Do you Have to be Baptized to go to Heaven?

Do you Have to be Baptized to be Saved?

There is some confusion among some Christians as to whether baptism is required for salvation. Many ask, “Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?” Or “Do you have to be baptized to be saved?” This Bible study will explain the purpose and meaning of baptism and answer the question as to whether you have to be baptized to be saved and go to heaven.

Meaning of Baptism

This section will define the meaning of “baptize” and “baptism.”

The English word, “baptize,” is a transliteration of the Greek word, “baptizo.” The Greek word “baptizo” means to dip or immerse, and sometimes referred to ritual washings performed by dipping (briefly immersing) a person or object into water.

Instead of translating “baptizo” into English, the early translators transliterated the Greek word into English as “baptize.” And modern translations have continued the practice of using “baptize” instead of “immerse.” This has the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the real meaning of the word.

“Baptism” is the noun form of “baptize.” The English word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word, “baptizma.” As the noun form of the Greek verb to immerse, “baptizma” carries the idea of an “immersion.” Our English word “baptism” is therefore best understood the same way.

It is interesting to note that in the Greek Orthodox church (which speaks Greek and uses a Greek Bible), baptism is always by immersion.

Spirit Baptism

Acts 11:16 NKJV - you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit

This section will briefly explain what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

John baptized (immersed) people in water for repentance, but said One was coming after him (i.e.: Jesus) who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33).

During the last supper, Jesus told His apostles that after He went away, He would send the Holy Spirit to them (John 16:7, 13-15). After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that they would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16), and that the Holy Spirit would abide with them and dwell in them forever (John 14:16-17).

The gospel of John tells of a righteous Pharisee named Nicodemus who visited Jesus and acknowledged that He must be from God because the miracles He could do demonstrated that God was with Him (John 3:3:1-2). Jesus told this godly man that he had to be ‘born again’ to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Nicodemus did not understand how one could be born (physically) a second time (John 3:4). Jesus explained that the second birth is spiritual.

When Adam fell by eating the forbidden fruit, he immediately died spiritually. Because of Adam’s fall, his descendants (all people) are all born sinners, cut off from God, spiritually “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). We need to reconnect with God by being born spiritually to receive eternal (spiritual) life (Eph. 2:4-6).

At the moment we are converted by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, God pours His Holy Spirit upon us (Titus 3:6). We are given spiritual life “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). We are immersed in God’s Holy Spirit and born again spiritually. This is what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs immediately when you are saved by repenting of your sins and placing your faith in Jesus Christ.

Water Baptism

The Old Testament law specified many requirements for washing objects in water. People also needed to wash in water to be cleansed from ritual impurity. Perhaps the best OT example of a person being baptized in water was when Naaman dipped (immersed) himself seven times in the Jordon to be cured of his leprosy.

At the time of Christ, many people ceremoniously dipped (immersed) themselves in water for ritual cleansing prior to entering a synagogue or the temple. This was usually done in a man-made pool, called a “Mikveh.”

Mikveh at Magdala in Israel
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During this period, some pagan religions in the Roman Empire initiated people by immersing them in water to identify them with their god or religion.

So, when John came baptizing (immersing) people in water, this was not a new concept. John’s immersion in water was a “baptism of repentance.” Sinners were baptized by John to acknowledge their need for spiritual cleansing and demonstrate their repentance.

While John’s baptism was an act of righteousness, it did not save anyone. John was preparing people to receive salvation through faith in Christ. John pointed people to the One coming after him, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world and baptize people with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:4).

While John was still baptizing people as a sign of their repentance, Christ’s disciples started baptizing those who were becoming disciples of Jesus Christ (John 4:1-2). Christ’s sacrifice for sin had not been made yet. This immersion in water was identifying them as His disciples, not saving their souls.

After Christ’s resurrection, His disciples continued baptizing converts as a sign of their faith in Jesus. Water baptism has never saved anyone. Through Christian baptism, believers identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ who have been saved through faith in His death, burial, and resurrection.

Do you Have to be Baptized to go to Heaven?

The quick answer as to whether you have to be baptized with water to be saved and go to heaven is ‘No.’ But you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit at the moment of your salvation when you trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior.

This section will examine why some people think baptism is required to go to heaven, what the Bible says is required for salvation, and the purpose of water baptism.

Confusion about Baptism

Acts 2:38 KJV - Repent and be baptized

It is not surprising that there is confusion as to whether you have to be baptized to go to heaven because:

  • In “the Great Commission,” Jesus commanded us to baptize disciples (Mt 28:18-20)
  • In the New Testament, people were generally baptized as soon as they believed in Jesus Christ (e.g.: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized” Acts 2:41 / NKJV).
  • There are some Scriptures that seem to indicate that you need to both believe and be baptized in order to be saved. For example:
    • Peter said . . . “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38 / KJV).
    • “And He (Jesus) said to them, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16 / NKJV)
    • Referring to the flood in the days of Noah, Peter said, “and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21 / NIV).

However, our beliefs and theology must be based on proper interpretation of the totality of Scripture, not on unclear passages or verses taken out of context. The vast majority of Scriptures say the way to heaven is through faith in Jesus Christ, with no mention of baptism.

  • The only command in “the Great Commission” is to “make disciples” (Mt 28:19). Two participles are then used to elaborate on the process of making disciples, “teaching them” and “baptizing them” (Mt 28:19-20). Based on this language, baptizing is no more a requirement for salvation than teaching. We baptize and teach people after they become disciples.
  • Given Christ’s command to baptize disciples, it is not surprising that Christ’s followers immediately baptized new disciples as soon as they trusted in Jesus Christ.
  • Acts 2:14-36 records Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost. In it, Peter accused the people of crucifying their Messiah, saying, “know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). In Acts 2:37, the people who were convicted by Peter’s message asked him what they should do.

Because the people had already believed Peter’s message and were now asking what they should do, Peter’s answer in Acts 2:38 told the people what they needed to do, repent of their sin and publicly confess their faith in Christ by being baptized. Acts 2:41 makes it clear that those who were baptized had already “gladly received his word” (indicating belief in his gospel message).

  • Mark 16:16 says that those who do not believe will be condemned. There is no indication that those who truly believe would be condemned if not baptized. However, if someone is unwilling to identify himself with Christ and take the first step of obedience by being baptized as a confession of their faith, that might indicate that they have not truly trusted in Christ.
  • 1 Peter 3:20-21 is a difficult passage and as such should not be used to contradict the clear teaching of other Scriptures. Verses 19-20 refer to Christ preaching (during the time between His death and resurrection) to disobedient spirits in hell who lived in the days of Noah. The 8 people who were “saved through water” were carried safely through the water by the ark. The flood waters killed all air breathing life outside of the ark. Noah and his family were saved from the water by the ark. The ark is a “type” or symbol of Jesus Christ.

It is baptism in the Holy Spirit that gives us eternal life when we believe in Jesus Christ. Immersion in physical water may clean the flesh, but it can do nothing for our souls. Water baptism is merely the answer (or pledge) of a good conscience toward God, symbolizing with water what God has already done with His Spirit.

Confession about Baptism

A woman recently asked me whether I believe in baptism. I took that to be a question as to whether baptism is required for salvation.

My short answer is that I certainly do believe in Baptism. I believe that true believers are baptized by the Holy Spirit the moment they repent and trust Jesus Christ as their savior. I believe that Christians are commanded to be baptized in water as an outward expression of what already occurred on the inside when they were saved.

I do not believe water baptism is required for salvation. The Bible clearly states that salvation is by repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works or deeds of righteousness. Baptism in water is an act of righteousness that is done to confess one’s faith in Christ after they have been saved.

Salvation is by Faith in Christ

John 3:16 KJV Whosoever Believeth in Him

There are many Scriptures that clearly teach that salvation, the way to heaven, is through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ with no mention of baptism. For example:

  • “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15 / NKJV)
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:16-18 / NKJV)
  • “Then said they unto Him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent’.” (John 6:28-29 / KJV) 
  • “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:3 / KJV)
  • He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what He had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:20-22 KJV)
  • “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:1-2 / KJV)
  • “. . . if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Rom 10:9-10 / NKJV)
  • “To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43 / ESV).
  • “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39 / NKJV).

The Philippian jailer “called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, Sirs, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house’.” (Act 16:29-31 / KJV).

Not by Works of Righteousness

If you had to be baptized (in water) to be saved and go to heaven, that would be a “work of righteousness” by which you somehow contributed to your salvation. But the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ did all the work. God graciously provides salvation as a free gift without any works on our part.

  • “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:23 / KJV)
  • “. . . not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7 / NKJV)

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9 / KJV)

Examples of Salvation without Water Baptism

There are several examples in the New Testament of people clearly being saved either before they were baptized or without ever being baptized.

Abraham

Abraham was justified by faith without being baptized, and before he was circumcised. Now some may object that Abraham lived long before Jesus Christ and the New Testament, so his salvation does not count. However, the apostle Paul held Abraham up as an example to show that faith comes through faith without keeping any deeds of law.

“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:3-5 / KJV). 

Abraham “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what He had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:20-25 / KJV).

“Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also” (Rom 4:9-11 / KJV).

Circumcision was not required as part of Abraham’s salvation. Abraham had already been declared righteous before he was circumcised. Abraham received circumcision as a seal of righteousness and a sign of the covenant that God made with him and his descendants.

The Thief on the Cross

Two thieves were crucified next to Jesus. One of the thieves believed in Jesus (Luke 23:39-41) and asked Him, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 / NKJV). Jesus told the thief who believed in Him that he would be with Him in paradise that same day (Luke 23:43).

The thief died that day, never having the opportunity to be baptized in water. But Jesus promised him heaven based on his faith. The thief simply believed in Jesus Christ. That was enough for him to be saved, without being baptized.

Some might object that the thief died before Jesus was resurrected, so it does not represent the way of salvation for us today. However, salvation has always been a gracious gift of God received through faith.

The thief was a criminal who by his own admission deserved death. Under the Old Testament law, he would have at least been required to offer an animal sacrifice in the Temple to atone for his sin. The thief did not, and could not, offer the required sacrifice.

The thief on the cross performed no act of righteousness to merit salvation. He was saved from eternal death in hell by believing in Jesus as the Christ.

Saul of Tarsus

The apostle Paul began life as Saul of Tarsus. He belonged to the strictest sect of the Jews. He believed in the Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and the Old Testament law given through Moses. But he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. He was a righteous Pharisee with a zeal for the law that drove him to persecute Christians, until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Acts 9:3-18 records the conversion of this righteous Pharisee who had a zeal for the law into a believing Christian with a zeal for the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Saul neared Damascus, where he was going to persecute Christ’s followers (Acts 9:1-2), Jesus introduced Himself, blinding Saul with His glory. Saul immediately believed in the Lord Jesus who spoke to him.

Acts 9:18 records Saul’s baptism, but that was after Saul expressed his faith in Jesus Christ and received his sight. Paul made no mention of baptism when he gave his testimony to king Agrippa (Acts 26:12-19). Instead, he quoted Christ’s words saying that people “receive forgiveness of sins” and “are sanctified by faith in Me” (Jesus Christ).

Cornelius

Cornelius was a God-fearing Roman Centurion who gathered a group of people together to hear Peter share the gospel. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). These new Gentile believers were baptized in water after they had already received the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ (Acts 10:46-48).

Purpose of Water Baptism

Some people might ask, “What is the purpose of water baptism if it is not needed to go to heaven. If salvation is just by faith in Jesus Christ, why should I be baptized?” This section will now explain the reason for water baptism.

We have already discussed Abraham’s salvation above. Righteousness was imputed to Abraham because he believed the promise of God. Abraham was strong in faith and gave God glory by “being fully persuaded that, what He had promised, He was able also to perform.” (Romans 4:20-25 / KJV)

Righteousness was imputed to Abraham before he was circumcised. Circumcision was required for any male to be included in the Abrahamic covenant. But circumcision never saved anyone. Circumcision was supposed to be done on the 8th day after a boy was born. It was a choice of the parents, not the child and was done long before the child could understand and believe.

True circumcision is of the heart, not the flesh. True circumcision is an inward reality that can be true of Gentiles and women. “Circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:29).

Likewise, water baptism has no power to save infants or unbelieving adults. Genuine baptism is in God’s Holy Spirit (not water) and of the heart (not the flesh).

Baptism serves a similar purpose today as it did for Abraham. Water baptism serves as a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith imputed to us the moment we believe in God and trust in the death and resurrection of His Son as payment for our sins. Through water baptism we outwardly confess to the world our inward baptism in the Holy Spirit of God that we received through faith in Jesus Christ.

Do you Have to be Baptized – Summary

John 11:25-26 KJV - he that Believeth in Me shall Never die

This article has explained the meaning and purpose of baptism, and has answered the questions, “Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?” and “Do you have to be baptized to be saved?” The short answer to both questions is, no, you don’t have to be baptized with water in order to be saved and go to heaven.

Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone. We cannot earn or contribute to our salvation through any work of righteousness, including that of water baptism. But the moment we repent of our sins and trust Jesus as our Savior, God baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. God gives us spiritual life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

Water baptism is an act of obedience through which believers identify themselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Water baptism symbolizes outwardly what has already happened within us spiritually. Through water baptism, we confess our faith in Jesus and identify ourselves as a Christian.

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