Just as the “what” of baptism is important, so is the “why.” Despite clear teaching on the subject in the New Testament, many people deny that the forgiveness of our sins is connected to baptism, insisting that if our salvation is by God’s grace, it cannot be contingent on any physical action in which we might engage.
First, we need to keep it clear in our minds that if God commands us to do anything at all (whether it be baptism or anything else), that does not contradict His grace. As our Creator and King, God has the sovereign right to set the terms upon which we can have a relationship with Him, and whatever He might require of us, our salvation is still a gift. No matter what we might do in obedience to Him, that would never put Him in our debt or mean that we had earned our salvation.
Paul described Christians as “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 him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12 ESV). Whatever there is in baptism that results in our salvation, it is not a meritorious work on our part. Rather, it is “faith in the powerful working of God.”
Here are a few other translations of Colossians 2:12: “you were raised up with him because of your faith in God’s power” (ERV), “in baptism you were also brought back to life with Christ through faith in the power of God” (GW), “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God” (NRSV), and “when you were baptized, you were buried together with him. You were raised to life together with him by believing in God’s power” (NIrV). The more we ponder this text, the more powerful Paul’s point becomes: baptism is the act in which God gives us life, but that doesn’t mean it is a legalistic work on our part. The whole thing depends on our faith in what God does.
On Pentecost, when Peter had finished his sermon, many in the audience were stricken with the realization of their lost condition and cried out, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The very question shows that they were believers — but it also shows that they were still lost. And Peter’s reply was not hard to understand: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (v.38).
Again, let’s look at some other translations, just to make sure we get the point: “Turn back to God! Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven” (CEV), “Each one of you must turn away from your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven” (GNB), “All of you must turn to God and change the way you think and act, and each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven” (GW), “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (NASB), “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (NIV), and “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (NRSV).
If it was not in baptism that people received the remission of their sins, it is hard to explain the urgency with which they were baptized in the New Testament. The Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26-39 did not want to wait until he got back home to be baptized. Traveling in a chariot on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and having been taught the gospel by Philip as they rode along, he wanted to be baptized as soon as they came to a body of water where that could be done: “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (v.36).
The Philippian jailer and his household were baptized in the same hour of the night” (Acts 16:33). And when Ananias was sent to explain to Saul of Tarsus, the previous persecutor of the church, what he needed to do to enjoy salvation in Christ, he told Saul, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
In our individual situations today, two thousand years after the events of the New Testament, what people did back then ought to be of more than passing interest to us. When those people heard the gospel and wanted to receive the salvation it promised, the answer they got from the apostles of Christ — who spoke with Christ’s own authority — was that they should be baptized for the remission of their sins.
We cannot disconnect salvation in Christ from the command to be baptized without disconnecting ourselves from the teaching of the Scriptures. Rather than doing that, let’s submit ourselves to that teaching, gladly and gratefully.