Simply put, the ordinance of baptism is a rich symbol of the believer’s salvation. Baptism is an emblematic “watery grave” and a visual sermon which announces that the one being baptized has died to the old life and has been spiritually raised to live a new life. It is a visual testimony of a spiritual reality and an outward expression of an inward manifestation. Baptism is not required for salvation, but it is required for obedience to Christ, as the New Testament model makes abundantly clear. As a matter of fact, those who neglect being baptized publicly are actually denying what has happened to them spiritually and are living in contradiction to the truth.
Of course, many falsely believe that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation and that the Scriptures teach what is known as “baptismal regeneration,” in which God the Spirit literally regenerates a person when they are immersed in water. This is an essential teaching among Lutherans and restorationists (“churches of Christ”). I have actually heard local restorationists ministers state that the water is the means by which the believer “comes into contact” with the blood of Christ. And this blatant misinterpretation of baptism stems from both a literal reading of the word “baptism” wherever it appears in the New Testament, and an extreme good-works-centered understanding of salvation which proposes that the Holy Spirit needs water to regenerate a sinner’s heart. But nothing could be farther from the truth: baptism is not a necessary component to bring about regeneration; baptism is a necessary visual which declares that regeneration has already occurred within a believer’s heart.
The most compelling argument for baptismal regeneration comes from a surface-level reading of Peter’s declaration in Acts 2:38, where he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It would seem that repentance and baptism are prerequisites for being forgiven and receiving the Holy Spirit. However, there are several obvious problems with this interpretation. First, the Greek preposition “for” could actually be translated as, “on the basis of” or “because of,” essentially meaning, “Be baptized because of the forgiveness of sins (which you already possess).” Second, Peter and the apostles omit baptism many times in their gospel sermons, thus emphasizing that faith in Christ alone is what saves sinners (Acts 3:19-20; 10:34-43; 17:29-31). And third, the typical pattern in the Book of Acts is salvation leading to baptism, not baptism leading to salvation (Acts 8:34-38; 9:10-19; 10:44-48).
Ultimately, therefore, physical baptism is a visual representation of this spiritual reality:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4).