Baptism is one of the most important practices in Christianity. Whether baptism occurs through full immersion underwater, pouring, or sprinkling, it’s a pivotal moment in a person’s life. But do people have to be baptized to go to heaven?
According to the Bible, being baptized isn’t necessary to go to heaven, though some Christian traditions like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, teach that it animates a person’s new life in Jesus Christ. Most Protestant traditions emphasize that baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.
Does the New Testament teach that baptism cleanses people from sin and enables them to go to heaven when they die? Aren’t there verses in the book of Acts, Titus, and 1 Peter that teach that baptism saves people? If baptism isn’t necessary to go to heaven, what is? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Does baptism cleanse people from sin and save them?
The belief that baptism is necessary to go to heaven is often referred to as “baptismal regeneration.” In this context, the word “regeneration” means that a sinner is born again through the act of baptism.
What is the biblical basis for baptismal regeneration according to those who believe it? One of the fundamental disagreements Christians have about the necessity of baptism for entry into heaven concerns the interpretation of certain passages in the New Testament, like Acts 22:16 and Titus 3:5. Some believe that these verses teach that the waters of baptism cleanse people from sin:
- Acts 22:16, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” (ESV, emphasis added)
- Titus 3:5, “[Christ] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” (ESV, emphasis added)
How do Christians who don’t believe in baptismal regeneration interpret these verses? Christians that don’t believe that baptism is necessary to go to heaven argue that these verses don’t teach that the waters of baptism cleanse a person from sin, but symbolically describe God’s forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 is an example, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (ESV, emphasis added).
Does Acts 22:16 teach baptismal regeneration? Bible scholars generally agree that in this verse, the phrase that refers to salvation is “calling on his name.” In one of the best-reviewed Bible commentaries on Acts, the author states, “Such a faith invocation of God washes away sin with the cleansing symbolized in water baptism (Rom. 6:3-11; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 3:27).”  Another Acts commentator adds,
Paul “must ‘wash away’ his sins, i.e., he is need of God’s forgiveness… The metaphor of ‘washing away’ connects with the reference to immersion, for in Jewish culture, immersion in water symbolized the cleansing from sins.” 
Does Titus 3:5 teach baptismal regeneration? The preferred reading of the Greek is that regeneration and renewal describe the same event. In one of the best-reviewed commentaries on Titus, the author writes, “Regeneration and renewal describe the same event (conversion) from two different points of view (or the two halves of the one event).” He adds,
The Greek “does not teach justification by baptism (assuming washing refers to baptism), despite arguments to the contrary. The creed is meant to be read as a whole, and the context does not allow a magical understanding of washing.” 
Doesn’t 1 Peter 3:21 teach that baptism is necessary to go to heaven?
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians, among others, teach that baptism and salvation are inseparably connected, more so than most Protestant traditions believe. 1 Peter 3:21 is at the heart of their belief,
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”1 Peter 3:21 (ESV, emphasis added)
How do people that don’t believe that baptism saves interpret this verse? Though the verse states that baptism “now saves you,” it then explains that it’s not the physical act itself, i.e. “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” What is truly significant, according to the last half of the verse, is what the act of baptism signifies to God. One of the most reputable Bible scholars alive today explains,
“Yet the act of washing, which people with water could undergo even apart from ritual considerations, did not effect conversion without intention. Putting off dirt from the flesh (1 Pet. 3:21) is thus not sufficient; what is needed is putting off (2:1) fleshly desire (2:11).” 
How can a person go to heaven when they die?
The Bible teaches that physical death isn’t the end of a person’s existence. When people die, they go to one of two possible places: heaven or hell. According to the Bible, how a person responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ determines whether a person goes to heaven or hell.
What is the gospel of Jesus Christ? The word “gospel” means “good news.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is the proclamation of the good news that God sent his only son into the world to save sinners through dying in their place on the cross as a punishment for their sin, and rising from the dead three days later, victorious over death.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16 (ESV)
How exactly does a person respond to the gospel? A person responds to the good news by confessing and repenting of sin (Rom. 3:23; Mark 1:15) and putting their faith and trust in Christ alone for salvation (John 3:16). People must believe that Christ died for their sins and rose from the dead three days later (Rom. 6:23). A person confesses their sin through prayer and expresses their belief in the gospel to God and other people.
Responding to the gospel, however, isn’t simply a decision made in one moment and abandoned in the next. It’s a new way of life.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)
 Luke by Darrell Bock. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. P. 662-663.
 Acts by Eckhard Schnabel. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. P. 905-906.
 The Pastoral Epistles by William Mounce. Word Biblical Commentary. P. 442-443.
 1 Peter by Craig S. Keener. Baker Academic. P. 279-281.
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