How does Baptism Save?
Many Christians would regard this as the wrong question. In their eyes, the question should be ‘Does baptism save?’, a question to be answered with an emphatic ‘No’. Scripture, however, teaches otherwise. In Mark 16, the Lord Jesus tells his disciples that “He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned” (v16). Note the language: salvation is only said to be the portion of those who have faith and who have been baptised, but it is the absence of faith not the absence of baptism that leads to condemnation. Why? Because salvation is not just about eternal matters, but also about things on earth and in time. When Peter, for example, cried out “Lord, save me” (Matt. 14: 30), he was not thinking about sin and judgment to come but of being preserved from drowning.
Peter actually writes about the salvation associated with baptism in his first epistle: “when the longsuffering of God waited in [the] days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism” (1 Pet. 3: 20, 21). Again, note the language carefully. Peter talks about Noah and his family going into the ark, but he says that they were “saved through water”. He then draws a parallel between the water of the flood and the water of baptism that the believer passes through. In both cases the apostle is thinking only of water as an instrument. Water physically saved Noah; for us, though the same instrument is employed, the action is figurative: “which figure also now saves you, [even] baptism”.
Now Noah and his family were saved by two means: by the waters of the flood (as stated here), and by the ark, and the difference between the two is the difference between faith and baptism. The ark saved Noah in that it preserved him and his family from the judgment of God (as does faith for the Christian). The water of the flood saved Noah in that it cut him off forever from “[the] world of [the] ungodly” (2 Pet. 2: 5), for “the then world … perished” (2 Pet. 3: 6). These two aspects of Noah’s experience find a parallel in what Christ has done for us. Thus in Galatians Paul writes concerning the Lord Jesus that He “gave himself for our sins, so that he should deliver us out of the present evil world” (Gal. 1: 4). The world here is not the planet, but the world–system of which Satan is the god. The Lord Jesus gave Himself to take us out of this world, even while we are in it. His death puts us outside the world—we no longer belong to it—and His resurrection sends us into it as messengers from His world. Hence the Lord could pray to His Father concerning the twelve: “I do not demand that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them out of evil. They are not of the world, as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by the truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (John 17: 15–18).
Now what has all this got to with baptism? Baptism is the uniform of Christianity—it in baptism that I “put on Christ” (Gal. 3: 27) thereby demonstrating that I belong to another, and am no more under the authority of this world and its prince. My conscience as before God would “demand” (1 Pet. 3: 21) that I be baptised, for how can I say that the Lord Jesus has delivered me from the present evil world (see Gal. 1: 4) when I remain identified with it—a world under judgment? Thus the effect of Peter preaching “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 40), was that “Those then who had accepted his word were baptised” (v41). Similarly, Paul, when newly converted, was rebuked by Ananias and told to dissociate himself from his former life: “And now why lingerest thou? Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name” (Acts 22: 16). Salvation in Scripture always involves separation (it sanctifies or sets me apart—(see 2 Thess. 2: 13) and since baptism separates it brings in salvation. Baptism is the burial of my former life (see Col. 2: 12), and in that it cuts me off from the world–system it saves. Paul’s sins were gone the moment he believed, but until he was baptised, he continued to be outwardly associated with his sins as a persecutor of Christians. Similarly, the children of Israel were saved in Egypt (a type of the world) by the blood of the lamb (see Ex. 12: 13), but they were saved from Egypt by the waters of the Red Sea (see Ex.14: 30). Scripture even refers to the latter incident as baptism (see 1 Cor. 10: 1, 2). Thus baptism saves by breaking my bonds to this world. It is the demand before God of a good conscience that I have finished with this present evil world—the world that crucified His Son. Indeed, if I say that I have faith but refuse to be baptised then I cannot properly be recognised as a Christian. Yes I may in fact have faith, but my behaviour is inconsistent with my profession.