Let's consider the account of Saul's baptism in Acts 22:1-16. Paul tells the account of his conversion to the people of Jerusalem. Saul (also known as Paul, Acts 13:9) was on his way to Damascus to bind Christians and bring them to Jerusalem when a great light from heaven shone round about him. The Lord spoke to Saul, asking him "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Saul asked the question "Who art thou, Lord?" The Lord reveals His identity to Saul: "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest." Saul immediately realized the grievous wrongs he had committed (e.g. consenting to the murder of Stephen: Acts 22:19,20). Saul was unwilling to continue down his current path of life and asked the Lord "What shall I do?" The Lord answered, "Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do." What did Saul demonstrate when he asked the Lord what he must do? He voiced his repentance: he was unwilling to continue persecuting the Lord's church, but he didn't know what to do. How did he show his repentance? By obedience to the command he was given of the Lord. He went to Damascus, but for a different purpose. This time he went seeking a Christian for guidance, not to imprison. The Lord told him of a man named Ananias, who would tell him all he needed to do (Acts 9:6-12). In a vision Ananias was told to go to Saul, which he did (Acts 9:10-16; 22:12,13). Now please carefully consider the words spoken to Saul by Ananias in verses 13-16 of Acts 22. Ananias laid his hands on Saul, and Saul received his sight the same hour. Ananias revealed to Saul that he was chosen to know God's will and be His witness unto all men of what he had seen and heard. What did Ananias tell Saul to do next? In Acts 22:16 he tells Saul to "arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." What do the scriptures reveal to us in this statement? Clearly, Saul was still in a sinful state when he first met Ananias. Otherwise, why would Ananias have told him to "be baptized, and wash away thy sins?" If Saul's sins had been forgiven on the Damascus road Ananias would not have needed to tell Saul to wash his sins away. In Paul's account of his conversion we see the purpose of baptism clearly revealed: baptism is necessary in order to receive the forgiveness of sins! Many people are teaching today that one is saved when one believes in Jesus, and that baptism is an "outward sign of an inner work." Many teach that baptism allows one to gain entry into the church, but that one is saved at the moment of belief. They then have a certain day set aside where a large number of people who are already "saved" are baptized for entry into the church. As we can see in the account of Saul's conversion these are false teachings. Did Saul believe in Jesus? Yes! Did Saul repent? Yes! Had Saul's sins been forgiven (washed away) at the moment of his belief and repentance? No! Was Saul saved before his baptism? No! Are people today saved before baptism? No!
Let's consider the believers on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter had finished preaching a sermon where he clearly outlined from the Old Testament scriptures the coming of the kingdom of God. He reminded them how Jesus had shown His coming from God through the miracles He performed. Despite this they crucified Him, but God raised him from the dead. Peter again showed from the scriptures how David had prophesied Jesus' resurrection. He reminded them how they were all witnesses to the things that had occurred shortly beforehand. In verse 37 we see the effect of Peter's sermon: they were pricked in their heart and asked "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" This is the same question Saul would ask the Lord, as recorded later in the book of Acts and which we studied in the preceding paragraph. What did Peter tell them? Again carefully consider his instructions as recorded in verse 38: he told them that every one of them must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. Please review definitions 1a and 1b in Merriam-Webster given for the preposition for. This word is used to indicate purpose or an intended goal. Remember our study of confession? We reviewed the use of the prepositions unto and into as recorded in John 6:16,17. As you recall, the word unto indicated progression toward something, and into indicated actually entering something (the disciples came unto the sea and entered into a boat). The Greek word translated for in Acts 2:38 is eis. This is the same word translated into in John 6:17 (the disciples entered into a ship). So, confession is made to bring one toward salvation, and baptism brings one into salvation through the remission of sins. The purpose of baptism is to attain the remission of sins. One's sins are not remitted before baptism; only after baptism is one forgiven of sin.
Now let's turn to 1 Peter 3:20-21. You are all familiar with the account of Noah as recorded in Genesis 6-8. Peter reminds us of Noah in his first epistle, chapter 3. He reminds us how eight souls were saved from death by drowning as the entire earth was covered with water. Were people drowned by the flood? Of course so! The purpose of the flood was to rid the earth of the wickedness of mankind (Genesis 6:5-7). However, Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord because he was righteous and walked with God (Genesis 6:8,9). But what saved Noah and his family? Did his goodness alone save him, his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law? No! Did his belief alone that God would save him from the flood preserve his life and the lives of his family members? No! First, he had to believe God would destroy the earth. But that wasn't enough. After believing he had to obey God's command to build the ark exactly as God instructed. Once the ark was built he had to enter it and remain within it in order receive salvation from death by drowning. If Noah had failed to do any one of these necessary things, he would have died with the rest! His goodness alone would not have saved him! Peter tells us that baptism is a like figure to Noah's obedience in building the ark and depending upon it to save his life. Just as Noah had to build the ark and depend upon it during the flood, we must be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sin and enter into salvation from eternal destruction. Baptism "doth also now save us" (1 Peter 3:21)!
Let's summarize what we've learned about the purpose of baptism. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). We all deserve to receive the wages of our sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). God has offered salvation to mankind, but this salvation can be neglected (Hebrews 2:3). If we neglect the salvation offered by God, we will receive the just reward for our sin (Hebrews 2:2). Since salvation can be neglected, it is up to the sinner to make sure they have not neglected the salvation offered by God. God has outlined for us how we enter into salvation through the forgiveness of sin. Baptism is necessary to receive the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16). If one has not been baptized one is still in sin and has neglected the salvation offered by God. As we saw in Hebrews 2:2, such a one will not escape the reward for unforgiven sin (eternal death). Have you neglected the great salvation offered by our merciful heavenly Father?