A third possibility exists, as Wallace explains in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:

It is possible that to a first-century Jewish audience (as well as to Peter), the idea of baptism might incorporate both the spiritual reality and the physical symbol. In other words, when one spoke of baptism, he usually meant both ideas—the reality and the ritual. Peter is shown to make the strong connection between these two in chapters 10 and 11. In 11:15-16 he recounts the conversion of Cornelius and friends, pointing out that at the point of their conversion they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. After he had seen this, he declared, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit…” (10:47).

The point seems to be that if they have had the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit via spiritual baptism, there ought to be a public testimony/acknowledgment via water baptism as well. This may not only explain Acts 2:38 (viz., that Peter spoke of both reality and picture, though only the reality removes sins), but also why the NT speaks of only baptized believers (as far as we can tell): Water baptism is not a cause of salvation, but a picture; and as such it serves both as a public acknowledgment (by those present) and a public confession (by the convert) that one has been Spirit-baptized.

Mark 16:16, a verse often quoted to prove baptism is necessary for salvation, is actually a proof of the opposite. Notice that the basis for condemnation in that verse is not the failure to be baptized, but only the failure to believe. Baptism is mentioned in the first part of the verse because it was the outward symbol that always accompanied the inward belief.

I might also mention that many textual scholars think it unlikely that vv. 9-20 are an authentic part of Mark’s gospel. We can’t discuss here all the textual evidence that has caused many New Testament scholars to reject the passage. But you can find a thorough discussion in Bruce Metzger, et al., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 122-128, and William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, pp. 682-687.

Water baptism does not seem to be what Peter has in view in 1 Peter 3:21. The English word “baptism” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse.” Baptizo does not always refer to water baptism in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; 7:4; 10:38-39; Luke 3:16; 11:38; 12:50; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Corinthians 10:2; 12:13).

So Peter is not talking about immersion in water, as the phrase “not the removal of dirt from the flesh” indicates. He is referring to immersion in Christ’s death and resurrection through “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” or repentance. Again, it is not the outward act that saves, but the internal reality of the Spirit’s regenerating work (cf. Titus 3:4-8).

I also do not believe water baptism is in view in Romans 6 or Galatians 3. I see in those passages a reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). For a detailed exposition of those passages, I refer you to my commentaries on Galatians and Romans, or the transcripts my sermons on Galatians 3 and Romans 6.

In Acts 22:16, Paul recounts the words of Ananias to him following his experience on the Damascus road: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” It is best to connect the phrase “wash away your sins” with “calling on His name.” If we connect it with “be baptized,” the Greek participle epikalesamenos (”calling”) would have no antecedent. Paul’s sins were washed away not by baptism, but by calling on His name.

Water baptism is certainly important, and required of every believer. However, the New Testament does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.

This article originally appeared here at Grace to You. © 2007 Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission.