(Is baptism necessary for salvation?)

QUESTION: What is the meaning of the words of Ananias to Paul, after the latter met with Christ on the Damascus Road: "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Does this means that water baptism cleanses away sin?

ANSWER: Though Paul's conversion is described first in Acts 9:1-19, this (i.e. Acts 22:16) is the only place where these words of Ananias are recorded. Various attempts have been made to explain the seeming implication that water baptism effectually cleanses sins. But the New Testament makes it clear that it is the blood of Christ that does that (I Jn. 1:7; Rev. 1:5). What then is the meaning here?

1) Some (Charles Ryrie and others) try to avoid the problem by re-translating–"having arisen, be baptized; and wash away your sins, having called on the name of the Lord." However, though this accurately reflects the meaning of the Greek original, it does not explain why baptism precedes cleansing–especially when there are other indications that Paul was saved (and cleansed) before this.

Paul (then called Saul) had already demonstrated faith in, and submission to Christ, on the Damascus Road (22:10). And he was filled with the Spirit before he was baptized (9:17-18). Further, Paul heard the gospel not from Ananias first, but from Christ Himself (Gal. 1:11-12). In other words, there is every indication that Paul received Christ as Saviour and was filled with the Spirit and cleansed of his sins before his water baptism.

2) It may be helpful to consider his baptism as being more Jewish than Christian. Water baptism was used by the Jews to initiate proselytes to Judaism, and John the Baptist used it as a symbol of repentance, in preparation for Christ's coming. The church, thoroughly Jewish in the early days, would be untaught about the truth of being positionally "in Christ" and the union with Him that is expressed by Christian baptism.

Rather, they would attach to baptism something of its former significance. Note Paul's emphasis on the Jewishness of this event (Acts 22:3, 12, 14). The only ones in Acts who are told to be baptized "for the forgiveness of sins" (2:38), or similar words, are Jews.

The nation of Israel had rejected their Messiah. "His blood be on us and on our children," they'd said (Matt. 27:25). By a public baptism conducted by church leaders, individual Jews were openly disassociating themselves from their Christ-rejecting nation, and identifying themselves with Him.

Baptism thus was a sign of their repentance of the specific sins related to the death of Christ and of any prior opposition to His work through the church. In effect, it took them off Jewish ground and put them on Christian ground–though a full understanding of this only came gradually. For Paul, his baptism likely testified outwardly to a repudiation of his former hateful actions against Christ and the church.

It is only when we move away from the early days, and past the official introduction of Gentiles into the body of Christ, that we see a greater emphasis on positional truth in connection with baptism. Today, believer's baptism by immersion signifies the individual's identification with Christ in His death and resurrection, and a determination to "walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:3-4).

Paul certainly never saw it as essential for salvation. He baptized very few individuals (I Cor. 1:14-17), which would be strange if he believed they couldn't be saved without it!