Baptism – A Requirement of God or Man?


Recently on the radio I heard a Baptist preacher talking about legalism – the binding of man’s requirements instead of, or in addition to, God’s requirements. We are warned in the New Testament not to do this. Jesus told His apostles they were to bind things that had already been bound in heaven (Matthew 16:19). They were not at liberty to bind anything else. On the other hand, He also commanded them to teach those who obeyed the gospel to “observe all that [He] commanded” (Matthew 28:20). So those who teach are to instruct others of their responsibility to do everything required of them in God’s word. But they go too far and become guilty of legalism when they place additional requirements on others that are not required by our Lord.

We have examples of legalism given in the New Testament. In Acts 15, a controversy arose over circumcision. Some Jewish Christians were teaching the Gentiles Christians that unless they were “circumcised according to the custom of Moses,” they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). After the subject was debated in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders wrote to the Gentile Christians about the matter. They told them that those who were requiring circumcision were given “no instruction” to teach that doctrine (Acts 15:24). They then explained that God did not require them to be circumcised (Acts 15:28-29). Those Jewish Christians were guilty of legalism because they were requiring something that God did not require.

Another example is in 1 Timothy 4 when Paul warned Timothy of some who would “fall away from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). He said these men would “forbid marriage” and demand “abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). While the Old Testament had various dietary laws, these laws were not carried over into the New Testament (Acts 10:9-16). Therefore, those who required that these regulations be followed were guilty of legalism. In regard to marriage, God’s word teaches us that those who have a divine right to marry are those who have never been married, those whose spouse has died (Romans 7:2-3), and those who put away their mate for fornication (Matthew 19:9). Those who teach that one who has a divine right to marry cannot marry, for whatever reason, are binding where God has not bound and have fallen away from the faith. They are guilty of legalism.

The preacher on the radio used a few examples of what he called legalism. For most, he was correct. He said those who require that a Christian tithe are legalists (requiring something God does not). He was correct here. 1 Corinthians 16:2 instructs us to give “on the first day of every week” and we are to do so willingly, cheerfully, and liberally (2 Corinthians 9:7, 13). But there is no requirement anywhere in the New Testament to tithe (give ten percent). So commanding that we need to tithe would constitute legalism.

He also talked about those who say Christians are to worship on Saturday (the Sabbath) instead of Sunday (the first day of the week). We see the church in the New Testament meeting on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Those who teach that we need to observe the Sabbath will undoubtedly go to the Old Testament to make their case. I saw a bumper sticker once that said something to the effect that we must keep the Sabbath because God never changed His law regarding the Sabbath. What they fail to realize is that God’s unchanging Sabbath law was a sign between God and the Jews – the children of Israel (Exodus 31:13): “So shall the sons of Israel observe the sabbath…” (Exodus 31:16). The Old Testament Law commanding the observation of the Sabbath has been “nailed…to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Not only is the Old Testament Sabbath law of no effect today, it was never in effect for those who are not Jews. Those who say that we must keep the Sabbath, especially for those of us who are not even Jews, are guilty of legalism.

The first example he cited is what I would like to take time to address here. He told his audience, “fasten your seat belts,” implying that they would not believe what they were about to hear. He expected them to be completely shocked at what some were teaching as being required of one to be faithful to God. He then told his audience that when someone teaches that water baptism is necessary for salvation, then that is legalism. Is it? Teaching baptism unto salvation is only legalism if God, in Scripture, does not require baptism. What we need to do then is look at what the New Testament teaching is on the subject.

ACTS 2 – Here on the day of Pentecost, we have Peter’s sermon recorded in which he taught his audience about the Messiah. He indicted them of being guilty of murdering the Savior by handing Jesus over to be crucified (Acts 2:23). He taught them that this Jesus, the one they had crucified, had risen from the dead and was now seated at the right hand of God as both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:34-36). Upon hearing this, they were “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). They finally realized what they had done. They obviously now believed that Jesus was in fact the Christ, so they asked, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter commanded them to “repent and be baptized…for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). He went on and “with many other words,” exhorted them to “be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40).“So then, those who had received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:42).

ACTS 8 – After persecution arose following Stephen’s death, the Christians who were in Jerusalem were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Luke recorded that “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). One of those Christians was Philip. He “went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them” (Acts 8:5). When the people there “believed Philip…they were being baptized, men and women alike” (Acts 8:12). We can conclude from this that when Philip preached Christ (Acts 8:5), he preached the necessity of baptism (Acts 8:12).

Later, Philip had an opportunity to teach a man from Ethiopia who was on his way back from Jerusalem (Acts 8:27). He began with the Scripture the man was reading and “preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35). In the very next verse, we see the eunuch say, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” How would the eunuch have known to ask about water baptism if Philip had not taught it to him? Verse 38 tells us that he was baptized in this deserted place. There was no church here. Baptism was not to make him a member of a congregation. Instead he was baptized because of his belief in Christ. His faith resulted in his immediate baptism.

ACTS 9 – Saul was on his way to Damascus with authorization to arrest any Christians he found there and bring them back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:2). On the road, the Lord appeared to him. Was Saul saved when the Lord appeared to him? No. Jesus told him that once he was in the city he would be told “what [he] must do” (Acts 9:6). Saul was spending his time in Damascus praying (Acts 9:11). Was he saved as a result of his prayer? No. How do we know? The account of this in Acts 22 tells us that when Ananias came to Saul, he told him: “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Despite his prayers, Saul’s sins had not yet been forgiven. He was not saved. But his sins were forgiven (washed away) when he was baptized.

ACTS 10 – Cornelius, “a devout man” (Acts 10:2), was told to send for Peter to hear a message from him (Acts 10:4-5, 22). When Peter arrived, Cornelius and others were gathered “to hear all that [Peter had] been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33). In delivering his message, Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48).

ACTS 16 – Paul and Silas had been imprisoned in Philippi for their preaching. Following an earthquake, Paul stopped the jailer from killing himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped (Acts 16:27-28). The jailer then asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Paul first told him he needed to believe (Acts 16:31). Since “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), “they spoke the word of the Lord to him” (Acts 16:32). As a result of hearing Paul preach, the jailer and his household were baptized “that very hour of the night” (Acts 16:33). I wonder why anyone would be baptized at such an inconvenient hour if baptism was not necessary for salvation.

ACTS 18 – When Paul went to Corinth, he began by teaching every Sabbath in the synagogue (Acts 18:4). When Silas and Timothy arrived, he “devoted himself completely to the word” (Acts 18:5). As a result of Paul’s preaching, “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (Acts 18:8).

ACTS 19 – When Paul came to Ephesus, he found some men he supposed were fellow Christians (Acts 19:1). He soon found out they had not yet heard of Christ and that they had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:3). He explained to them that John’s purpose was to point people to Christ Jesus (Acts 19:4). When they heard Paul preach to them about Christ, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

Someone may still be wondering: Is baptism essential for salvation, or is it just something that might be good for us to do sometime? 1 Peter 3:21 plainly says, “Baptism now saves you.” Now you may be thinking, “I thought the Bible says we’re saved by grace,” or faith, or something else. The fact is that there are several things in the Bible to which salvation is attributed. Ephesians 2:8 teaches that we are saved by grace. Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith.” Hebrews 9:14 tells us we are cleansed by the blood of Christ. Earlier in Hebrews 5:9, we see that we are saved by obedience. The passages we looked at earlier teach us that we are saved through baptism following our belief and repentance. These passages do not contradict. They are in perfect harmony. There are many things that play a part in our salvation. Water baptism is one of them.

There is a great effort put forth to oppose baptism by Satan through the denominations. Many well-intentioned, sincere people have been deceived into believing that baptism is not essential for salvation and so aid in the devil’s fight against the truth. But why is there such an effort to refute baptism? First of all, baptism is what puts us into Christ. Romans 6:3 teaches that we are “baptized into Christ.” Galatians 3:27 teaches the same thing when it says, “For all of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” If the devil can convince people not to be baptized, he has kept them from getting “into Christ.

Secondly, when we are baptized is when we have our sins washed away. Again, in Acts 22:16, Saul was told, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” If the devil is able to persuade someone away from being baptized, he has ensured that that person will die in his sins.

Because of all these efforts, the vast majority of professing Christians are convinced that they can still be religious (and, as they suppose, pleasing to God) without being baptized. Religion is natural to man. I do not know of a single civilization in the history of man that has not had some form of religion. If there is one, it is the rare exception. But man wants to have a good conscience. He wants to believe he is doing what is right. There are many people unwittingly in Satan’s grasp who believe in God, regularly go to church, and are good moral people; but they have not been baptized into Christ to have their sins washed away. One can have a good conscience and still be wrong. Paul persecuted the church in good conscience (Acts 23:1). He was still wrong. Satan deceives many into believing they are saved when they are lost. 2 Thessalonians 1:8 warns us that those who do not obey the gospel will face punishment when the Lord comes in judgment. Baptism is part of that gospel that must be obeyed (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38).

If teaching the necessity of baptism is legalistic, then Peter was a legalist because he wrote that “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Jesus would have also been a legalist because He said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). And I am sure that preacher on the radio would also think that I am a legalist. But I would rather “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11) and have that preacher call me a legalist than disobey God and have that man agree with me. “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). We can please a lot of people if we refrain from teaching the necessity of water baptism. But what do the Scriptures teach? Baptism, for the penitent believer, puts one into Christ and washes away his sins. We can be pleasing to God by submitting to His will and obeying His gospel. The choice is ours. Are we trying to please men or God?

When you subscribe, you’ll also receive 3 free PDF’s: Plain Bible Teaching on the Gospel, the latest issue of Plain Bible Teaching Quarterly Review, and Road Trip.