Is it necessary to be baptized in water, or is Baptism simply a spiritual thing?
According to Jesus it is both. In the Gospel of John (3:5), He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Some Christians have argued, however, that in the above verse Jesus was not referring to water Baptism. They have claimed the mention of “water” refers to natural birth (i.e., amniotic fluid); and “the Spirit” refers to spiritual rebirth. However, a brief look at other the relevant Scripture verses, show their interpretation to be false.
For example, the Apostle Paul states in his Letter to Titus (3:5) that God saved us “by the washing of regeneration,” sometimes translated “the bath of rebirth.”
From John 3:5 and Titus 3:5 together, then, it is clear that the water and Spirit are inseparable, and that together they refer to Baptism. In an even more telling passage, the Apostle Peter wrote in his first letter (3:20-21), “In the days of Noah, during the building of the ark …, a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.”
Also, after Philip preaches the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts of the Apostles (8:36), the eunuch exclaims, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized.” The obvious inference here is that if there had not been water present, then his Baptism would have been delayed.
The waters of Baptism are prefigured throughout the Old Testament. “The Spirit of God … moving over the face of the waters” at Creation (Gen. 1:2) and the ancient flood that purified the earth are baptismal metaphors (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20-21). The prophet Elisha’s instruction to the Syrian general Naaman, who had comes to him seeking a cure for his leprosy, points to baptismal regeneration. “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times,” the prophet advises him, “and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (2 Kgs. 5:10; cf. Lev. 14:7).
Jesus made the rite of Baptism essential to salvation, saying, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Tragically, though, many of Christ’s followers have come to regard Baptism as merely a symbol or even as something that is superfluous. To them it is not a channel of God’s grace, but simply a public demonstration of one’s conversion to Christ. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that sins are forgiven through Baptism. The above quotes from Peter and Paul prove this, as do Peter’s words to the crowd at Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of the Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Christianity’s ancient historical writings, furthermore, known as the writings of the Early Church Fathers, clearly teach rebirth through water Baptism. Justin the Martyr, for instance, writing in about A.D. 150, said of new converts to the faith, “They are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn in the same manner in which we were ourselves reborn. … For Christ also said, ‘Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven’ (John 3:3)” (First Apology 61).
To truly comprehend these passages, to fully understand Baptism, it is necessary to have a sacramental understanding of the Christian faith. From the sacramental point of view, God’s unseen, saving grace is conveyed to the soul through the waters of Baptism. In believing this we come to see how the Sacraments are patterned after the Incarnation, in which the invisible God was made visible through Christ (cf. Col. 1:15). The Sacraments, moreover, correspond to the fact that God created us with both a body and a soul. In the Sacraments, the Lord touches our souls through bodily things: water, oil, bread, and wine.
A Gospel story that contains both sacramental and baptismal symbolism is the healing of the man born blind. While in other instances Jesus heals the sick simply with a word or the touch of His hand, in this story He performs a rather elaborate ritual. He first spits into the dust to make a clay, which He rubs on the man’s eyes (John 9:6). He then instructs him to go and wash away the clay in the pool of Siloam, which means “Sent” (9:7). We remember that God made Adam out of the clay of the ground. The clay in this story represents the sin of Adam, or original sin. The man’s blindness represents the spiritual blindness, separation from God, brought on by original sin. The washing away of the clay in the waters of Siloam represent the washing away of original sin in the waters of Baptism. At the same time, the clay and water in this story are more than mere symbols. In fact, John tells us the Lord “anointed the man’s eyes” with the clay. The clay and the water become vehicles of God’s healing grace. And so it is with the Sacraments of the Church, physical instruments through which grace is transmitted.
In saying something is necessary for salvation, one must ever be careful to clarify what he means. Regarding Baptism, clearly there are examples of people being saved without it, such as the Good Theif who died alongside Jesus on the Cross. The Church teaches that Baptism is necessary in the ordinary sense. That is, if one has an understanding of the importance of Baptism, and has the opportunity to be baptized, he is obliged in faith to do so. At the same time, there are extraordinary cases, like the Good Theif, in which God must save a person apart from Baptism because Baptism is an impossibility, either due to circumstances of the individual’s invincible ignorance. Because in an extraordinary case one can be saved apart from Baptism, however, it would be wrong for the rest of us to conclude Baptism is unnecessary in every case. For, again, Jesus and the Apostles clearly taught its necessity.