Is baptism essential?
A person might ask whether baptism in water is an essential part of believing in Jesus Christ in order to become a Christian. Can we be saved (justified) without water baptism? Strictly speaking, we have an example from the Bible of a person who was saved (i.e. justified) without being baptized. That is the thief on the cross. He recognised his own sinfulness, believed in Jesus Christ and was told “This day you will be with me in paradise”.
Obviously, that man was saved (justified) solely by repenting and believing in Jesus Christ. But, we must remember that he had no opportunity to be baptized in water. Therefore he died without ever being able to be baptized. However, it would be reckless and unwise to seek to argue from the example of his situation that you, therefore, don’t need to be baptized, given that you are able to.
We must never forget that Jesus commanded us to be baptised. It is not optional.
Apart from anything else, it is a matter of obedience to what the Bible says. Jesus commanded us to be baptised in water. That instruction was repeated within the New Testament many times. There can be no doubt that we are commanded to be baptized in water. Therefore Christian water baptism ought really to be treated as a part of repenting, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and putting our trust in Him. It is the way that we openly declare and demonstrate that we have done so. We are saying publicly that we have cut ourselves off from our old life of sin and rebellion and begun a new life.
However, baptism is much more than just a symbol. It is really important, and perhaps even essential, for our salvation. At any rate, I have no authority to say that it is not essential. Neither does anybody else. I personally would not want to ignore the command that Jesus has given for us to get baptised in water. The thief on the cross had a valid reason not to be baptized, but you and I may not.
As for the question of when to get baptised in water, there are different viewpoints on this. Many churches today have baptism classes. People are taken through a series of lessons on what the gospel is and what they need to believe and why. At the end of that course they are then all baptised. I do not necessarily criticise that. If that is done sincerely, then I am sure that God will bless it and use it. However, that is not the way that baptism was practiced in the early church.
In the Bible, as soon as a person made the decision to repent, believe in Jesus and follow Him, they got baptised there and then, without waiting. The person would simply look for a river, a lake, a mikhvah bath or the sea and go immediately to fully immerse himself in water. This was to demonstrate in public the fact of his conversion and the start of his new life trusting in Jesus Christ. More importantly, it was to obey what Jesus commanded.
Today many of us tend to be very casual about all this, whereas they took their own conversion, and its public proclamation, very seriously in the first century. They regarded it as a major life-changing event, which needed to be visibly and publicly proclaimed:
34The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?" 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" 37And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."38And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. Acts 8:34-38 (NASB)
In this passage Philip explains the gospel to this man from Ethiopia, and he accepts it and believes in Jesus Christ. He then sees some water and asks to be baptised immediately. Evidently, Philip approved of that. That was the normal way to do it. We would do well to adopt this approach. Apostle Paul himself was baptised very quickly after he became a believer:
17So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, " Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; Acts 9:17-18 (NASB)
Indeed Ananias, who took care of Paul when he was first converted, told Paul that there was no need to wait to get baptised:
12 A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13came to me, and standing near said to me, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very time I looked up at him. 14 And he said, 'The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. 15'For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16'Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.' Acts 22:12-16 (NASB)
Likewise, we see from Acts chapter 18 that the people in Corinth believed and were then baptised. The clear implication is that they got baptised straight away, as soon as they came to repent and believe:
Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. Acts 18:8 (NASB)
Apostle Paul operated in the same way when he baptised the Philippian jailer immediately after the man was converted:
31They said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. Acts 16:31-33 (NASB)
I should mention here that some people have actually used the passage above about the Philippian jailor as a basis for supporting the practice of infant baptism. They do so by arguing that if this man and "all his household" were baptised, then that, presumably, may have included children and even babies. Therefore they argue that we should baptise babies. However, that is extraordinarily weak logic. It is pure supposition and is no proper basis for creating the practice of baptising babies, which is not found anywhere in the Bible.
In any event, the word translated 'household' in that passage would also include the Philippian jailor's employees or slaves that worked in his house. That was common practise in those days, especially for a man senior enough to be in charge of a jail. So, applying the same flawed logic, we could equally seek to use that passage to argue today for the compulsory baptism of our staff or employees!
A far better way to understand the reference to his household is simply to conclude that, following his own conversion, he went and told the gospel message to all his family and even his slaves and employees. Then they quickly believed and repented and were eager to be baptised in water, of their own free will, just as he had been.
Remember, those relatives and/or slaves/staff had also got apostle Paul with them. They may well have already heard Paul explain the gospel earlier as well, while in the prison. So, the key point is that we have to assume that each member of that household made a decision of their own to get baptised in water. There is nothing in that passage, or in any other passage in the Bible, to support the idea of anybody baptising a baby. Every baptism in the Bible involves a person old enough to decide for themselves.
The main origin of infant baptism is that it comes from a misunderstanding of circumcision. Jewish baby boys were circumcised on the eighth day in order that they could be physically marked as members of the Jewish race. It also meant that they could become partakers in the promise made to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, those particular aspects of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were only available, both then and now, to Jewish people, not to Gentiles.
Baptism is not the same as circumcision and it is a major mistake to confuse the two things. Circumcision is not a basis for infant baptism. Niether is it a precedent for how baptism should be done.
By getting baptised in the biblical way a person starts the Christian life well. There is a definite cutting off from the old life and an obvious start of a new life. That helps people to avoid problems of half-heartedness, confusion and compromise, where a person does not want to be known openly as a Christian.
Baptism in water is an unmistakeable event. It means that you are publicly and decisively revealed to be a Christian. There is no hiding it. That is a good thing and helps you to make a strong and clean start in your new Christian life.
Look at the Bible for yourself and forget for a moment everything that people have ever told you about baptism. Then form your own conclusions about baptism in water solely from what is written there. As I engage in that exercise. I can see no other way of doing baptism in water than the way that it was practiced in the first century, namely full immersion in water. And it should be immediately after a person repents, not months or years later.