What Happens At Baptism? Do I Need To Be Baptized To Be Saved?


Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.  –Jesus in Mark 16:16

Baptism is not mentioned many times in the Gospel of Mark, but each time it is mentioned we are reminded of a particular truth about the Christian faith that we are always in danger of forgetting:

  • First, it is through our baptism that Christ gives us the Holy Spirit. In Mark 1:8, John the Baptist says that though he baptizes with water, one is coming—Christ—who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
  • Second, we are baptized into Christ’s baptism, not our own separate personal baptism. In Mark 1:10, Jesus is baptized by John, and it is on Jesus that the Holy Spirit descends.
  • Third, baptism is the beginning of a life of taking up our cross. In Mark 10:35-40, James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in his glory. Jesus tells them that this is not his to grant but that they will be “baptized with the baptism I am baptized with,” referring to his crucifixion.
  • Fourth, baptism is how Christ saves. In Mark 16:15-16, Jesus says, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Jesus places baptism at the center of his Easter message to his disciples, at the center of his work of salvation, and at the center of our ongoing Christian life. So, baptism is an especially appropriate focus for our reflection today.

For Christians, baptism is a sacrament. We can define sacrament as a “channel” or “conduit” or “delivery system”[1] established by Christ, through which he has promised to convey his life and grace to us.

We Protestants believe in two sacraments. Many Protestant churches act as if the two sacraments are worship songs and the pastor’s preaching, and so they build their worship services around those two activities (and, sadly, they often neglect the actual sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper). But worship songs and preaching are not sacraments. Sacraments are not decided by our preference. It is not for us to decide how Christ conveys his life and grace to us. Christ determines that. And Christ has determined to share his life and grace with us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Preaching and worship flow from these two sacraments:

  • Through baptism we receive the Holy Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit opens the scriptures to us, leading us into all truth.
  • Preaching declares that truth.
  • So, good preaching is rooted in baptism.

The same is true of the Lord’s Supper:

  • We Christians believe that truth is not just a series of facts but instead a person.
  • That person is Christ.
  • Through the Lord’s Supper, we feed on the body and blood of Christ through our hearts by faith.

So, worship is our response to the gifts of life and grace we receive from Christ in the sacraments. Our preaching and our worship should always cause us to remember our baptism and to feed on the body and blood of Christ. This is why the Protestant Reformers emphasized that the three “marks,” or characteristics, of the true church are:

  • the preaching of the gospel
  • the right administration of the sacraments, and
  • discipline and accountability to ensure that our lives reflect these things.[2]

In our previous message today, we talked about Jesus as the first human being—the only one who displays the image of God. According to Genesis 5, the children of Adam are born in the image of fallen Adam, not in the image of God. On the cross, the children of Adam are judged. The judgment is this: We are revealed to be murderers who kill the Lord of glory for telling the truth about us, as Jesus says in John 8:40. In John 8:43-44, Jesus says the children of Adam cannot understand his message because we belong to our father, the devil, and we live to carry out his desires. God’s commands, which are life (as Jesus says in John 6:63), seem like death to us. We children of Adam live for choice, and freedom, and the self-creation of our own lives.

Jesus here is not describing a few bad people among us. He is describing every child of Adam, which means all of us. As the church father Nikolas Cabasilas noted, the only difference between the Old Testament saints and the rest of the children of Adam was that the Old Testament saints felt bad about sinning and longed to be released from their sin.

As children of Adam, even if we wanted to learn about Christ or to force God to reveal himself to us, we could not. That is because, as the contemporary theologian John Behr explains, “God is not subject to human perception.”[3]  None of our human methods of learning or seeing or thinking give us the ability to understand what Christ reveals about the character of God.

We see this in the lives of the disciples. For three years they live with Jesus. They go to church with Jesus. They witness the miracles of Jesus. Jesus teaches the Bible to them. Jesus explains the plan of God to them. And yet, as we see in the scripture reading today, even after Jesus is raised from the dead and sends witnesses of his resurrection to them, the disciples “didn’t believe them,” it says in Mark 16:13. The empty tomb does not make the disciples bold and faithful. It makes them frightened and confused. It takes something more than knowledge and experience to understand the things of God. It takes the Holy Spirit.

We see the same blindness in the life of the Apostle Paul when he was Saul the Pharisee, before he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit. As John Behr notes, “[Paul] had studied the Scriptures as a young man; he had trained in various rabbinic interpretations. Yet he did not ‘see’ Christ in the Scriptures, nor recognize Christ in those whom he was persecuting. In fact, on the basis of his reading of Scripture, he regarded himself as ‘blameless before the law.’”[4]

We see this blindness in every child of Adam. In Revelation chapter 5, the Apostle John sees a scroll—the word of God. A strong angel asks, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But John says, “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” The Bible is completely closed to the understanding of the children of Adam. And so, John weeps.

And weeping, it turns out, is the beginning of the right thing to do. The contemporary theologian Thomas Hopko says it like this:

If there is God…and God is the living God… our only choice is to give up our choice and listen to and obey Him. This is very important to understand, because modern people think that the more choices they have…the freer they are; however, this is not Biblical. What we say is that, if there is God, at any given moment the only choice we have is to give up choice and obey Him, listen to Him, trust Him, love Him, and believe Him. The primordial sin is exactly saying ‘No, I will not obey, trust, or love God. I will do it my way.’ You know what takes place when you do it your way; you perish and die.[5]

As children of Adam, we can either perish and die in unbelief…or we can choose to voluntarily perish and die in belief. It sounds funny to say it like that, but that’s exactly what baptism is: We believe, so we choose to die. As I.M.C. Steenberg says, baptism is “the sacramental participation by the human person in the death of the Lord.”[6]

In baptism, we agree with that Lord that we deserve death. And so we voluntarily enter into his death that he himself did not deserve to die. This is what Paul says in Romans 6:3-4: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death…” And then Paul adds: “…in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

“The water of baptism destroys one life and reveals another,” says Nicolas Cabasilas, the great writer on baptism. “It drowns the old man and raises up the new.”[7] “To be baptized,” in the words of Cabasilas, “is to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature, having previously been nothing.”[8] “Like formless and shapeless matter we go down into this water,” he says. “In it we meet with the form that is beautiful”[9]—Christ’s own resurrected body.

In baptism we become a member of that body, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Or in Galatians 3:27, he writes, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is why we are given a white robe to wear at our baptism: The white robe symbolizes Christ’s body, with which we are spiritually clothed at baptism.[10]

Notice that we contribute nothing to our baptism. Cabasilas says, “Baptism is called ‘gift’ because it is a birth, for what might a person contribute to his own birth?”[11] Cabasilas says baptism is like Christ’s parable of the king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. The king says in Matthew 22:4, “Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come!”[12] That is the invitation to baptism: You can bring nothing except yourself.

This is why we should not ask, “Do I have to be baptized to be saved?” Baptism is Christ’s work, not ours. Baptism is how Christ saves. It is his gift to us. In fact, it is his baptism, and through his death and resurrection he has invited us to enter into it. If we do not receive baptism, then either we are rejecting his invitation, or neglecting it, or failing to understand it. As Mark 16:16 shows us, belief without baptism is incomplete. It dishonors Christ. In the parable of the wedding feast, the king sees a man who is not wearing the wedding clothes the king supplies. These represent the baptismal robe, and our being clothed with Christ. And the king has the man bound up and thrown out.

Also, we should eagerly receive baptism because Christ gives us the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands at baptism, after we emerge from the baptismal waters. Some Christians argue that the Holy Spirit is given in some other way, but we should remember that we are baptized into Christ’s baptism, and in Mark 1:10 we see the Holy Spirit descending on Christ after he emerges from the waters of baptism. There are a few cases in scripture where the Holy Spirit appears before baptism, but these are clearly noted as exceptions, and even in these cases the believer is still baptized immediately after.

Some Christians argue that the main sign of receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues, but Jesus says the main sign of our receiving the Holy Spirit is not our speaking anything, but instead the Holy Spirit’s speaking and our listening—and understanding—all truth, which is given to us in the scriptures. That is why Jesus even calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Truth” in John 16:20. He says, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” He says in John 14:26 that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you.” So, the sign that we have received the Holy Spirit is not any sound that comes out of our mouth but rather the sound that we can now hear in our spirit: the voice of the Son of God. So, Jesus says in John 5:25, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” That scripture is fulfilled in our baptism.

And when it is fulfilled, the Bible will begin to open to us. And the sign that it is the Holy Spirit that is opening the Bible to us is that, just like with the disciples and Paul after they received the Holy Spirit, we will begin to see that the whole Bible, from the beginning to the end, is about the crucifixion of Christ. That is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And in 1 Corinthians 1:23, he says, “We preach Christ crucified.” And in Galatians 6:14 he says, “As for me, may I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Once the Holy Spirit opens the scripture to you, you will see Christ crucified on every page, in every verse.

And not only will you see this on the pages of scripture; you will also see it unfold in your own life, as the Spirit of Christ calls you to take up your cross daily in fulfillment of your baptismal vow of dying to this world. Remember: Christ was first baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, but then he went on in Mark 10:38-40 to call his crucifixion his baptism—and he said we would join him in that baptism of carrying our cross.

In other words, the symbol of baptism becomes for us the reality of the baptized life, just as it did for Jesus. We “grow into” our baptism, as the sacrament encompasses our whole life. As Thomas Hopko says, “The whole of the Christian life is to be baptized into his death, to eat his broken body and drink his shed blood, and to be crucified with him.”[13]

Why? And how? That is the subject of our next message. But to answer briefly, we must be crucified with him because, as Thomas Hopko says, “[Christ] is still rejected in this world, and this world still lies in evil, and its prince is still the devil, until [Christ] comes again in glory.”[14]

So, we should never forget that in this world, through baptism we are joined with Christ to have a share in his death:

  • When we are baptized, we die to self–to our desires, plans, dreams, choices, self-creation, and goals, so that his will may be done in and through us.
  • As we “grow into” our baptism, we die to the world. We say with the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:14 that through our baptism “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
  • And for some Christians, baptism will even lead to actual physical martyrdom—what the early church father Tertullian called “a baptism of blood.”[15]

Paul says in Romans 6:5 that if we share in Christ’s death–in whatever way he brings that death to us—then we will certainly also have a share in his resurrection in the world to come. But Christ is equally certain in Mark 8:35 that whoever seeks to save his life in this world, will lose it in the world to come. So, although baptism is a gift, it is a very serious one, and we should never treat it simply as a ceremony or a formality.

For some Christians, however, that is exactly what their baptism was: just a ceremony or a formality. It may have been nothing more than a required step for church membership. Or perhaps they were baptized when they were too young to remember it, or before they became serious Christians. Such people may wonder, Should I be baptized again?

The answer is no. The Nicene Creed says, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The early church fathers taught that the effectiveness of baptism does not depend upon our memory of being baptized, or how serious we were when we were baptized, or how much we understood baptism at that moment. It does not even depend on who baptized us (unless the baptism happened in a cult, in which case it was not a true baptism anyway).

The effectiveness of baptism depends entirely on Christ. Baptism is his gift to us. And he gave us all the gifts and graces of baptism at the time of our baptism, whether we knew it or understood it or were ready to receive it. The proof of that is that he has brought you from that point to this one—from nothingness to the point where now you are serious about your faith and are asking whether you should be rebaptized. You are only able to ask that question because Christ kept his baptismal vow, whether you kept yours or not.

Now that you are aware what a precious gift you have received in your baptism, the appropriate response is not to be rebaptized but instead to remember your baptism every day, and rejoice.  This is the promise of Christ: Because you were baptized and you believe, you will be saved.

[1] See R.C. Barcellos. 2013. The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory. Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications. Loc. 228. Barcellos uses the term “delivery system” and this overall understanding to define the term “means of grace” as he explains the Lord’s Supper. I have taken the liberty of applying the same understanding to the term, sacrament.

[2] W.R. Godfrey. 1992. “The Marks of the Church.” Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-marks-of-the-church/.

[3] J. Behr. 2006. The Mystery of Christ. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. p. 27.

[4] J. Behr. 2013. Becoming Human. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp. 17-18.

[5] T. Hopko. 1999. “Life after death… Mysteries beyond the grave.” Orthodox Christian Info. http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/afterdeath.htm

[6] I.M.C. Steenberg. 2011. “Baptism in Orthodox Christianity.” In Baptism: Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives. Ed. G.L. Heath, J.D. Dvorak. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 8.

[7] J. Vissers. 2011. “Baptism in the Reformed Tradition.” In Baptism: Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives. Ed. G.L. Heath, J.D. Dvorak. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 76.

[8] N. Cabasilas. 1974. The Life in Christ. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. p. 66.

[9] N. Cabasilas. 1974. p. 79.

[10] Hopko, T. 2012. “The Death of Christ and our Death in Him Parts 3 and 4,” YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTYHnMWcbg.

[11] N. Cabasilas. 1974. p. 69.

[12] N. Cabasilas. 1974. p. 79.

[13] Hopko, T. 2012. “The Death of Christ and our Death in Him Parts 1 and 2,” YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTYHnMWcbg.

[14] Hopko, T. 2012. “The Death of Christ and our Death in Him Parts 3 and 4,” YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTYHnMWcbg.

[15] R.D. Burris. 2012. Where is the Church?: Martyrdom, Persecution, and Baptism in North Africa from the Second to the Fifth Century. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, p. 36.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to What Happens At Baptism? Do I Need To Be Baptized To Be Saved?

  1. David Wright says:

    An encouraging an insightful post. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Should Christians Ever Be Re-Baptized? | Do the Word

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