“What should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.Acts 2:37-38
An ancient teaching of the Church is that baptism is necessary for salvation. The Augsburg Confession, which is one of the founding documents in my Lutheran tradition, considers this a question on which we all can agree: “Concerning baptism it is taught that it is necessary for salvation and that grace is offered through baptism.” And Martin Luther writes that “baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God himself. Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved” (Large Catechism 4:6).
Baptism is necessary, but why? And what about what about people who have not had a chance to be baptized? What about, as a famous example, the thief on the cross? He repented, but obviously could not be baptized before his death, and yet was assured by Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). So, does that mean that baptism is not strictly necessary for salvation?
Here’s what I think: That the question of whether baptism is necessary is really the wrong question. It misses the point. It’s kind of like asking if presents at Christmas are really necessary. Necessary? Well, I suppose not. But who doesn’t want presents at Christmas! Baptism is like that, because baptism is God’s gift to us, the greatest comfort on earth, as Martin Luther described it.
There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.Martin Luther
Baptism is God’s way of reminding us that we are God’s beloved children, forgiven of our every sin, freed from our captivity to sin, and joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection, so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Baptism is God’s way of marking us with the cross of Christ, claiming us as God’s children, and giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the most wonderful, precious thing on this earth, because it unites us to Jesus forever. It’s no wonder that the Bible and church leaders like Martin Luther have always praised baptism and made it so essential to our life as Christians!
But, still, you might be wondering about the repentant thief on the cross, who was never baptized but nevertheless was promised the gift of paradise. Here is what I believe: That if the repentant thief were miraculously let off that cross by Jesus, he would have immediately found a community of believers and been baptized. If he could have been baptized, he surely would have! And if he could have become active in a church community, and gathered weekly to hear God’s Word, pray, and receive Holy Communion, I think he would have done so eagerly. This, after all, is what a Christian does, because this is the way that we follow Jesus in our own time.
To put it another way, I believe that baptism is better understood as a comforting doctrine for believers rather than a threatening doctrine for nonbelievers. I believe that all who follow Jesus should be baptized, just as he instructs, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Because baptism “brings about the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it,” just as Luther’s Small Catechism says. And who wouldn’t want that? Why wouldn’t someone who has come to believe in Jesus want to be baptized?
Do you remember the miracle of Pentecost? And do you remember Peter standing up and addressing the crowd, teaching them about Jesus? And do you remember their response? They were “cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37-39) And what was their response? Did they ask whether baptism was really necessary? Of course not! They were baptized that very day! Like kids at Christmas, they eagerly opened the gift before them.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he instructed his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus wants for all the world to receive what we have received in our baptisms: the greatest comfort on earth. Not because it is our ticket to heaven, but because it is our blessed assurance, our most precious gift, and our greatest comfort in this earthly life. I, for one, will always be grateful that I am baptized, and will never question my need for it.