This page is an abbreviated version of a longer study, entitled "Repent and Be Baptized," available as an ebook from Smashwords.com.
Jesus Christ preached the Gospel, or good news, about the Kingdom of God. He challenged his hearers to "repent and believe" that Gospel, for the Kingdom was at hand (Mark 1:15). After Jesus ascended, the response to the Gospel according to Acts 2:38 was to "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." Jesus said in Mark 16:16, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." The Scriptures clearly indicate that the proper response to hearing the Gospel is to believe it, to repent, and to be baptized. The exact nature, purpose and significance of this baptism have at times been misunderstood.
In some Christian circles today, there is a belief that the baptism which is an integral part of our response is a baptism in the holy spirit, and that baptism in water is no longer necessary or even desirable. The ministry I was involved with, as well as a number of its current offshoots, holds to the belief that baptism in water has been replaced by a spiritual, or figurative, baptism, making it obsolete and unnecessary. The problem with this idea, however, is that there is no clear Scripture that indicates this.
The Scriptures that are usually cited as proof that spirit baptism replaced water are the ones that say, "John baptized with water, but Jesus baptizes with holy spirit." Let's look at these Scriptures.
In the Gospel of John, similar words are used, but the two halves of the statement are separated over two days.
In Acts, Jesus uses similar words as well, which Peter later recalls.
Notice that none of these passages says that Jesus would baptize with the holy spirit instead of water. To interpret these passages as saying that spirit would replace water is to read into it a false dichotomy that does not exist. It is assuming that spirit is set against water, as being antithetical and mutually exclusive, but that is not the point at all. The point is to contrast the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus, and to contrast the nature of each, showing the differences between the two.
Furthermore, interpreting these verses as "spirit vs. water" assumes that these are the only two baptisms spoken of in the Bible. But there are actually three. John baptized in water, there is a baptism in water in the name of Jesus, and there is the baptism of the holy spirit, which Jesus would accomplish. The baptism in the holy spirit is truly a spiritual baptism, but in the book of Acts we also see instances of believers baptizing other individuals. This can't be the baptism of the holy spirit, because only Jesus does that, according to Acts 2:33. But the baptism in water that the disciples perform in Acts is still distinct from the baptism of John.
The verses in John 1(above) show that John the Baptist was contrasting not just water and spirit but his ministry and Jesus' ministry. ("I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you ... who coming after me is preferred before me...") Later, after Christ's atoning sacrifice, it was in the name of Jesus that baptism was performed, and baptism in his name is said to be superior to the baptism of John (Acts 19:4, among other verses). But it was still water baptism, as seen from the records in Acts. Nowhere does it say that spirit and water are mutually exclusive, and nowhere does it say that one replaces the other or makes the other obsolete. That is being read into the verses that we're considering.
When the word "but" is used to set two things in contrast, it doesn't automatically follow that they are mutually exclusive. In fact the Greek word used in these verses is de, which is used to mark a transition between phrases, or a contrast that is not a strong one. There is another word, alla, which is used to mark stronger contrast, such as in Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but [alla] by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
An example of such a transition can be seen in I Corinthians 8:1 where Paul writes, "Knowledge puffeth up, but [de] love edifieth." This verse doesn't mean you should have love without knowledge. It is simply contrasting the aspects of each. In fact, in this case, it is implying that knowledge without love is insufficient, and that one should have love in addition to knowledge. Similarly, John's baptism involved water, while Jesus' baptism would involve spirit. But it doesn't automatically follow that spirit and water are mutually exclusive. Reading through the records in Acts, one sees that the disciples baptized with water in Jesus' name, and Jesus baptized in holy spirit, usually at the same time (though not always). In fact on the occasions where one was present without the other, it was considered unusual, and the apostles got involved to rectify the situation. Certainly John's baptism in water alone could not produce a change on the inside, as the holy spirit could do. But there was also a purpose for the outward sign of water, as we shall see. Rather than spirit replacing water, it complemented it, making the Christian's baptism complete.
Another reason for thinking that water baptism became obsolete is that it has wrongly been associated with the Old Testament Law of Moses. The New Testament does clearly state that the Old Covenant has been done away with, and that the ordinances of the Mosaic Law have been replaced, because they were shadows which pointed to the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Paul goes to great lengths to explain this in Galatians and Hebrews, as well as references in Colossians and I Corinthians. However, nowhere does he say that baptism in water was one of those shadows that was done away with.
It has been suggested that Hebrews 9:10 is referring to water baptism, calling it a figure for the earlier time which had been done away with.
While it is true the word "washings" in verse 10 is the word baptismos, it must be kept in mind that this Greek word is not used exclusively of the rite of baptism. Three of the four occurrences of the noun form are referring to washing of things; and the verb form, baptizo, while it usually refers to baptism, is also used to refer to "the washing of cups and pots" in Mark 7:4. The translators correctly render the word as "washings" rather than "baptisms" in these cases.
The question is, then, does this verse in Hebrews 9 refer to water baptism as John preached it? The answer is no. There were, of course, ceremonial washings involved with the Old Testament Law, but they were different from the baptism that John preached in several important ways. First, they involved washing of the flesh or of objects such as cups and pots, but they did not involve total immersion. Second, they were done by a person for himself, whereas John's baptism was something that was done by another person: A baptizer baptized the candidate for baptism. Third, these ritual washings were performed on a regular, repeated basis, for periodic cleansing and purification. John's baptism, on the other hand, was a one-time event with a very specific purpose. It was a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 13:24, 19:4) which symbolized the person's turning away from his past life of sin, and turning to God, dedicating his life to Him. Specifically, it was preached in connection with the announcement of the Kingdom of God.
Finally, had John's baptism been part of the Mosaic Law it would have been practiced by the Pharisees, who delighted in following the minutest details of the letter of the Law, although they missed the heart of it. Yet they rejected John and his baptism (Luke 7:29-30) and questioned his authority to baptize, because it was something new (Matthew 21:25-27; Mark 11:30-33; Luke 20:4-8; John 1:25).
It has also been suggested that John's baptism, and Christian water baptism after it, were somehow based on or related to the practice of proselyte baptism. When a Gentile wanted to be a convert to Judaism, in addition to being circumcised, he would undergo a baptism in water. However, there is no solid evidence that this practice was even in existence before the end of the first century. Even if it had been in practice at the time of John, there is no Scriptural basis for it. It was not based on any Old Testament law and was not ordained of God. The baptism of John, on the other hand, was ordained of God (Luke 7:30; John 1:33) as was the water baptism which Jesus authorized his disciples to perform (John 3:26-27).
Neither the Old Testament cleansing rituals nor the practice of proselyte baptism were direct forerunners of John's baptism. It was something new and unique, ordained of God. John announced the coming of the Kingdom of God and called on people to repent in light of that (Matthew 3:1-2). Jesus likewise proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and called for repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). This was the meaning and purpose of baptism in water.
Repentance, far from being obsolete, was and is the requirement for forgiveness or remission of sins, which is required for salvation. John preached "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). But it was not complete, since Jesus had not yet shed his blood for that purpose. At the last supper, Jesus said that his blood of the new testament, or covenant, is shed for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). His blood is also linked with forgiveness of sins in the Epistles (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:13-15; 10:11-22; 12:24).
Once the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was complete, he instructed his followers what they were to preach.
John had preached a baptism of repentance that pointed to the one who would come after him. The disciples of Jesus were to preach repentance and remission of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. In Acts we read of them doing just that, and Peter, like John, links it with baptism.
From John the Baptist onward, water baptism was a symbol of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But it was incomplete until Jesus shed his blood, which is why John said that his baptism pointed to the one who was to come after, namely Jesus. (Paul said the same thing in Acts 19:4). When Christ's sacrificial work was finished, the repentance became complete, and Peter and the others called for repentance and baptism in his name for the forgiveness of sins. They baptized with water, now in the name of Jesus Christ instead of with John's baptism, and when they did so, Jesus baptized them with spirit, something only he can do, not any man. This is why John said that Jesus would baptize with holy spirit, in contrast to what he or any man could do.
Both aspects are necessary, and both were the norm in the Christian Church. In the epistles, baptism in water is completely absent from Paul's declaration that the Old Testament Law was done away with. He speaks of circumcision, of the Sabbath system, of sacrifices and offerings, and other aspects of the Mosaic Law that became obsolete when Jesus Christ instituted the New Covenant. But nowhere does Paul refer to water baptism as such an obsolete element.
As noted above, there are not two but three types of baptism referred to in the New Testament: the water baptism of John, the baptism of the holy spirit (which only Jesus performs), and the baptism in the name of Jesus which is performed by the disciples throughout Acts. As we shall see, this baptism in the name of Jesus is a baptism in water, as John's was, but it is superior to that of John, and has replaced it.
In the Gospels, John baptized with water, including baptizing Jesus himself. Jesus did not need to be baptized, but underwent it for our example. ("Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness" - Matthew 3:15.) In addition, while it is often forgotten, Jesus himself authorized his disciples to baptize in water, and in fact made more disciples than John.
These examples are all referring to literal baptism in water. The words "baptism" and "baptize" in their ordinary usage imply water. As you examine the occurrences of baptism in the New Testament, you begin to see a pattern. When the word is used by itself, with no other qualifier, the normal meaning can be assumed. Whenever baptism is used in a figurative sense, it is clearly indicated, and one need not guess as to its meaning.
There are a few different figurative uses of the word "baptize." Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 mention both the baptism in the holy spirit and a baptism in fire, which refers to the future judgment, as indicated by the context (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17). Other figurative uses of the word "baptize" are found in Matthew 20:22,23; Mark 10:38,39; Luke 12:50 (referring to Jesus' suffering and death) and I Corinthians 10:2 (referring to Old Testament believers being baptized into Moses). Holy spirit is not a physical substance that one can literally be immersed in. Receiving it is figuratively called a baptism in order to draw a comparison with literal immersion in water, yet at the same time the spirit is contrasted with water showing its superiority. But it is only used this way in those six verses which contrast the baptisms of John and Jesus, discussed earlier.
Only one other verse, I Corinthians 12:13, uses the word baptized in the same context as holy spirit, where it says "by one spirit are we all baptized into one body… and have been all made to drink into one spirit." Here, "drink" is used figuratively. Spirit is obviously not something one can literally drink, but it is compared to water, in connection with the reference to baptism. Again, this figurative usage makes sense in the context.
Because of its intangible nature, a number of different figurative phrases are used to refer to the receiving of the holy spirit. "Baptize" is only one of them. The scriptures also speak of people receiving it, being given it, being anointed with it, having it come upon them or fall on them, being filled with it, having it poured out, etc. ('Filled with' and 'full of' are also used to refer to instances when the holy spirit works in a person in a specific way.) Since "baptize in the holy spirit" is only one of several figurative expressions, and is only used in those few verses which make a point of comparing and contrasting it with baptism in water, there is no basis for assuming that when the word "baptize" is used by itself in an unqualified way, it must automatically mean a spiritual or figurative baptism. A word must be understood in light of its normal meaning, unless a figure is directly indicated in the immediate context. When the Bible refers to baptism of the spirit, it is clearly defined.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the Gospel and the people responded by asking what they should do. Peter's reply and their response begin to define the baptism in the name of Jesus.
Notice that Peter connects baptism with repentance in verse 38, as discussed before. Also notice what he does not say. He doesn't say, "Repent and be baptized with the Holy Ghost." He knew that baptism with the Holy Ghost would be done by Jesus, as foretold by John. But he commands them to repent and be baptized, and in conjunction with that they would "receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (another phrase equivalent to "baptized in the Holy Ghost"). What baptism is Peter commanding then? He commands them to be baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ."
We saw that the baptism of John was incomplete, and that John had pointed to the coming Messiah, saying that belief in him and his name would be the key to repentance for the remission of sins. This is the significance of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Then we see the people's response in verse 41. They "were baptized" - it doesn't say water or spirit. From the context we know that it is talking about being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The word "baptized" by itself is a frequently used "shorthand" way of saying "baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." We can see this "shorthand" used in the record of Philip in Samaria, as well.
It just says "they were baptized" and "he was baptized" in verses 12 and 13, but verse 16 defines it as being "baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." But is "baptized in the name of Jesus" referring to water baptism or baptism in the spirit? We saw in Acts 2:38, that Peter commanded them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and in conjunction they would receive the holy spirit. Further distinction between the two is seen here in chapter 8.
It has sometimes been taught that being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ is equal to being baptized with the Holy Ghost, since there is only "one baptism," according to Ephesians 4:5. However, here, as in Acts 2:38 (above), we clearly see a distinction between receiving the holy spirit and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. In verse 12, when they believed the preaching, they "were baptized" which verse 16 defines as "baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Then (in verses 14-16) the apostles sent Peter and John to pray that they might receive the Holy Ghost, "For as yet he was fallen upon none of them." Notice, they had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus but they had not received, or been baptized with, the holy spirit. So the two things cannot be the same. (We also see a similar distinction in Acts 19:5-6, which we will look at later.)
The next record in Acts further defines baptism in the name of Jesus, and it is often misinterpreted. Consider the record of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.
In this passage, Philip preaches Jesus to the eunuch; the eunuch says, "Here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Philip responds, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." The attempted explanation has been that Philip is saying it's permitted for the eunuch to be baptized in water if the eunuch really believes that it's necessary. But is that what Philip was saying? First of all, where did the eunuch, who knew nothing of Messiah before Philip preached to him, get the idea that water baptism was necessary? Where would he have even heard of baptism, except from Philip? We can only guess and conjecture about that. But when Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may," is he talking about believing that baptism is necessary, or is he talking about believing with all his heart in Jesus? The eunuch's reply makes it clear: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." Then Philip baptized the eunuch, in agreement with the conditions that are stated elsewhere, namely that they must first believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ before being baptized (Acts 2:41; 8:12,13; 18:8). Once again, the word "baptized" without any other qualifier is used referring to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, and from the context it is clearly baptism in water.
Another record that is frequently misunderstood is that of Peter in the house of Cornelius.
Peter is sent, through a vision from God, to the Gentile's house. He learns that God had told Cornelius to send for him. He began to preach to them, specifically about remission of sins through faith in the name of Jesus. While he yet spoke, the holy spirit fell upon them, and Peter and the other Jewish believers were astonished. Peter then says, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized which have received the holy spirit as well as we?" The Greek text literally reads, "the water," that is, "Can anyone forbid the water..." indicating that the water (of baptism) was well known. It is rendered this way in the NASB, and other English versions of the Bible. Whereas in Samaria they had been baptized in water but did not receive the spirit, here we have just the opposite. They received the holy spirit, but had not yet been baptized in water. Peter then says, "Can any man forbid the (well known or expected) water...?" He then commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. We know from both the previously established pattern, and the immediate context, that Peter is commanding water baptism.
The explanation has been that Peter got "carried away with the moment" and forgot that he shouldn't be promoting water baptism. We supposedly know this because in the next chapter Peter is relating what had happened and says, "Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the holy ghost." Chapter 10 didn't record Peter's "coming to his senses," and nothing in that record indicates that his command was not carried out. But according to this explanation, it's implied in his account of what happened in the next chapter.
Paul’s words in verse 16, "Then remembered I..." are taken to mean, "I commanded water baptism, but then I remembered that it would be wrong." However, this would be reading much into the record, and would not fit with the ordinary flow of language, or with the context of the chapter. The overall subject of chapters 10 and 11 is that the Gentiles were for the first time becoming a part of the Church. Had Peter not seen the holy spirit manifested as he did, he would never have thought that the Gentiles should be allowed to partake of the baptism that he and the other Jewish believers had partaken in. This fits with the pattern we have seen, that baptism in the name of Jesus was accompanied by receiving the holy spirit. The outward symbolic action of baptism with water was only to be administered to those who had heard and believed the Gospel and were committing their lives to Christ. (Philip to the eunuch: "If you believe with all your heart, you may") The Gentiles believed, but Peter would not have guessed that they would share the same experience had he not seen the manifestations of holy spirit.
When he saw this sign of God's acceptance of the Gentiles, it was "then" that he remembered the word of the Lord. Jesus had said they, the Jewish disciples, would be baptized in the holy spirit. Peter and those with him were astonished to see that these Gentiles received the same holy spirit which Jesus had said they would be baptized with. So Peter said, "Can any man forbid the water that these should not be baptized?" (10:47) The reason he commanded water baptism was, as he said in 11:17, "Forasmuch then as God gave to them the like gift as he did to us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, what was I that I could withstand God?" Is this saying that he would be withstanding God by carrying out the command to be baptized in water, as has been suggested? To interpret it that way would be missing the whole point of the passage. To withstand God in this case would have been to forbid the Gentiles from being baptized and becoming Christians. This is the overall theme of chapters 10 and 11—that God was teaching the Jewish believers that He was including the Gentiles in His plan. That there was some conflict between forms of baptism in the first century Church is simply not the issue.
A passage that clearly illustrates the distinction of the three types of baptism in the New Testament is the record of Paul in Ephesus. When he came there and found disciples that had not heard of the holy spirit, he expressed a distinction between John's baptism and baptism in Jesus' name.
First we see John's baptism contrasted with the baptism in the name of Jesus. John's was a baptism of repentance, but pointing to the one who should come after him. John's baptism foreshadowed the baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus mentioned in verse 5, which superseded it. Then after they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, the holy spirit came upon them. Once again it fits the pattern found throughout the book of Acts, that of baptism in the name of Jesus, which is baptism in water, being closely associated with baptism in the holy spirit.
By now you might be thinking, how can there be a baptism in water and a baptism in the holy spirit? Doesn't Ephesians 4:5 say there is only "one baptism?" In that passage there is no word "only," and in that context, Paul was not talking about how many types of baptism there are. He was talking about unity in the body, based on the things we have in common.
We are exhorted to keep the unity of the spirit, based on the fact that we are all members of the same body, with the same spirit, the same hope, the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, the same God and Father of all. The one baptism in verse 5 is not referring to baptism in the holy spirit, since "one spirit" was already mentioned in verse 4, and baptism in the spirit is only one of several figurative ways of referring to it. The one baptism, according to the normal usage in the New Testament, is baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, which we saw is a baptism in water.
When a pattern is established in this fashion, in the early occurrences of a word or phrase, any subsequent change in the meaning must clearly be indicated. Luke, in his writing of Acts, never gives any indication that there is a difference in meaning and usage of the words "baptize" and "baptism," nor does he ever indicate a change in policy, in which water has been replaced or made obsolete. Paul, likewise, gives no indication of such a change in any of his epistles.
In fact, it is from Paul's epistles that we understand the significance of baptism. In Romans 6 he speaks of being baptized into Christ's death. We are dead and buried with Jesus Christ, and likewise share in the power of his resurrection. Baptism is our partaking of Christ's sacrifice, for the forgiveness of sins. In I Corinthians 12:13 Paul states that we are baptized into Christ's body. In Galatians 3:27 Paul says that those who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Colossians also links baptism with faith in Christ's death and resurrection. "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:12).
I have dealt with the subject of Baptism, including the necessity and significance of it, in greater detail in a study entitled "Repent and Be Baptized." You can download a copy either as a PDF file or a Word Doc.
Those who deny that water baptism is necessary often point out that water cannot cleanse the heart, which is quite true. It is not water but the power of Christ's resurrection that gives us a new life and cleanses the heart. When we repent and believe the Gospel, and submit to the rite of baptism in order to partake of Christ's death and resurrection for forgiveness of sins, that step of believing action in obedience to God begins a new life in Christ. This is what makes baptism significant, as opposed to being a mere cleansing ritual. And it is in this sense that Peter says baptism saves us in I Peter 3:21.
There are those in mainstream denominations who think that one is not saved without baptism, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ, because baptism is something that in and of itself accomplishes salvation in a person. On the other hand there are those who believe that baptism is merely an "optional" extra because faith and the holy spirit are the important things. The Bible presents a picture that is somewhere between the two extremes. Faith in the Gospel message is the requirement for salvation. However, in the New Testament, things like forgiveness and cleansing of sins, union with Christ, receiving the holy spirit, membership in the Church, and inheritance in the Kingdom of God, are all attributed to both faith and baptism. Baptism does not accomplish salvation in and of itself, but it is needful as a demonstration of faith.
One may ask, if it is by our faith that we receive forgiveness of sins, why do we need an outward symbol like baptism? As James writes, "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20,26). If one truly believes, then some action to demonstrate that faith is required. The specific demonstration of faith that we are commanded by our Lord to do is baptism in water. Why should there be a problem with outward, physical actions? Are we not commanded to partake of communion in remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ? No one would suggest that it is only "spiritual" or "figurative" bread and wine that we are to use for this.
Another reason that an external sign is important is that as humans we need one. When a change such as the new birth takes place in one's life, it is helpful to be able to look back to the point when that change took place and visualize the break from the past. It also enables the believer to visualize exactly what it was that brought about that change. The death and resurrection of Jesus made this new life available to all, and it is received by the individual through faith in the Gospel, expressed in the action of baptism. It is the moment when God's saving work in Christ meets one's decision to accept His grace in faith, and one enters into the New Covenant relationship. Communion, or the Lord's Supper, is meant to be a repeated reminder of Christ's redeeming work, but baptism is meant to be a one-time event that the believer can look back on as a representation of the moment when he died to his old life of sin and began a new life in Christ. And just as Communion also looks forward to the great banquet in the coming Kingdom, baptism also looks forward to the literal resurrection that is to come.
Some claim that baptism is not "necessary" for salvation, and one can be saved without it. While there may be exceptional cases (the thief on the cross, the 120 on the day of Pentecost, the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius) they are unusual circumstances, and are the exception, not the rule. There are also other possible exceptions. What of a person who believes and intends to be baptized but dies before he has the opportunity? What of the person in an outlying area who believes the Gospel when reading about it, but has no one near him to administer baptism? Is the grace of God to be frustrated by such limitations?
Christ did not institute a religion of strict rules and regulations, like the Old Testament Law. God's compassion and mercy goes beyond formulas. It is man who has added rules and regulations to Christianity. While it is true that God is able to give the holy spirit without water baptism, most people under ordinary circumstances are expected to be baptized in response to the Gospel. By His mercy and grace He has given us this way of reaching out and accepting His wonderful gift, because we need it. This is why Jesus commanded it.
Whether we "can" be saved without baptism is not the point. We are commanded by our Lord and if we are to be obedient to him, we must obey his commands.
Some Biblical scholars believe that the words "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" were not in the original of Matthew 28:19 and were probably not actually spoken by Jesus. However, the words do appear in every extant manuscript of this passage, and there is also strong evidence against the theory that the words were added. In any case, verse 20, which is universally accepted, clearly states that the disciples were commanded to teach people "all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Among the things Jesus commanded them was baptism in water (John 4:1-2) in connection with repentance and remission of sins (Luke 24:47). In light of the disciples' actions throughout Acts in obedience to their Lord, it can be readily seen that baptism was a command of Jesus.
The last twelve verses of Mark 16 are not found in some manuscripts, but they do appear in the vast majority of them, although some scholars consider them to be a later addition. The question then arises, did Jesus actually speak these words? I dealt extensively with the textual evidence for these verses and for Matthew 28:19 in the above-mentioned study. [UPDATE: The study on the evidence for these passages is now also in a separate article.]
Even if they were added, though, the doctrine contained in them fits with other passages of Scripture. There is greater textual evidence for Matthew 28:19 than for Mark 16:16, and these two passages both indicate that baptism was a command of Our Lord. There might be reason to consider a passage invalid if, in addition to textual evidence, it contradicted other parts of the Scriptures. But, as we have seen, the New Testament consistently shows the disciples as being obedient to the commandment to preach, teach, and baptize.
It is unwise to try to base a doctrine on one or a handful of "proof texts." If the command of Jesus to baptize were only based on these two verses, there might be cause to question it. But the article on Baptism (by C. A. Scott) in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, points out that while the authenticity of Matthew 28:19 has been challenged, "...it is better to infer the authority of Christ for the practice [of baptism] from the prompt and universal adoption of it by the Apostles and the infant Church, to which the opening chapters of Acts bear witness; and from the significance attached to the rite in the Epistles, and especially in those of St. Paul."
According to Luke 24:47, "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations." Remission of sins is received through repentance, including the outward symbol of baptism, according to Acts 2:38. If the disciples of Jesus were preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and then commanding the proper response to believing that Gospel, namely, to repent and be baptized, surely they must have been following the instructions of their Lord.
Many controversies and disputes about baptism have come up since the first century, but only in relatively recent times has the idea that spirit replaced water been widely propounded. The Church has for the most part recognized that baptism is meant to include water.
Some suggest that there is no reason for outward physical rites if we have the spirit, but this separation between physical and spiritual stems largely from Gnosticism, not from the Hebrew thought of the Scriptures. What a person believes, he demonstrates outwardly. There are certain things the Lord expects us to do during this period between his first coming and the end of the age when the Kingdom of God will finally be established on earth. Among them is being baptized to enter into the New Covenant, for the forgiveness of sins.
As humans we tend to need a reference point to mark the point of change from our old lives to the new. God has given us this wonderful way of declaring the end of our past and the beginning of our new life in Christ. Our faith in the Gospel meets with His redemptive work through His Son at that point. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ then becomes personal.
But it is not merely a gift. It is a commandment of the Lord. If we call him Lord, should we not do as he commands? All the questioning about "is it necessary for salvation?" is missing the point. The exceptions do not change the rule. It comes down to a matter of obedience. God provided it, Jesus commanded it, and it is for our good. Let us not stubbornly close our eyes to what is really a simple truth once all the wrong teaching is swept away. If we believe the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus and his coming Kingdom, let us repent and be baptized as he commanded.