Water baptism in Christianity is not a straightforward matter. There are some who believe that it is important for salvation. Yet there are some people who do believe it is sort of important. They believe if you are not baptised then you will still be saved because the criminal also crucified beside Lord Jesus was saved since he believed and yet was not baptised (Lk 23.39-43). To these people we will need to let them know that when Lord Jesus was on earth He had the power to say to this person or that person their sins are forgiven (Mk 2.10). But after Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, how was He to forgive our sins?
One way of explaining is through the example of Paul.
We know that Paul did not believe in the Lord Jesus until he met Him on the way to Damascus. For up to that point, Paul was persecuting the church. But when the Lord Jesus appeared to Paul, he was told to wait in Damascus and that he would be told what to do (Acts 9:6).
Subsequently, the Lord Jesus sent Ananias to Paul and it was through his servant that Paul knew what Jesus wanted him to do. Ananias said to him, “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).
There are three things to take into consideration about Paul’s conversion: First, even on the way when Paul met the Lord Jesus he believed in Him. Second, Ananias revealed to Paul that God has chosen him to be a vessel to bear and preach the name of the Lord Jesus to Gentiles, kings and Jews (Acts 9.14-15). Third, after Ananias laid hands on him, Paul himself experienced a miracle: “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once” (Acts 9:18a).
If we put those three things together, then ask the question: If Paul did not receive water baptism, would he still be saved? According to the gospel that Paul received, he would not! That is why, Paul made sure people had to be baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus because it was to wash away people’s sins.
We need to tell people the context of Acts 22 that Paul was using his own experience as part of his evangelising. So when we come to Acts 22.16, Paul is quoting what Ananias had said to him before he was baptised. So we can see, that was the gospel which Paul received and that was the gospel Paul preached. Paul would not have dared to preach another gospel other than the one he received:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
Now some also misunderstand the following verses:
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:13-14).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
Some say that Paul testified of the salvation of the Ephesians: They heard, they believed, they were sealed, and they were saved.
But to these people we need to inform them that Paul got the Ephesians to receive baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus though they had believed but were baptised in John’s baptism:
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Since Paul received baptism for the sake of washing away his sins, it is impossible for him to subsequently preach to others that they only need to believe and you will be saved.
Yet another may point out that Paul said, “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” (Rom 10:9).
To these we need to inform them with this question: Was Paul speaking to believers or non-believers? From Romans 1.7a we know they were believers, “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:” (Rom 1:7).
To these we also need to ask another question: Were these believers baptised? From internal evidence in Romans 6.3, we know they were baptised, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom 6:3).
Yet again, we need to point out, if Paul received baptism to wash away his sins, could he have preached to others that they did not need to receive it when they believed? Of course not.
Paul’s receiving of baptism was also likened to the Ethiopian when he heard the gospel from Philip, for he also received water baptism (Acts 8:35-39).
Philip’s gospel, Paul’s gospel and Peter’s gospel is the same. For Peter also preached Jesus but the necessity to be baptised too: “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
The gospel these three servants of God preached could not have departed from Jesus’ gospel, because Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16a).
Subsequently, we may let people know what really happens in water baptism, is that the Lord Jesus is washing away our sins: “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Rev 1:5).
Therefore, we need to let people know even Paul received water baptism. The reason he received it was to wash his sins away. If a person does not received water baptism, their sins are not yet washed away. So, we can see after the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, that is how He forgives sins: in water baptism.
May the Lord Jesus guide those who truly believe in the true gospel of salvation to equip themselves through careful study of the doctrines of salvation, and then to courageously but with humility, to reason, persuade and with the power of the Holy Spirit to convince those who have not heard the truth so that they may also be saved. Amen.