies a sinner for salvation, and that water baptism is not only unnecessary for the sealing of the Spirit but unscriptural in that it is premature. Why baptize one who is unregenerate, not having received the gift of the Spirit? “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9). Which position should we occupy?
The solution is a consideration of the differences in the people to whom the instructions were made to apply. God is not bound under differing conditions by laws or formulas which He designed in His wise providence for specific situations. What He required from the Jews on the Day of Pentecost as qualifying them for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit He is not compelled to demand from Gentiles, who were presented before Him under different conditions. And it appears evident from the record that the Samaritans, upon whom apostolic hands were laid preparatory to their receiving the Holy Spirit, were denied the seal of their salvation for some time for special reasons.
The case of the Jews at Pentecost
In Acts 2:38, the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost were conditioned upon repentance and baptism for great reason. The ones to whom Peter spoke were guilty before God: they had been objects of privilege without parallel in human history. God Himself had stood in their midst. For three and a half years He had tabernacled among them. They had heard His gracious words. They had seen his mighty works. His ministry had been peculiarly to Israel. When He sent forth the Twelve, He gave them explicit instructions: “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5, 6). All men are guilty before God, but Israel’s guilt was aggravated by the peculiar opportunities she had enjoyed.
On the Day of Pentecost Peter charged Israel with the crucifixion of her incarnate Lord. Being brought by the Holy Spirit to a realization of their guilt and condemnation, they cried out in anguish, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). No doubt they wondered whether there was any hope for them in the light of the enormity of their crime. But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, told them that they first must “repent,” change their minds with respect to the One they had crucified (v. 38). Then they were to be baptized in His name. This was apparently required of them as a public testimony to Israel nationally, a confession that they had completely reversed their judgment concerning Jesus Christ! Upon the fulfillment of these conditions they were assured of receiving the remission of their sins and the seal of their salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The delayed gift to the Samaritans
Acts 8 records the conditions preparatory to the Samaritans’ receiving the Holy Spirit. We read that Philip preached Christ unto them, the people gave heed, and there was great joy in the city. “Samaria had received the word of God,” and “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (vv. 14, 16). Despite all this, verses 15 and 16 say that they were not yet the recipients of the Holy Spirit. The context informs us that they did receive this gift subsequently, but not until Peter and John had prayed for them and laid hands upon them (v. 17). Here we are introduced to a new condition: prayer and the laying on of hands. This leads to the reason for this innovation. The explanation is found in the spiritual history of the Samaritans. The relationship between them and the Jews was one of mutual antipathy. Despised by Israel, they had set up a rival place of worship at Mount Gerizim, resulting in an age-long controversy (John 4:20). Our Lord’s reply to the Samaritan woman’s inquiry as to the proper place of worship throws light upon our subject: “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Apparently the Samaritans were slow to recognize that their salvation was to spring from the very people who had treated them with hatred; hence, the seal of their salvation was withheld until the unity of the body of Christ was established.
The laying on of hands was an act of typical significance. On the Day of Atonement the high priest laid his hands upon the head of the scapegoat and confessed over it the sins of Israel (Leviticus 16:21). This act anticipated the grace of God the Son (Isaiah 53:6) when He, as the spotless Lamb of God, bore away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Undoubtedly God’s delay in imparting the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans was necessitated by a lesson He had for the church at Jerusalem as well as for the believers in Samaria. When that lesson had been learned, the symbol of spiritual unity was administered, and the seal was imparted. How glorious that in Jesus Christ “there is neither [Gentile] nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free (Colossians 3:11)!
The grace of God to the Gentiles
Acts 10 records the first presentation of the gospel to the Gentiles. While Peter was in the midst of his discourse, “the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word” (v. 44). These Gentiles believed the gospel, and immediately their salvation was sealed in the Holy Spirit. This gift had audible manifestations comparable to the Day of Pentecost. Peter and the six Jews who accompanied him were given evidence that these believing Gentiles had received the very same gift which they had received at Pentecost, and which Peter had promised to Israel upon condition that they “repent and be baptized.” But amazingly, these believing Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, the seal of their salvation, before a word had been spoken to them about baptism!
Salvation, the gift of God’s grace
There is no truth which this sin-cursed world needs so desperately to hear as this: that salvation is God’s free gift to the guilty and Hell-deserving on the sole condition of faith in Jesus Christ. There are no other “means of grace” than faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus. Salvation is by grace, through faith, plus nothing! (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5). God will not tolerate the slightest admixture of works when offered as the basis of salvation. Grace and works are two contrasting principles (Romans 11:6; 4:4, 5). For one to teach that baptism must be added to faith in Christ for salvation is to repudiate the gospel of grace. It constitutes a denial of the truth that God saves sinners by His grace on the basis of faith alone. It insists that sinners must do something in addition to believing in Christ to merit the mercy of God. To proclaim baptism as a “sacrament” and as “a means of grace” is as unscriptural as the Galatian heresy against which Paul addressed with spiritual fervor. To the Spirit of God, the propensity to add works, either moral or ceremonial, to faith in Christ as the basis of salvation is so abhorrent that He spoke through Paul in terms which are unmistakable: “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2).
Yet despite the clarity of the Scriptures concerning grace, many people insist that “the sacrament of baptism” must be received if they would be saved. From the United Lutheran Church in America is a tract titled, Lutherans Believe, by Walton H. Greever: “Lutherans Believe . . . that the Holy Spirit, through the Word of Grace in Baptism, offers forgiveness, rebirth, faith, and God’s covenant to save—effective for every one who does not reject grace. Thus infants become God’s children, members of His Church, and adults receive the seal of their salvation through faith in Christ their Redeemer.”
That such teaching should be offered to those seeking salvation is one of the greatest tragedies of our day. Millions of souls are being deluded into supposing that their baptism has made them children of God.
Baptism is not to be neglected
While baptism has no part in a believer’s salvation, it is still commanded of those who have received the grace of God. Peter did not arrive at the conclusion, which some have drawn today, that since baptism is not a condition of salvation, it may be ignored. He asked the Jews who were present when believing Gentiles received the gift of the Holy Spirit, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” (Acts 10:47). He then commanded these Gentile believers to be baptized in the name of the Lord.
The King James Version is used where Scripture is quoted in this article.
Dr. Williams is with the Lord. He was a GARBC pastor for many years. This article appeared in the March 1949 Baptist Bulletin. Adjustments have been made to the original article and the article length has been trimmed. Content and meaning were not altered in these changes.