Note: This article is an edited extract from chapter 34 of the author's book One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996).

IS BAPTISM NECESSARY FOR SALVATION?

Michael T. Griffith

1996

@All Rights Reserved

POINT:

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that baptism is absolutely essential for salvation. The necessity of baptism was one of the most important and clear-cut doctrines of ancient Christianity.

SELECTED BIBLE PASSAGES:

Mark 16:16: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."

Luke 7:29-30: "And all the people that heard him [Christ], and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him."

John 3:5: "Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."

Acts 2:37-38: "Now when they heard this [Peter's preaching], they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, 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."

DISCUSSION:

The restored church teaches that baptism is essential for salvation. By baptism the truly repentant receive a remission of their sins and are admitted into the church. No one can be saved without being baptized. The Lord's ancient church taught the same thing.

"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved," said Jesus (Mark 16:16). This seems to be a straightforward, unambiguous affirmation of the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation.

Protestant writers who deny the need for baptism assert that the second part of verse 16 shows that belief is the only absolute requirement. Why? Because the Savior didn't say "but he that believeth not and is not baptized shall be damned." Rather, he simply listed the failure to believe as the cause of damnation: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (RSV).

There are two telling points that can be made in response to this argument. One, if Jesus meant to teach that belief alone was sufficient for salvation, he would not have added the condition "and is baptized" to the redemption formula. Two, the Savior did not need to mention the failure to be baptized as a cause of damnation, since a person who did not believe the gospel would obviously not even consider getting baptized.

In my missionary labors among evangelical Protestants, I heard all sorts of attempts to explain Christ's statement to Nicodemus in John 3:5. None of them was or is convincing. The Savior's message is clear: We must be baptized ("born of water") and then receive the Holy Ghost (born "of the Spirit") to enter into the kingdom of God. This is how the early Christians themselves understood this verse, and they cited it as proof of the necessity of baptism (Roberts and Donaldson 1:183, 574; 3:220, 675; 5:378, 385, 566, 676; 7:457).

It is ironic that the early Christian belief in the absolute necessity of baptism subsequently led to the practice of baptizing infants. Later theologians reasoned that since Christian children who died had not yet received baptism, the ordinance should be administered to babies to ensure that all were baptized.

Baptism and the Early Church Fathers

To a man, the ancient Christian bishops and apologists believed that baptism was essential for salvation. What follows is a small sampling of the many statements they made on the importance of this sacred ordinance.

* Tertullian

. . . without baptism, salvation is attainable by none. . . . (Roberts and Donaldson 3:674)

* Cyprian

. . . baptism [is] . . . the saving access to the hope of life eternal, and the divine condescension for purifying and quickening the servants of God. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:382)

* Novatus (ca. A.D. 210-260, bishop of Thamugada)

Although we know that all the Scriptures give witness concerning the saving baptism, still we ought to declare our faith, that heretics and schismatics who come to the Church, and appear to have been falsely baptized, ought to be baptized in the everlasting fountain. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:566)

* Sedatus (ca. A.D. 210-260, bishop of Tuburbo)

Wherefore we must endeavour with all peaceful powers, that no one infected and stained with heretical error refuse to receive the single and true baptism of the Church, by which whosoever is not baptized, shall become an alien from the kingdom of heaven. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:567-568)

* Felix (ca. A.D. 210-265, bishop of Gurgites)

I judge that, according to the precepts of the holy Scriptures, he who is unlawfully baptized by heretics outside the Church, when he wishes to take refuge in the Church, should obtain the grace of baptism where it is lawfully given. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:571)

* Constitutions of the Holy Apostles

Nay, he that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever, and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. (Roberts and Donaldson 7:457)

* Justin Martyr

By reason, therefore, of this laver [baptismal font] of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God's people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:201)

* Irenaeus

And again, giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, he [Christ] said to them, "Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" [Matthew 28:19]. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:444)

* Hippolytus

If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he [man] is made God by water and the Holy Spirit after the regeneration of the laver [baptismal font], he is found to be also a joint-heir with Christ after the resurrection from the dead. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:237)

Come into liberty from slavery, into a kingdom from tyranny, into incorruption from corruption. And how, saith one, shall we come? By water and the Holy Ghost. (Roberts and Donaldson 5:237)

* Didymus the Blind (ca. A.D. 313-398)

Johannes Quasten has said the following about Didymus the Blind in his highly acclaimed three-volume study Patrology:

Didymus, surnamed "the Blind," stands out among the heads of the catechetical school of Alexandria in the fourth century. Born about the year 313, he had lost his sight at the age of four. . . . The high esteem that he won during his lifetime sprang partly from spontaneous admiration for a man who, despite the tremendous handicap of lifelong blindness, amassed an amazing treasure of erudition. . . . He was a veritable prodigy of encyclopaedic knowledge. . . . Athanasius did not hesitate to place him in the highly responsible position of the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria. . . . His best known pupils are St. Jerome and Rufinus. The first mentions Didymus repeatedly as his magister, praises his learning, and testifies to his influence on the divines of his time in the West as well as in the East. The second calls him a "prophet" and "apostolic man." (3:85-86)

Didymus affirmed that baptism was essential for salvation. Here are a few of the things he said on the subject:

The Holy Spirit as God renovates us in baptism, and in union with the Father and the Son, brings us back from a state of deformity to our pristine beauty. . . . He . . . makes us spiritual men, sharers in the divine glory, sons and heirs of God and of the Father. He conforms us to the image of the Son of God, makes us co-heirs and his brothers, we who are to be glorified and to reign with him. (Quasten 3:98)

Quasten reiterates the fact that Didymus believed in the necessity of baptism for salvation:

Speaking of the effects of baptism, he [Didymus] mentions both the negative and the positive aspect. . . . Baptism is absolutely essential for salvation. Not even the perfection of a faultless life can make up for it: "No one not regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God and marked with the seal of his sanctification [baptism] has attained heavenly gifts. . . ." He sums up the effects of baptism on the soul as follows: "Thus, renovated in baptism, we enjoy the familiarity of God, in so far as the powers of our nature permit. . . ." (3:98)

* Clement of Alexandria

For thus he [Christ] wishes us to be converted and to become as children acknowledging him who is truly our father, regenerated by water. (Quasten 2:27)

 

Being baptized, we are illuminated. (Quasten 2:28)

Quasten notes that "Clement uses . . . the terms seal, illumination, bath, perfection and mystery for baptism" (2:28).

Other Church Fathers

In his highly respected work entitled Early Christian Doctrines, J. N. D. Kelly summarizes the views of other church fathers on the importance of baptism:

Through baptism, according to Athanasius, man is united with the Godhead; it is the sacrament of regeneration by which the divine image [in man] is renewed. The participant becomes an heir of eternal life, and the Father's adoptive son. For Gregory of Nyssa similarly the baptized person receives God and is in him; united with Christ by spiritual rebirth, he becomes God's son by adoption and puts on the divine nature. Chrysostom speaks of the Christian's having Christ in himself as a result of baptism and so being assimilated to him; stepping out of the sacred bath, the catechumen [religious convert] is clothed with light and, fully regenerated, enjoys the possession of justice and holiness. Cyril of Alexandria states that perfect knowledge of Christ and complete participation in him are only obtained by the grace of baptism and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. . . . According to Theodore, baptism is our second birth, as a result of which we belong to Christ and are associated with the privileges of his glorious life, being his body and his members. (431-432)

Jeffrey Burton Russell is certainly correct when he observes that among the early Christians "it was universally believed that . . . we obtain the benefits of Christ's sacrifice by baptism" (100).

Most Protestants reject the necessity of baptism. They correctly view it as incompatible with their belief in salvation through grace by faith alone. However, the fact remains that the Savior's ancient church taught that one could not enter the kingdom of God without being baptized.

SUGGESTED READING:

1. James L. Barker, Apostasy from the Divine Church (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, Inc., 1984, reprint of 1960 edition), pp. 165-174.

2. Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 98-109.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: In Harper's Bible Dictionary we read the following:

. . . baptism was in some sense to Christianity what circumcision was to Judaism. John 3:3-5, in fact, makes baptism--not circumcision--the formal entrance rite into the covenant unity. (p. 92)

In the highly revered ancient Christian text entitled the Shepherd of Hermas, we read that the angel told Hermas that baptism was essential, and that it was through baptism that people were able to enter into the kingdom of God (Similitude IX, 93:1-5, in Jack N. Sparks, editor, The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 245-246). It's interesting to note that the translator, Graydon Snyder, identified 93:2-3 as rough paraphrases of John 3:5 (see page 245).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.He is a graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School, San Angelo, Texas.In addition, he has completed an Advanced Hebrew program at Haifa University in Israel.He is the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts, including How Firm A Foundation, A Ready Reply, and One Lord, One Faith.