An aside from my providence series to handle a request from a friend and answer the questions: what is baptism? How is it related to salvation? Is it necessary to be a Christian? My response is largely based on a sermon my church did a few years ago on its theology of baptism.
The positions taken by various strains of Christianity on baptism can largely be broken down into three main categories. I'll summarize them all and go into a bit more detail on the one my church and I hold.
1. Baptismal Regeneration
Baptismal regeneration is the belief that baptism is, in some sense, required in order to be a Christian or for salvation. This position is held by the Catholic church, the traditional Anglican church, and (in a different manner) the Lutheran church. The Catholic view is that regeneration (the process of being "born again", receiving a new heart and new spirit, or being made alive in Christ) is applied to the believer through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism, when properly performed in the church, applies the gift of regeneration to the believer; without baptism, there is no regeneration and no life.
Lutherans and some other branches of Protestantism take a more nuanced view that still affirms the necessity of baptism for salvation. Luther, with his emphasis on salvation sola fide (by faith alone), distanced himself from Catholic teaching that made baptism look like a work that produced salvation. He wrote: “If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they receive also faith.” In other words, God bestows faith (the only condition of salvation) on people (even infants) when they are baptized. This is traditionally followed by
Some scriptural support for this view (emphasis added):
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5)
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)
Peter replied, "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. (Acts 2:38)
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
2. The Covenantal View
The covenantal view of Baptism, held by Calvin and many denominations in the Reformed tradition, denies that baptism is essential for salvation or that there is one "right" way of doing baptism but saw it as the welcoming of children born to believers into the "covenant community" of the church. Like the first view, this one also advocates infant baptism, and is (I think) the one held by the church where I was baptized as a baby.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes about this view that "If, by baptism, Christ intends to attest the ablution by which he cleanses his Church, it would seem not equitable to deny this attestation to infants, who are justly deemed part of the Church, seeing they are called heirs of the heavenly kingdom". So baptism is not intrinsically tied with regeneration, but is a visible sign that an individual is welcomed into the church.
Besides a reinterpretation of the verses above, holders of the covenantal view also point to the parallel the Bible draws between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision was how all male Jewish infants were made part of God's covenant people; it was a "sign of the covenant" (Genesis 17:11) and uncircumcised males were to be "cut off from [their] people". (17:14) Then observe the parallel between circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.Just as circumcision was the sign that someone belonged to the community of the old covenant, so baptism is the sign that someone is part of the new covenant community. Also, some verses in the New Testament point to converts being baptized along with their entire households, which presumably included their children (Acts 16:15, 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:16).
3. The Symbolistic View
This view of baptism is held by myself and my church, as well as denominations in the Baptistic tradition. It holds that baptism has no intrinsic power to save and is not strictly necessary for being made a part of the church, but that it symbolizes the believer's union with (or immersion in) Christ and is a visible declaration of faith. Unlike the other two views, this one does not practice infant baptism, teaching that believers should be baptized as adults after they have come to faith and made a decision to publicly declare that faith. Baptists criticize infant baptism for giving people a false sense of security in their salvation ("I'm going to heaven because I was baptized as a baby") when it really does nothing.
In other words, in all of the verses above that seem to consider baptism and regeneration as equal, baptism in water is really being used as a visible symbol or representation of the believer's spiritual baptism and regeneration. This baptism by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11) is equivalent to regeneration and salvation, but physical baptism in water is not; it is only a representation or image of it, as the institution of marriage is a symbol for the union to take place between Christ and His bride, the church. (Ephesians 5:25)
Baptism symbolizes both our death to sin and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:4) and our cleansing from sin to righteousness (Ephesians 5:26). 1 Peter 3:21, a key verse of the baptismal regeneration view as it seems to say that baptism now saves you, is actually one of the best arguments for the symbolistic view. Right before the part about baptism saving you that people focus on, it says that "water" (physical water like the water Noah was saved through) "symbolizes baptism that now saves you also". This saving baptism is "not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." It is the baptism by the Spirit; baptism in water symbolizes (or, in the ESV, "corresponds to") this baptism.
I'll close with a quote by Charles Spurgeon:
On our first entrance upon a Christian profession, we are met by the ordinance of baptism, which teaches the necessity of purification. Baptism is, in its very form, a washing, and its teaching requires cleansing of the most thorough kind. It is a burial, in which the man is viewed as dead with Christ to sin, and is regarded as rising again as a new man. Baptism sets forth, as in a picture, the union of the believer with the Lord Jesus in his baptism of suffering, and in his death, burial, and resurrection…By submitting to that sacred ordinance, we declare that we believe ourselves to be dead with him, because of his endurance of the death penalty, and dead to the world and to the dominion of sin by his Spirit; at the same time, we also profess our faith in our Lord's resurrection, and that we ourselves are raised up in union with him, and have come forth through faith into newness of life. It is a very impressive and vivid symbol, but it is without meaning unless we rise to purity of life.