Question: "Does Mark 16:16 teach that baptism is necessary for salvation?"
Answer: As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand. In the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9). So, any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other act, is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation. For more information, please visit our webpage on "Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works?"
In regard to Mark 16:16, it is important to remember that there are some textual issues with Mark chapter 16, verses 9-20. There is some question as to whether these verses were originally part of the Gospel of Mark, or whether they were added later by a scribe. As a result, it is best not to base a key doctrine on anything from Mark 16:9-20, such as snake-handling, unless it is also supported by other Scriptures.
Assuming that verse 16 was included in Mark’s original manuscript, does it teach that baptism is required for salvation? The simple answer is: No, it does not. In fact, when one carefully examines this verse, it becomes clear that in order to make this it teach that baptism is required for salvation, one must go beyond what the verse actually says. What this verse does teach is that belief is necessary for salvation, which is consistent with all other verses in the Bible that deal with salvation, especially the countless verses where only belief or faith is mentioned (e.g. John 3:18; John 5:24; John 12:44; John 20:31; 1 John 5:13).
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). If we look at this verse closely, we see that it is composed of two basic statements. 1—He who believes and is baptized will be saved. 2—He who does not believe will be condemned.
Clearly, the determining factor regarding whether one is saved or condemned is whether or not he believes. In interpreting this passage correctly, it is important to realize that while it tells us something about believers who have been baptized (they are saved), it does not say anything about believers who have not been baptized. In order for this verse to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, a third statement would have had to be included, that statement being: “He who believes and is not baptized will be condemned” or “He who is not baptized will be condemned.” But, of course, neither of these statements is found in the verse.
Those who try to use Mark 16:16 to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation commit a common but serious logical fallacy that is sometimes called the Negative Inference Fallacy. This fallacy can be stated as follows: “If a statement is true, we cannot assume that all negations (or opposites) of that statement are also true." In other words, just because Mark 16:16 says that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” it does not mean that if one believes, but is not baptized, he will not be saved. Yet, this is exactly what is assumed by those that look to this verse to support the view that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Often when considering logical fallacies, it can be helpful to look at other examples of the same fallacy. This will help us see the fallacy that is being committed more clearly. In this case let’s consider two different but similarly structured statements. The first one is made considering the devastating hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans in the fall of 2005. As a result of that hurricane, many lives were lost, and whole areas of New Orleans were destroyed. With that scenario in mind let’s consider the first statement that is very similar in structure to what we find in Mark 16:16. "Those who left their homes and fled from New Orleans were saved; those who stayed in their homes perished."
Now, if we use the same logic on this statement as those that believe that Mark 16:16 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation, then we would have to conclude that if both the first conditions were not met (1—leaving their homes, 2—fleeing from New Orleans,) then everyone else would perish. Yet, in real life we know this was not true. Some people did stay in their homes in the low-lying areas and did not perish. In this situation it is easy to see that while the first statement is true, it is not true to assume that all those that did not flee New Orleans perished. Yet, if we use the same logic being used by those that say that Mark 16:16 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation, that is the conclusion that must be reached. Yet, it is clearly an erroneous conclusion.
Another example we might consider would be this statement: "Whoever believes and lives in Kansas will be saved, those that do not believe are condemned." Again take note of the similar structure as is found in Mark 16:16, and yet once again, it becomes clear that to say that only believers who live in Kansas are saved is an illogical and false assumption. While Mark 16:16 does tell us something about believers who have been baptized (they will be saved), again, it says nothing about believers who have not been baptized.
“Whoever believes and lives in Kansas will be saved.” “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). While both of these statements are true, we should notice that the first statement says nothing about people who believe and don’t live in Kansas. And in the same way, Mark 16:16 tells us nothing about believers who have not been baptized. It is a logical fallacy and false assumption, to make the first statement say that you have to live in Kansas to be saved, or the second statement say that you have to be baptized to be saved.
It is important to realize that just because Mark 16:16 has two conditions relating to salvation (believe and be baptized), it does not mean that both conditions are requirements for being saved. This would also hold true if a third condition was added. Whether it is two or three conditions in a statement about salvation, the fact is, that does not mean that all three conditions must be met for one to be saved. In fact, we can add any number of secondary conditions to belief, such as if you believe and are baptized you will be saved, or if you believe, are baptized, go to church, and tithe you will be saved. However, to imply that all these conditions are requirements for salvation is incorrect.
This is important to realize because in order to know that a specific condition is required for salvation, we must have a negation statement as we have in the second part of Mark 16:16: “whoever does not believe will be condemned.” In essence what Jesus has done in this verse is give us both the positive condition of belief (whoever believes will be saved) and the negative condition of unbelief (whoever does not believe will be condemned.) Therefore, we can say with absolute certainty that belief is a requirement for salvation. Even more importantly, we see both these positive and negative conditions over and over in Scripture (John 3:16; John 3:18; John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:53-54; John 8:24; Acts 16:31).
While Jesus does give the positive condition of baptism (whoever is baptized) in Mark 16:16 and other verses, nowhere in the Bible do we find the negative condition of baptism being taught (such as whoever is not baptized will be condemned). Therefore, we cannot say that baptism is necessary for salvation based on Mark 16:16 (or any other similar verse). Those that do so are basing their argument on faulty logic.
Does Mark 16:16 teach that baptism is or is not necessary for salvation? No it does not. It very clearly establishes that belief is a requirement for salvation, but does not prove or disprove whether baptism is a condition or requirement for salvation. How can we know, then, if one must be baptized in order to be saved? We must look to the full counsel of God’s word to establish this. To summarize the evidence against baptism being required for salvation:
1—The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith alone. Abraham was saved by faith, and we are saved by faith (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-22).
2--Throughout the Bible, in every dispensation, people have been saved without being baptized. Every believer in the Old Testament (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon) was saved but not baptized. The thief on the cross was saved but not baptized. Cornelius was saved before he was baptized (Acts 10:44-46).
3—Baptism is a testimony of our faith and a public declaration that we believe in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures clearly tell us that we have eternal life the moment we believe (John 5:24), and belief always comes before being baptized. Baptism does not save us any more than walking an aisle or saying a prayer saves us. We are saved when we believe.
4--The Bible never says that if one is not baptized then he is not saved.
5—If baptism is required for salvation, it means no one can be saved without a third party being present. In other words, if baptism is required for salvation, someone must baptize a person before he can be saved. This effectively limits who can be saved and when he can be saved. It means that someone who believes in and trusts in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but does not have the chance of being baptized, cannot be saved. The consequences of this doctrine, when carried to its logical conclusion, are devastating. A soldier who believes but is killed in battle before he can be baptized would perish, etc.
6—Throughout the Bible we see that at the point of faith or belief, a believer possesses all the promises and blessings of salvation (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 20:31; Acts 10:43; 13:39; 16:31). When one believes, he has eternal life, does not come under judgment, and has passed from death into life (John 5:24), all before he/she is baptized.
If someone believes in baptismal regeneration, he/she would do well to prayerfully and carefully consider who or what they are really putting their faith and trust in. Is faith being placed in an act (being baptized) or on the finished work of Christ on the cross? Whom or what is being trusted for salvation? Could it be that it is the shadow (baptism) instead of the substance (Jesus Christ)? We must never forget that our faith must rest in Christ alone because “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).