June 20, 2008
I often ran into students who believed that in order to go to heaven you had to be baptized. One of the passages they cited was Mark 16:15-16. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In this article I will explain why this verse can’t be teaching salvation by baptism and then show what it does mean. Mark 16:16 Isn’t Teaching That You Must Be Water Baptized to Go to Heaven
There are a number of clear and compelling reasons why we can be sure that Mark 16:16 isn’t teaching that water baptism is a condition of eternal salvation:
- The basis of condemnation is unbelief only.
- The apostles did not preach that you must be baptized to go to heaven.
- The Gospel never changes.
- There are NT examples of people who were saved before they were baptized.
Let’s briefly consider each of those points in more detail.
Condemnation Is for Unbelief Only
Jesus didn’t say, “He who is not baptized will be condemned.” Neither did He say, “He who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned.” By this our Lord made it clear that faith alone was necessary to avoid eternal condemnation. He said the same thing in John 3:18: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (see also John 5:24; 6:47).
The Apostles Preached Salvation by Faith Alone
Two of the disciples in the inner circle were Peter and John. Both of them heard Jesus say the words recorded in Mark 16. Yet both of them taught that the only condition of eternal salvation was trusting in Christ and Him alone.
Peter proclaimed the Gospel to Cornelius and his family. He led them to faith in Christ before he even mentioned baptism (cf. Acts 10-34-44). Only after they were saved and baptized by the Holy Spirit did Peter mention Christian baptism and give them the opportunity to be baptized (Acts 10:45-48).
The apostle John wrote an evangelistic book that we call the Gospel of John. He repeatedly indicated that faith is the condition of eternal salvation. Yet not once in all of John’s Gospel, written after the event recorded in Mark 16:16 occurred, did John condition eternal salvation upon water baptism. (In fact, Christian water baptism is not even mentioned in John’s Gospel.)
The Gospel Never Changes
“What about the thief on the cross?” I would say. “Jesus said he would be with Him that day in Paradise, yet he was never baptized.” The response I would get was inevitably this: That was before Pentecost. After Pentecost, you have to be baptized in order to be saved.
What these students were telling me was that the Gospel had changed. Before Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit a person was saved without water baptism. After that water baptism is required.
That is an impossible position to defend since the apostle Paul clearly indicates that we are saved in this age the same way Abraham and David were saved in their age (cf. Rom. 4:1-8; Gal. 3:6-14). The Gospel has always been, and always will be, by grace through faith plus nothing. We find this in the first book in the Bible (Gen. 3:15; 15:6) and in the last book in the Bible (Rev. 22:17).
The New Testament Gives Examples of Salvation Before Baptism
In addition to the thief on the cross, there are other New Testament examples of people who were saved without being baptized. Martha (John 11:25-27) is one. Another is Cornelius and his household. According to Acts 10:43-48, they were saved the moment they heard Peter tell them that all who believe in the Lord Jesus receive remission of sins. At that very moment, before they were baptized with water, they were baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.
These four points prove that Mark 16:16 is not teaching that you must be water baptized to go to heaven. However, the question still remains as to what Mark 16:16 does mean. Mark 16:16 Is Teaching That All Who Respond to the Great Commission Will Go to Heaven
The key to understanding these verses is to recognize that they are a summary statement of the Great Commission. Mark is not reporting everything that Jesus said about the Great Commission. He is recording one summary statement that Jesus made of it.
The Great Commission was communicated by the Lord on five different occasions (once each in the Gospels and Acts). There is a lot of variety in the way the Great Commission is expressed in these five instances. In some of those statements only evangelism is mentioned (e. g., Luke 24:47, though it could possibly be dealing with both evangelism and discipleship, and Acts 1:8). In some only discipleship is mentioned (Matt. 28:18-20; John 21:15-17). The Great Commission in Mark 16:15-16 includes both evangelism and discipleship. Preaching the Gospel to every creature (v. 15) is evangelism. Baptizing those who believe (v. 16) is the first step in discipleship. What Jesus is saying in Mark 16:15-16 is this:
- Preach the Gospel to everyone on earth (v. 15).
- Tell people to believe in Him and to be baptized (implied in v. 16).
- Those who believe and are baptized will be saved.
- Those who don’t believe will be condemned.
It is, of course, true that all who believe and are baptized will be eternally saved. That is not to say, however, that those who either refuse to be baptized or who fail to be baptized through procrastination, ignorance, or lack of opportunity (for example, some people have died immediately after trusting in Christ) will not be saved. They will. At the very moment they believe, they are saved from the penalty of sin, eternal condemnation.
We must be careful not to read into Scripture. Jesus does not say or even imply that the one who isn’t baptized won’t be saved. We know that is not true from other Scripture, and even from the second half of v. 16.
Mark 16:16 does not contradict salvation by faith alone. Rather, it affirms it. Jesus clearly and unmistakably indicates that the sole basis of eternal condemnation is unbelief. The sole basis for eternal salvation is believing the Lord Jesus, and Him alone, for it.
Another understanding of Mark 16:16 is that it refers to Holy Spirit baptism (see, for example, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 6, p. 150). Except for some exceptional cases in the Book of Acts, Holy Spirit baptism has always occurred at the point of faith. Compare 1 Cor. 12:13. While that view is possible, I don’t believe it fits the context as well as the one I have articulated here.
I made a profession of faith years ago at age 12 and was baptized by immersion. But I have doubts about whether I understood that salvation was faith in Christ alone. Was my baptism valid? Should I get (re)baptized?
I think we would all agree that the baptism of the New Testament is "believer's baptism." From the examples we find in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 8:26-40; 16:27-34) we should also conclude that ideally baptism should happen as soon after conversion as possible.
Given these general guidelines, I think part of our agony is that our baptisms years ago were less than ideal, primarily because we are somewhat uncertain as to whether or not we were really saved. In Acts 19:1-7 we have an example of a re-baptism. These folks that Paul came upon at Ephesus were familiar with John's preaching - that the Messiah was coming. They received John's baptism, which was a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ. But since these folks had not been baptized as believers, they were rebaptized when the Gospel was proclaimed to them and they received it. Thus, here we have a clear case where rebaptism was required.
I think that if we are really not certain that we were baptized as believers rebaptism is something we should consider. I would say that for those who are certain they were baptized as unbelievers they should (indeed they must) be rebaptized, as believers.
Having said this, I should go on to point out another factor. If new believers are baptized almost immediately after their baptism, they are far from being a mature believer at this moment in time. They must know the essentials of the Gospel, but they would surely not grasp those things that accompany maturity (see Hebrews 6:1-3). Baptism, then, is a commencement exercise, a symbolic initial act of obedience that will be understood more fully only as one matures. That is why (as I understand it at least) Paul argues on the basis of a believer's baptism in Romans 6:1. Paul argues there that baptism symbolizes one's death to sin, in Christ, and one's resurrection to newness of life, in Christ. If one has died to sin and is alive to righteousness in Christ, how can he continue to live in sin after his salvation (and baptism, which symbolizes their death and resurrection)? One should not expect to fully grasp all the truth at the time of one's salvation.
All of this is to say that I think each of us needs to determine whether it is our salvation that is in question at the time of our baptism, or whether it is our maturity. If we have doubts about our salvation, we may very well decide that we should be rebaptized. If we are only wishing that we were more mature at the time of our baptism, I would suggest that all we needed to know was the basic Gospel, and to have trusted in Christ alone for our salvation. Though I was baptized as a young believer, I surely did not grasp all that this symbolic act entailed.
It seems to me that in the final analysis we are really struggling with what falls into the category of a "personal conviction." Some in our place would probably not be rebaptized; others would. Paul's guidance is that we should be "fully persuaded in our own mind" (Romans 14:5). Paul concludes this chapter by informing us that "whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). My advice, then, would be to deal with this question as a matter of personal conviction. When we have determined our personal conviction on this, so that our conscience is clear before God, I would do that - whether this is to be rebaptized, or not to.
I hope this will help in some way to clarify this matter.