Two Different Questions: What and When?
“Do you believe that baptism is essential for salvation?” “Yes.” “So you believe in water regeneration?” “No.” “But you believe that you must be immersed in water before your sins are washed away?” “Yes.” “So you believe that the power to wash away your sins is in the water?” “No.” “How can you say you do not believe in water baptismal regeneration if you think that a sinner is not saved until after he is baptized?” “Because when one is saved and what saves a person are two different questions.”
The Bible makes clear that Jesus saves. “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5). It is by His grace that we have hope of eternal life (Ephesians 2:5,8-9). We are “justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9). We are “redeemed...with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). “Jesus Christ...loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5). As Jesus ate with His disciples the night before His crucifixion, He said, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). What is it that saves a sinner from eternal separation from God? What is the remedy for sin? Without any doubt, “the blood of Christ” is what saves us (Hebrews 9:14). The idea of water having some kind of spiritual regenerative power is never taught in Scripture, nor have I ever met a member of the Lord’s church who believed such.
Another question altogether is when something happens. Naaman was healed of his leprosy (by the power of God!) when he washed in the Jordan River seven times (2 Kings 5:1-19). The blind man of John chapter nine was healed of his blindness (by Jesus!) when he washed in the pool of Siloam. And what about a sinner? When does the blood of Christ save one who is separated from God spiritually? The answer to that question is found in such passages as Acts 22:16 and Acts 2:38 (among others), which discuss water baptism. Once Saul (later called Paul) came to believe and confess that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and expressed sorrow for his sins (cf. Acts 9:5-11), Ananias, whom God had sent to Saul, instructed him to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). A sinner has his sins washed away when he is “baptized.” [NOTE: The participial phrase, “calling on the name of the Lord,” describes what Paul was doing when he was baptized and had his sins washed away (cf. Acts 2:21,38)—see Miller, 2003; Lyons, 2004.] Sadly, many have read Acts 22:16 and rejected the necessity of baptism because they approach their study of this verse with the wrong question in mind. This verse does not tell us what saves, but rather when a person is saved, i.e., has his sins washed away. Passages of Scripture such as those previously noted (e.g., Matthew 26:28, 1 Peter 1:18-19, Revelation 1:5) answer what saves, but in order to find out when a person is saved, one must consult passages like Acts 22:16 and Acts 2:38.
In short, the blood of Christ is what saves a sinner. But the blood of Christ washes away sins when a sinner confesses faith in Christ, repents, and is baptized “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16). May God help us to understand the difference between what and when, especially in regard to salvation.
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Calling on the Name of the Lord,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/597.
Miller, Dave (2003), “The Bible is its Own Best Interpreter,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2293.