My wife and I are having discussions with a friend who is adamant in her belief that immersion baptism is necessary for salvation (she and her husband belong to the Church of Christ denomination). Our position is that baptism is an act of obedience and symbolic of our confession of Christ as Lord and Savior. I know that baptism was performed prior to Christ's incarnation. What is the historical background of baptism and where did the thought that baptism is required for salvation begin?
Thanks for your question about baptism. You're right. Baptism was around before Jesus' incarnation. Jewish proselytes were historically baptized in order to show their new membership in the community. It also demonstrated that their sins were cleansed through repentance. This is well demonstrated in John the Baptist's ministry. Note the famous phrase "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt. 3:2, 4:17). Baptism capped this formal, public way of repenting of sins and joining God in good standing.
The idea that baptism is necessary for salvation or that it actually does the saving work is unbiblical but sadly well storied in the history of the church. As early as the end of the first century we see that many viewed baptism as more supernatural than it seems the biblical text credits it. The reason? Many have taken the Lord's words "make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them . . ." to be an explanation of how one is spiritually converted: baptism leading to discipleship. This stems from not only misunderstanding the text, but also from a perspective that works are necessary for salvation. As Paul states in Ephesians 2:8-9, there is no work that can be done to earn salvation. It is only through faith, which is simply the work of God. Baptism is certainly related to faith, but logically speaking it is the act of an already present faith. So in order to put baptism in perspective one must harmonize the ideas of grace with the mandate of baptism. What's left is the idea that baptism is necessary for one already converted to exercise obedience to Christ, much in the same way that circumcision was exercised in Old Testament times as a symbol of that covenant relationship between God and His people.
I hope that you continue to dialogue with your friend over this issue. Both sides may surprisingly learn a great deal from this. As a final note, I must say that those saying baptism causes salvation may be wrong, but it can also be said that many of us who believe in the symbolism of baptism take it way too lightly. Perhaps through your dialogue you both may come to a biblical appreciation of baptism. Thanks again for your inqiry.