From 1974 to 1978 I was involved in evangelistic outreach ministry at two universities: Arkansas State University (1974-76) and North Carolina State University (1976-778). I often ran into students who believed that in order to go to heaven you had to be baptized. One of the passages they cited was Mark 16:15-16.
And He said to them, “Go 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.”
In this article I will explain why this verse cant be teaching salvation by baptism and then show what it does mean.
Mark 16:16 Isnt Teaching That You Must Be Water Baptized to Go to Heaven
There are a number of clear and compelling reasons why we can be sure that Mark 16:16 isnt teaching that water baptism is a condition of eternal salvation:
Lets briefly consider each of those points in more detail.
Condemnation Is for Unbelief Only
Jesus didnt say, “He who is not baptized will be condemned.” Neither did He say, “He who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned.” By this our Lord made it clear that faith alone was necessary to avoid eternal condemnation. He said the same thing in John 3:18: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (see also John 5:24; 6:47).
The Apostles Preached Salvation by Faith Alone
Two of the disciples in the inner circle were Peter and John. Both of them heard Jesus say the words recorded in Mark 16. Yet both of them taught that the only condition of eternal salvation was trusting in Christ and Him alone.
Peter proclaimed the Gospel to Cornelius and his family. He led them to faith in Christ before he even mentioned baptism (cf. Acts 10-34-44). Only after they were saved and baptized by the Holy Spirit did Peter mention Christian baptism and give them the opportunity to be baptized (Acts 10:45-48).
The apostle John wrote an evangelistic book that we call the Gospel of John. He repeatedly indicated that faith is the condition of eternal salvation. Yet not once in all of Johns Gospel, written after the event recorded in Mark 16:16 occurred, did John condition eternal salvation upon water baptism. (In fact, Christian water baptism is not even mentioned in Johns Gospel. )
The Gospel Never Changes
“What about the thief on the cross?” I would say. “Jesus said he would be with Him that day in Paradise, yet he was never baptized.”
The response I would get was inevitably this: That was before Pentecost. After Pentecost, you have to be baptized in order to be saved.
What these students were telling me was that the Gospel had changed. Before Jesus resurrection and the coming of the Spirit a person was saved without water baptism. After that water baptism is required.
That is an impossible position to defend since the apostle Paul clearly indicates that we are saved in this age the same way Abraham and David were saved in their age (cf. Rom. 4:1-8; Gal. 3:6-14). The Gospel has always been, and always will be, by grace through faith plus nothing. We find this in the first book in the Bible (Gen. 3:15; 15:6) and in the last book in the Bible (Rev. 22:17).
The NT Gives Examples of Salvation Before Baptism
In addition to the thief on the cross, there are other NT examples of people who were saved without being baptized. Martha (John 11:25-27) is one. Another is Cornelius and his household. According to Acts 10:43-48, they were saved the moment they heard Peter tell them that all who believe in the Lord Jesus receive remission of sins. At that very moment, before they were baptized with water, they were baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.
Mark 16:16 Is Teaching That All Who Respond to the Great Commission Will Go to Heaven
The key to understanding these verses is to recognize that they are a summary statement of the Great Commission. Mark is not reporting everything that Jesus said about the Great Commission. He is recording one summary statement that Jesus made of it.
The Great Commission was communicated by the Lord on five different occasions (once each in the Gospels and Acts). There is a lot of variety in the way the Great Commission is expressed in these five instances. In some of those statements only evangelism is mentioned (e. g. , Luke 24:47, though it could possibly be dealing with both evangelism and discipleship, and Acts 1:8). In some only discipleship is mentioned (Matt. 28:18-20; John 21:15-17). the Great Commission in Mark 16:15-16 includes both evangelism and discipleship. Preaching the Gospel to every creature (v. 15) is evangelism. Baptizing those who believe (v. 16) is the first step in discipleship.
What Jesus is saying in Mark 16:15-16 is this:
It is, of course, true that all who believe and are baptized will be eternally saved. That is not to say, however, that those who either refuse to be baptized or who fail to be baptized through procrastination, ignorance, or lack of opportunity (for example, some people have died immediately after trusting in Christ) will not be saved. They will. At the very moment they believe, they are saved from the penalty of sin, eternal condemnation.
We must be careful not to read into Scripture. Jesus does not say or even imply that the one who isnt baptized wont be saved. We know that is not true from other Scripture, and even from the second half of v. 16. *
Mark 16:16 does not contradict salvation by faith alone. Rather, it affirms it. Jesus clearly and unmistakably indicates that the sole basis of eternal condemnation is unbelief. The sole basis for eternal salvation is believing the Lord Jesus, and Him alone, for it.
*Another understanding of Mark 16:16 is that it refers to Holy Spirit baptism (see, for example, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 6, p. 150). Except for some exceptional cases in the Book of Acts, Holy Spirit baptism has always occurred at the point of faith. Compare 1 Cor. 12:13. While that view is possible, I dont believe it fits the context as well as the one I have articulated here.