Someone writes, “I seem to hear you saying that baptism is not essential, or, if it is, that it is not essential in the same way that faith is essential.”
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The Bible does not contain the word “essential,” since it is written in the language of story rather than of theology or debate. The word “essential” is ambiguous, anyway, and capable of several meanings. Literally, it means that something is “of the essence” of something else. Surely all Christians can agree that baptism relates to the essence of the gospel, for it points to and expresses trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which alone can wash away our sin.
However, someone might use “essential” as a synonym for “necessary,” in which case we must ask, “Necessary for whom?” Surely baptism is “necessary” (not a take-it-or-leave-it affair) for the believer, for Jesus commanded it. But to say that it is “necessary” for God would be to make the command greater than the God who gave it, to deny something which Scripture clearly affirms (that is, that God has saved many people throughout the world’s history who were never baptized), and to say something the Bible never suggests or implies.
Faith and baptism do not belong in a list of like-and-equal things. They are not of the same “order” and ought not be lined up in a row as if they were. Faith is the foundation and baptism is part of the superstructure. Faith is the soul and baptism is part of the body. Faith is the root and baptism is some of the fruit. To equate faith and baptism is like saying that in order to live one must breathe and use clean silverware, or that life depends on having a constant heartbeat and regularly brushing the teeth. One had as well insist that wedded love requires a mutual commitment and a ceremony in a chapel. There is a difference between the inward reality and the outward formality, between the life principle and the structures which give it shape and expression. To clearly state that difference does not take anything away from the beauty, the function or the desirability of the forms and symbols and expressions in any of these analogies.