Is Baptism Essential to Salvation? (Q&A)

Q:  Jeff, I chanced upon the website while surfing the internet. For the past few months, I have been trying to understand whether a person needs to be baptized to be saved. I would like to consult you on the relation between baptism and salvation, as understood by the early church (made up of mainly Jews). I have read what was written in your Q&A question “The Jewish Roots of Baptism,” and it seems like baptism is (and was) seen as a cleansing.

Did the early church (or maybe present day Jewish Christians) believe/teach that baptism is necessary for salvation? --BK

A:  Christian baptism is a rite of initiation adopted from immersion in the Jewish mikveh bath.  The mikveh bath was used for ritual cleansing from many different kinds of uncleanness, most of them found in Lev. 15.  But the use that most strongly influenced Christian baptism was the conversion of a Gentile to Judaism, for which ritual immersion was required.  In Christianity, this became an important part of the overall cleansing—both inner and outer—that marked coming to faith in Jesus (Yeshua) as the Messiah and Son of God.

In the early church, and already in the New Testament, baptism was considered an indispensable part of the process of salvation.  It was an outward, public declaration of the inner decision and conviction of the heart to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  Both the inner conviction and the outer act of baptism were considered necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16). 

A Jewish Mikveh Bath
In an early church manual from Syria (the Didache), it was considered so important that if insufficient water for immersion was available, then pouring or sprinkling water would suffice.  In other words, it was more important to do it right away, even if under less than perfect conditions, than to wait.   

There were also times, though, when baptism was not possible, as when someone became a believer shortly before being martyred for his faith.  In this case, the advice of the early church leaders was not to fear, but that their shed blood would accomplish their baptism for them.  So although baptism was considered necessary to salvation, there was leeway for exceptional circumstances.

Among modern Jewish believers in Israel (as with converts from Islam), baptism is an especially significant dividing line in expressing commitment to Yeshua (Jesus). This is because it is seen, both by Christians and non-Christians, as expressing a definitive break with one's former religious beliefs.  This is the point at which severe persecution has often begun at the hands of relatives and neighbors who reject the Christian message.  

Please pray for brothers and sisters in Messiah in the Middle East who are suffering right now for their decision to believe in Jesus and be baptized.

(For more on this topic, see the Index category Baptism.)

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