There is still much confusion among Believers regarding the role of Baptism: Specifically, whether or not Baptism is required for salvation. There is much already written on this subject; nevertheless, it will be addressed here because of its importance and its thorniness.
Accordingly, let us center the discussion on, perhaps, the most controversial verse on the subject:
“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” ~ Mark 16:16
These words of Jesus have been applied by many to make the case that salvation requires both faith and baptism. Let us see if that application is true.
Antithetical Parallelism: Look BOTH ways
In Mark 16:16, Jesus uses a literary form called “antithetical parallelism” 1 to define the criteria for salvation (“to be saved”). Antithetical parallelism is frequently used in The Bible (e.g., Psalm 37:21, Proverbs 8:35-36; 10:1; 10:2; 19:16, Ecclesiastes 10:2) whereby it “provides an antithesis, or contrast. A verse containing antithetical parallelism brings together opposing ideas in marked contrast.”
To demonstrate this, let us separate the parallel elements of the verse
- “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; (Thesis)
- but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Anti-Thesis)
If we examine only the forward statement (the thesis), it appears that faith (to believe) and baptism are both required for salvation. However, notice that in the reverse statement (the anti-thesis), that apparent “requirement” for baptism is omitted. That is, ONLY the requirement for belief is retained.
This is crucial, because, if baptism were an essential requirement for salvation, it is reasonable to expect that it would have been included in the reverse statement (the anti-thesis), which then would have read:
- “but he that believeth not [and is baptized not] shall be damned.” (Anti-Thesis)
Certainly, an extra four (or so) words would not have been a textual burden. Accordingly, we must conclude that baptism was omitted from the reverse statement (the anti-thesis) because it was not fundamental for salvation.
Prescriptive vs. Definitive: Having eyes ≠ having sight
That leaves us with a crucial question: “Why then did Jesus mention baptism?”
The simple answer is that baptism is included in the thesis of the parallelism because it is prescriptive for the church, i.e., the saved are to be baptized. In other words, baptism is a natural consequence of belief/faith in Jesus. But, as shown (by its absence) in the anti-thesis of the parallelism, baptism is not a co-requisite, with belief/faith, for salvation. Hence, baptism is prescribed for the saved; but faith defines them.
Moreover, if we make baptism definitive, then its absence in the anti-thesis leads to an inescapable logical limbo:
- “but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Anti-Thesis)
Specifically, the anti-thesis states that ONLY those who “believeth not” are to be “damned”. Consequently, those who believe and are NOT baptized are left in a philosophical limbo as they are NEITHER saved NOR damned! At the end of times, they would have nowhere to go!
Singularity | Look Around
The final issue with forcing baptism to be definitive—i.e., by focusing exclusively on the thesis and ignoring the antithesis of the parallelism in Mark 16:16—is its ‘loneliness’. Baptism as a defining requirement for salvation is found nowhere else in Scripture.
Every doctrinal topic/principle raised by Jesus in The Gospels is explained in the remaining books of The New Testament, particularly in The Epistles. Accordingly, if baptism was required for salvation, then we should expect that Scripture would inform us of that through repetition and/or commentary (as God tells us in 2 Peter 1:19-21).
Indeed, making baptism a requirement for salvation changes the nature of salvation itself. We are told that
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” ~ Ephesians 2:8-9
Thus, salvation is the definitive work of God without any assistance from man. Baptism, however, requires natural agents (man and water) to be fulfilled; as it were, ‘forcing’ God to work through man to accomplish His work.
Baptism is prescriptive for Believers, but not requisite for salvation. Rather, baptism is a Believer’s public and symbolic action to declare the change brought about by salvation’s work in him/her. In many ways, Baptism can be likened to a wedding ceremony which announces to the entire community that a man and a woman have decided to commit themselves to each other and to God in holy matrimony. Or, in the style of the antithetical parallelism of Mark 16:16:
- “He that loveth a woman and has a wedding shall be married to her; (Thesis)
- but he that loveth not a woman will not be allowed to be married to her.” (Anti-Thesis)
- “A major literary device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Often, the parallelism is synonymous—the same idea is restated in different words, side by side (see Psalm 40:13). Antithetical parallelism provides an antithesis, or contrast. A verse containing antithetical parallelism will bring together opposing ideas in marked contrast. Instead of saying the same thing twice, it says one thing and then a different thing.” This definition was obtained here. ↩