Mark 16:16 and baptismal regeneration?

Question
Is water baptism necessary for salvation? I'm baptized but Mark 16:16 seems unbiblical, but yet it's in the Bible?
Answer
Thanks for your question. Salvation is by grace through faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ and not by works, including the work of water baptism (Eph. 2:8-10; e.g., John 3:18; John 5:24; John 12:44; John 20:23, 31; 1 John 5:13; Tit. 3:5). So, regeneration = God-given faith + nothing. Since this is the overwhelming teaching of Scripture, why does Mark appear at first glance to give us the formula of believe + baptism = saved?

Mark 16:9-20 and Textual Problems:

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that some scholars state that there are some textual problems with Mark 16:9-20. Philips calls it "an ancient appendix." Mark 16:9-20 do not appear in some of the most important early manuscripts in existence. Their absence as well, as their different style and vocabulary raise serious doubts about their actual authenticity. This said, no major doctrine(s) are affected either by their inclusion or exclusion. As the late F.F. Bruce wrote, "The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice" (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960, pp. 19-20).

Mark 16:16 - One Requirement for Salvation:

Let's say for the sake of argument that all of Mark 16 is original to Mark. It is after all in our Bibles, so we have a responsibly to understand it. If so, than does Mark 16:16 teach that water baptism is required for salvation = baptismal regeneration? Definitely not! Actually, it teaches quite the opposite. Indeed, note what the two separate but related clauses are teaching:

(1) "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16a).

(2) "but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16b; cf. John 3:18).

Notice what is missing above. Mark 16:16 does not say anything about genuine believers who have not been baptized - like the unbaptized thief on the cross next to Jesus; "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). This one thief went to paradise on the very same day he was saved and physically died without being baptized! This by itself disproves the false "works" doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Mark 16:16 does not say, 'He who is not baptized will be condemned.' Why? Because the one requirement for salvation is mentioned in Mark 16:16b, that is, "whoever does not believe will be condemned."

So, Mark teaches that there is one requirement for salvation - the God given gift of "belief" (Mark 11:22; John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 8:24; 16:31; Acts 16:31; Rom. 5:1; Phil. 3:9, et. al.); whosoever believes shall be saved and whosoever does not believe shall be condemned (John 3:18). This is consistent with the remainder of Scripture. O.T. Abraham was saved by faith alone (Rom. 4:1-25; Gal. 3:6-22; see Heb. 11 for an incomplete list of O.T. saved saints). Cornelius was saved by faith "before" he was baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Paul told the adult jailer in Acts 16, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Note that Paul did not add another requirement! Only "after" the adult jailer was saved was he baptized (Acts 16:33). So, good works - including the good work of water baptism - follow salvation (Eph. 2:10).

Mark 16:16 and the Old Covenant:

Did the Old Covenant (O.C.) teach belief + circumcision = saved? Absolutely not! In Romans 4:9-12, Abraham was credited as righteous well before he was circumcised. Let's look at the biblical facts:

  • Genesis 15:2-3, states Abram was childless; "for I continue childless" ... "Behold, you have given me no offspring."
  • Genesis 15:4-6, chronicles the promise to Abram that he would have an heir; "your very own son shall be your heir."
  • Genesis 16:16, reports that, "Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael" to him.
  • Genesis 17:24-27, affirms that Ishmael was 13 yoa when his 99-year-old father Abraham, and his whole household were circumcised.

Therefore, assuming that Hagar was with child soon after Abraham's faith (Gen. 15:6), there is a space of at least 14 years between Abraham being reckoned to be righteousness and him being circumcised. While it may have even been longer; a time less than 14 years is literally impossible. So, uncircumcised Abraham was declared a righteous man well before he received the covenant sign and seal of circumcision.

Mark 16:16 - Emphasis on Obedience:

Baptism is extremely important as a sign and seal in the N.C., just as circumcision was in the O.C. How important? Consider Moses' case under the O.C. God threatened some very serious ramifications if Moses' child didn't receive the O.C. sign and seal of circumcision (cf. Exod. 4:18-31). Why? Because the child was included in God's covenant too (1 Cor. 7:14; cf. even lost people can be in the covenant - circumcised Esau and Ishmael).

In my opinion, in the Gospel of Mark "obedience" to the covenant sign and seal of baptism is being emphasized because Mark's audience is primarily Gentile, who weren't as familiar with the importance of the covenant signs and seals as the Jews were. In the O.C., we observe something related. Zipporah - Moses' wife (Exod. 3:1), a Gentile, a Midianite - by God's grace "obeyed" when God said to circumcise her son (cf. Exod. 4:25). By the same grace, Mark - even if someone added to his Gospel - emphasized the "obedience" of the N.C. sign and seal of baptism in Mark 16:16 to his primary Gentile audience. Abraham was a Gentile from the Ur of the Chaldees (Gen. 11:31). Gentiles being in the eternal covenant was also emphasized in the Abrahamic Covenant - "father of many nations" (Gen. 17:4); it's emphasized throughout Scripture (Psa. 45:17; Isa. 42:6: Zech. 14:16; Eph. 3:1-6, etc.).

Baptism is a command of our Lord Himself (cf. Matt. 28:19). It is extremely important as a covenant sign and seal. The Apostle Paul informs us in Romans 4:11 that circumcision, and thus baptism (Col. 2:8-15), is a "sign." Ultimately signs point to something greater, grander, and more important themselves. As was circumcision in the O.C., baptism in the N.C. is a sign that one is a member of God's eternal covenant. As such, all the blessings and cursings are in effect for each and every person (child and adult) in the covenant.

Moreover, baptism signifies regeneration and the repentance of sins (John 3:5; Acts 2:38). Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone (John 3:1-8). Clearly, faith and repentance are gifts of God (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:24-26) and His work alone in the believer, whereas baptism is the work of the Spirit and man. Water baptism symbolizes the new life of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Moreover, its washing represents the cleansing from sin that results from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20-21). One is pure in Christ alone!

Mark 16:16 - Baptism isn't Salvation:

Being baptized doesn't necessarily mean one has been or will be regenerated. The adult baptized Simon Magus professed to believe too, but was lost (Acts 8:13-25). Whether an infant or adult, having the sign and seal of baptism doesn't necessarily mean one has the actual reality the sign signifies. Just because there may be a 'new' McDonald's sign off the interstate, doesn't mean that there is necessarily an actual restaurant there; and for any number of reasons there may never be! Baptismal regeneration is a false doctrine.

Mark 16:16 and Infant Baptism:

As infants were circumcised under the O.C. (Gen. 17:10-14), so should they be baptized under the N.C. Why? Because as parents in the N.C. are saved by the preaching of the gospel, Abraham also had the gospel preached to him too (Gal. 3:8). Abraham circumcised his entire family (Gen. 17:10-14), so it follows that N.C. members should baptize theirs (Col. 2:11-12).

Under both covenants - the N.C. is the re-newed covenant (see below) - infants are covenant members too (1 Cor. 7:14: cf. lost people can be in the covenant too - circumcised Esau and Ishmael) and as such are responsible to abide by all the terms of the covenant - including in time having saving faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. As the WCF Chapter XXVIII, Of Baptism, IV states:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time.

Covenant infants should be baptized. See links below.

In Closing:

Salvation is by faith alone. This said, good works will follow all those that genuinely believe (Matt. 7:16; Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 2:21; Tit. 2:14; Jas. 2:14-26). Regeneration is the canvass upon which the good works God ordained before the foundation of the world are continuously and artistically painted upon.

Related Answers:

The Re-Newed or New Covenant?
What are Oikos Baptisms?
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
Explaining Baptism in Children's Language

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).