The fundamental question regarding salvation
Our challenge is to address head-on this fundamental question: Will I form my theology based on the teaching of Scripture, or will I conform my understanding of Scripture to my theology?
Distinct sets of passages
Those of us who believe that baptism is a part (and only a part) of the sinner’s response to the Savior hold to that belief because of what we regard as the clear teaching of one passage after another. See Acts 2:38; Romans 6:4-7; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 2:12-14; John 3:5; Titus 3:5; and 1 Peter 3:21.
We can reconcile this with other passages that reveal Jesus as the one and only Savior because the two sets of passages do not fall into the same categories.
Source (or final cause) versus means
Passages about Jesus as the exclusive Savior (e.g., Acts 4:12; John 14:6; 1 John 2:1-2; etc.) are describing the SOURCE or FINAL CAUSE of our salvation. Those that speak of the saving effects of baptism, like those that speak of the saving effects of faith (e.g., John 3:16; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 16:31, etc.), confession of Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 10:32-33), or repentance (Acts 3:19-20; Acts 11:18; Luke 13:3, 5), are not talking about the final cause or source, but about the MEANS by which Jesus Christ saves sinners.
Failing to distinguish the categories
There is a danger of confusing the two categories or of just assuming the SOURCE passages and thus neglecting them, and emphasizing the MEANS passages so much that we leave the impression that these conditions are the SOURCE of our salvation.
If we do this, we do not give Jesus Christ, our Savior, the credit He deserves, and we turn the conditions into works of law by which we would save ourselves. If we do this, such works cannot save us, any more than any other cluster of good deeds. They cannot displace the work our Savior accomplished in His perfect life, His willing sacrifice on the cross, His glorious resurrection, or His current intercessory work before the Father in our behalf.
How the categories complement each other
If, however, we can recognize that Scripture gives all the credit to Jesus as our Savior and none to any “works of righteousness that we have done” (Titus 3:5), we can come to understand that faith, confession, repentance, and baptism are not the CAUSE of our salvation; they are the MEANS our Savior uses (e.g., “He saved us THROUGH the washing of rebirth” –Titus 3:5 again); they are HIS works of righteousness in our behalf (see Colossians 2:11-15); they are what the sacrifice of Christ inspires in us and accomplishes in us.
As Paul says in Colossians 2:13 and Philippians 2:13: our faith is in the working of the God who brought about the glorious resurrection of Jesus, His working within us, both to will and to do what pleases Him.
Want to dive deeper?
John Mark Hicks. “Baptism: Biblical and Theological Reflections.” (Memphis, Tenn.: Harding University Graduate School of Religion, 1998). (Note: This link creates a download of an MS-Word file.)
Hicks provides an historical perspective on baptism, starting with the Old Testament and moving chronologically through intertestamental times, covering the baptism of John and of Jesus, and moving into the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. He also addresses teachings on baptism within the modern restoration movement and discusses the baptism in the Holy Spirit in its relationship to water baptism. His material is excellent and balanced.
Jack Cottrell. ““Saved by Grace #8: Saved by Grace, Saved in Baptism.” (Posted 10/9/2015 on his website, Jackcottrell.com).
Cottrell demonstrates from Scripture that our salvation is conditional, dependent on faith. His take is that baptism is not a condition in addition to faith, but “the TIME or occasion when God has said he will bestow grace upon the sinner; it is not the means of receiving salvation in the sense that faith is. Both faith and baptism are conditions for salvation, but faith is the means and baptism is the time.” Cottrell’s discussion is excellent and thoroughly Bible-based.
G. R. Beasley-Murray. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962 (in print ever since).
Beasley-Murray is the best, the most scholarly, and most irenic presentation about the biblical teaching regarding baptism. This is an in-depth study referring to the original languages of the Bible. Highly recommended.