Does Mark 16: 16 prove that only believers should be baptised?
This Scripture is often regarded as a proof text of ‘believer’s baptism’, since the word believes precedes baptised: “he that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned” (Mark 16: 16). From this the deduction is made that belief must precede baptism in every case. However, the verse simply states that both believing and baptism are required for salvation. It does not even say that baptism is a consequence of believing, let alone that baptism can only be a consequence of believing. Of course the writer accepts that every believer ought to be baptised, but that does not imply that no one else is to be baptised.
The mistake made is to take the verse to be about who can be baptised, when in reality it is about who can be saved. Thus it is said that the baptism of infants in a Christian household is inadmissible because an infant cannot believe and therefore should not be baptised. However, you cannot build on this passage an argument that will exclude infants from baptism without at the same time submitting to a stronger argument that will exclude infants from salvation! Why? Because belief here is made necessary for salvation, and if an infant cannot believe, then it cannot be saved. Actually, God does have salvation in mind for little ones (see Matt. 18: 10, 11), but Mark 16: 16 is about responsible adults who can respond to the Gospel—hence the use of the word “condemned” rather than “lost”. Thus if infants are to be put outside the scope of the passage as far as baptism is concerned, then they must also be excluded as far as salvation is concerned.
What is often overlooked in Mark 16: 16 is that baptism is made a necessary requirement of salvation—a fact that many are uneasy with as they conceive of salvation as only relating to the soul, to heaven and to eternity. However, the thought of salvation in Mark 16: 16 clearly includes preservation upon earth in this life as well—a salvation for which baptism is essential. This is evident from the fact that the one condemned is condemned for unbelief alone, and not because he is unbaptised. Baptism and salvation are also connected in 1 Pet. 3: 20, 21: “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”. The wording here is significant: it is not salvation from water but salvation through water. Furthermore, this salvation through water was predicated on the faith of Noah alone (see Gen. 6: 8; 7: 1; Heb. 11: 7). So what kind of salvation was provided for Noah’s house by the baptism of the flood? It was not soul salvation but a salvation brought about by separation from an evil world—and that is exactly the effect of baptism when the figure is worked out in a practical way. Baptism is the declaration of that definite break with the old life that so puzzles former companions—such that they “think it strange that ye run not with [them] to the same sink of corruption” (1 Pet. 4: 4).
How, though, is this of any relevance to a Christian father seeking to bring his children up “in [the] discipline and admonition of [the] Lord” (Eph. 6: 4)? Well clearly the household of the believer is to be a sphere of preservation (or salvation) from the malign influences of a godless world. Thus God commended Abraham “For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18: 19). Can this be accomplished without an outward sign such as circumcision or baptism? Most certainly, for these are only figures. That, however, is not the point, for just as a believer can ignore the “demand as before God of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3: 21) and remain unbaptised, so it is equally incongruous for a believing father to leave his children unbaptised. Baptism is an outward matter—the putting on of the uniform of profession (see Gal. 3: 27), and as such indicates entrance into the Kingdom. To bring children up “in [the] discipline and admonition of [the] Lord” (Eph. 6: 4) is essentially to put them under the rules of the Kingdom, of which baptism is the method of induction (see Matt. 3: 2, 6; 28: 18, 19; Acts 1: 22). A repeated lesson of the Bible is that the children are identified with the parents in outward blessing (see Gen. 17: 23; Exod. 12: 3; Josh. 6: 25 etc.). In line with this, there are several households baptised in the NT (see Acts 16: 15; 33; 1 Cor. 1: 16), and they are always baptised in their entirety—that is, as households. Those who say that this was because they were all believers can offer no definitive evidence, and, at the same time, ignore the consistent theme of Scripture that the household is identified with its head in blessing.