Most of us have been in classes where an eager student disrupts and sidetracks the discussion by irrelevant and inane questions. Very often, our theology is worked like that. We have our questions that we are determined to ask no matter how confused or irrelevant, and when we get an answer, we are sure that we have latched on to the most important truth in the universe.
One such question is whether Baptism is essential to salvation. Like so many wrong-headed questions, this one apparently deals with a very important matter and should be answered at all costs. But the fact that it may be a bad question is suggested by our failure to find it asked or discussed anywhere in the Bible. Nowhere in the history of the ancient church or in the apostolic writings do we find either Christians or pagans asking this question. In the Bible, we find people asking what they must do to be saved (Acts 16:30). They ask why they cannot be baptized (Acts 8:36; 10:47). Never do we hear them asking whether they have to be baptized or whether Baptism is essential to their salvation.
The Bible simply does not devote any space to this question. It is apparently a non-question. The Bible does, of course, discuss Baptism and its meaning but never from the perspective of trying to answer whether one must be baptized to be saved. In every instance, when Baptism is discussed, the author presumes not only that every Christian has been baptized, but also that Baptism is universally accepted without question as the sign of Christian discipleship. The question of whether one must be baptized never surfaces anywhere in the pages of the New Testament.
The reason why it is such a bad question can be illustrated by an apocryphal story. (We have to make it apocryphal because the point we are illustrating is so far-fetched that we can not imagine encountering it in real life.) The story is about a boy who has dated his girl friend for over a year. He is with her every spare moment, and for several months they have spoken of marriage, home, and children to be born. He decides, finally, to take some of his savings and purchase a small but beautiful diamond ring. That evening he goes to his sweetheart’s home, and at the right moment takes the treasured ring from his pocket and starts to place it on her finger. When she sees the ring, instead of responding with a shout of joy or a kiss or embrace, she asks, “Do I have to wear this ring?”
Assuming his girl doesn’t have a deadly allergy to gold, we know this fellow would make a sad mistake to argue with his girl about whether his ring is essential to their engagement or to marriage. Instead, he will, if he has any wits at all, respond something like this: “Dear, if you must ask whether you have to wear my ring, I think we ought to back up about six months and take another look at our relationship. I presumed that we were looking forward together to marriage, our own home, a new family, and a future together. But apparently there is a misunderstanding, and we desperately need to re-evaluate our relationship. So, then, let’s talk about you and me, and then I’m sure we will not need to discuss the ring.”
The church has, of course, allowed exceptions to Baptism, but never because of any reluctance on the part of a new convert. The exceptions have been for hindrances placed in the way of the convert. Thus there has been a recognition of the “Baptism of blood,” the martyr’s death, or the “Baptism of desire,” the desire for Baptism when one is prevented by external circumstances from receiving it. As Karl Barth (1948) says, “being deprived of Baptism as such can not condemn a man or shut him out of the Kingdom of Heaven. That can come only from the slighting or despising of Baptism.”
If there is a question, it is never a question of Jesus Christ and his grace; neither is it a question of Baptism, the sign of his grace. If there is a question, it can only be a question of our faith (Acts 8:37), of our will whether it submits or rebels. Does the girl in our story above, choose the boy who offers her the ring as a sign of his love? When that question is answered with a “yes,” there can no longer be a question of the necessity of wearing the ring. And when the question of whether we will follow Jesus is answered with a “yes,” then the necessity of Baptism is no longer a question.
The right question is not, “Do I have to be baptized?” but rather, “Do I get to be baptized?” Can it be, is it really possible that God would be gracious to me, that God would forgive me, that the Father would adopt me as his child, that he would bestow on me the promises conveyed in these waters? The answer from God’s side is always a resounding “Yes.” The Gospel. which includes the gift of Baptism, assures us that God chooses to bless us more than we want the blessing. Baptism is a blessing, a blessing that is mine and yours for the asking!