This question has been asked to me a dozen times in many different forms. Baptism is source of division within Christian denominations on its mode, and whether not it saves. I have never met a Christian that would tell you that you do not need to be baptized, but the question that is it necessary as a means for salvation is important to answer.
There are 2 primary text proponents of believing it is a requirement for salvation will quote, Mark 16:16 and 1 Peter 3:21. We will handle each of these verses separately. I want to make it clear now that I do believe that every person who places faith in Christ should follow with Believer’s Baptism. It is a beautiful service, something I am glad I did, and something Southern Baptist absolutely do not do enough of.
Mark 16:16 says this: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. At first glance it would appear this verse clearly says that the two (salvation and baptism) go hand in hand. A couple of quick notes regarding this verse. Many scholars debate whether it should be in the Bible, many believe it was later added and not authentic to Mark. Mark 16:9-20 is the text in questions and it includes that weird sketchy thing about snakes.
Let’s say this is authentic to Mark though, then is it true? Briefly, no and here are the reasons why. This teaches that belief is necessary for salvation which would be agreed upon with other Scriptures that only make mention of belief being necessary. John 3:18, John 5:24, John 12:44, John 20:31, and 1 John 5:13 are some quick examples. Look at Mark 16:16 more closely, it comes up with two basic statements:
a) This who believe and baptized will be saved.
b) Those who do not believed will be condemned.
For this to teach Baptism is necessary for salvation then it must teach about those who believe and are not baptized. It makes no mention, and the Bible makes no mention of those who might do this. So clearly it does not teach you must be baptized to be saved. Instead we believe and that saves because salvation is instantaneous like with the thief on the cross (who was not baptized and went to Heaven.) The Bible clearly teaches in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 that we are saved by faith alone just as Abraham was. Acts 10:44-46 teaches that Cornelius was saved before he was baptized. Scripture is consistent on this subject.
On to 1 Peter 3:21 which says: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again we have a single verse used to describe an important doctrine which is never the case. So let’s take a good look at this and see what Peter is really saying. Peter clearly teaches in this passage that baptism is not salvific. All the water does is wash away the dirt but it does not save you, meaning that the passing of water over body does not cleanse anyone. What he is talking about is what Baptism represents. Baptism is represents and inward faith, as evidence by one’s appeal to God for the forgiveness of their sins (good conscience). Baptism is an outward sign of an inward regeneration and only represents salvation because it is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter is simply connecting baptism with belief. It is not the getting in a baptistery, pool, or ocean part that saves but is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience” which is shown by baptism, that saves us. The appeal to God always comes first. First belief and repentance, then we are baptized to publicly identify ourselves with Christ.
Dr. Kenneth Wuest, author of Word Studies in the Greek New Testament says it much better than I do. “Water baptism is clearly in the apostle’s mind, not the baptism by the Holy Spirit, for he speaks of the waters of the flood as saving the inmates of the ark, and in this verse, of baptism saving believers. But he says that it saves them only as a counterpart. That is, water baptism is the counterpart of the reality, salvation. It can only save as a counterpart, not actually. The Old Testament sacrifices were counterparts of the reality, the Lord Jesus. They did not actually save the believer, only in type. It is not argued here that these sacrifices are analogous to Christian water baptism. The author is merely using them as an illustration of the use of the word ‘counterpart. So water baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a type….Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, ‘not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.’ Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he defines what he means by salvation, in the words ‘the answer of a good conscience toward God,” and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, ‘by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,’ in that the believing sinner is identified with Him in that resurrection.”
By adding Baptism as a necessary requirement to salvation you are adding to salvation. It simply says that Jesus work on the cross is not enough to save us but is dependent upon a physical action by man. Instead, the Bible teaches salvation is instantaneous for the man/woman dead in their sin and baptism is how we express the renewal in our life. Remember Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. The Bible is clear and one or two single verses out of context do not trump the consistency of the Scriptures. I refuse to believe someone who comes to salvation and dies the next day before they are baptized, or on their death-bed, to any other plethora of situations will not inherit the Kingdom of God because the Bible does not teach that.
That being said get baptized and go baptize others in the name of our salvation, Jesus Christ.