A number of verses are used to "prove" that baptism is required for salvation. They include Mark 1:4; 16:16; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21. Groups like the Church of Christ and others use these verses to teach this doctrine. Some dispensationalists teach that, though baptism is not required for salvation today, it was required during the time of Christ and immediately afterwards. Therefore, although the Jews of the time of Christ had to be baptized in order to be saved, believers today do not. I have respect for those who teach this--as they are attempting to be faithful to the wording of scripture--but I do not think it is the best way to approach these scriptures.
Baptism is an external work. However, God is clear that salvation is not by works. It is not by the works of the law (Galatians 2:16) and it is not by the works of righteousness (Titus 3:5). Therefore, it stands that salvation is not by baptism. In fact, one of the verses used to teach baptismal regeneration clearly teaches the opposite. 1Peter 3:21 states, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." This verse tells us that baptism saves us, but not in the putting away of the filth of the flesh. That is, it does not cleanse us of our sins. There is no forgiveness through baptism. Rather, it gives "the answer of a good conscience toward God." It gives us a good conscience in that we have done what God has asked us to do. But it does not save us in the sense of removing our sins or saving our soul.
The teaching that water baptism is required for salvation is problematic in other ways. For one thing, we see the promise that Jesus made to the thief on the cross: "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). This thief went to heaven even though he had not been baptized. Also, we have the story of Cornelius and his household. When they believed, they immediately received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Peter then said, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" (Acts 10:47). Either baptism was not necessary for salvation, or they received the Holy Ghost without being saved. Yet, the angel had told Cornelius to send for Peter, "Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). They were saved by believing the message they heard (the words), not by being baptized.
But what about the emphasis on baptism in the gospels and the early part of Acts? John the Baptist preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." That certainly sounds like a baptism that brings forgiveness of sins. Then, of course, we have Peter's well-quoted invitation in Acts 2:38, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." How can we understand these verses?
First, we must know to whom they were spoken. The message of the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins was given in every biblical instance to Jewish people. Even in Acts two the message was addressed to "Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem" (Acts 2:14) and "Ye men of Israel" (Acts 2:22). It was not spoken to Gentiles. This is important because the Jews were already the people of God by their physical birth. They were not automatically saved, but they were God's chosen people. But, as God's chosen people, they had rebelled against Him. The purpose of the baptism of repentance was to get their sins of rebellion against the Lord forgiven. Then, they could approach the greater goal of eternal salvation. Let me try to establish this scripturally.
The baptism of repentance was called John’s baptism (Acts 19:1-5). It was a baptism in water (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:26, 33). It was to be preceded by a turning from sin (Luke 3:7-14); in other words, the baptism was not the repentance itself but only an outward expression that the person had already repented. It was marked by confession of sins (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5) and offered remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38).
There are twelve scriptural references to remission, remit, remitted (Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; 3:3; 24:47; John 20:23(2); Acts 2:38; 10:43; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:22; Hebrews 10:18). The word, remission, literally means to send back; to refrain from exacting payment; to refrain from inflicting punishment; to put off; to postpone. In the Bible, remission was one of the benefits of the OT sacrifices (Hebrews 9:22). Remission was used in reference to the covering of OT sins (Romans 3:25 with Hebrews 9:15) and to sins that were to be blotted out in the future (Acts 3:19; Romans 11:26-27; Jeremiah 50:20).
In the New Testament, the baptism for the remission of sins led to a knowledge of salvation. In Luke 1:76-77, Zecharias prophesied concerning his son, John the Baptist: "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins." Notice carefully: John would give the people the knowledge of salvation by the remission of their sins. The baptism of repentance for the remission of sins was not an act which brought salvation. Rather, it opened up the way for those who repented to be saved.
It was given to Israel as preparation for the coming of the King and His kingdom. Israel had rebelled against the Lord and was not ready for the coming kingdom. John preached a way for them to prepare for the kingdom. He came to bear witness of the Light (John 1:7). They were to repent and then be baptized for the remission of sins. In this, God would refrain from exacting payment for their sins. This would lead them to a knowledge of salvation through faith in the Messiah when He arrived (see Mark 1:14-15; Acts 13:23-25).
For further proof, consider the statement of Paul in Acts 19:4 - "Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus." Those who received the baptism of repentance were told that they needed to believe on Him who should come after. They had not yet believed in Christ. Therefore, they were not saved in the New Testament sense. The baptism of repentance simply prepared them as Jews to receive the Messiah when He was revealed.
Since the initial message of Jesus Christ went to the Jews, the practice of baptism as an act of repentance was not altered immediately. It was only after salvation was clearly extended to the Gentiles with the salvation of Cornelius and his household that baptism began to come after salvation. Yet, even in the time of Christ and the apostles, baptism was not the means of salvation but it was the means of pointing others to Christ so that thy could get saved.
Water baptism today is an act of obedience to God so that those who are already saved can make a public statement of their faith and visibly picture the change of heart that they have already experienced. It will not save them and it is not necessary to salvation.