"Is baptism essential to being saved, or is baptism an act of obedience as a result of being saved?"
If you're of the church of Christ persuasion (may be others, but this is the simplest, most obvious, delineation), then you likely adhere to the former; that baptism is an act "unto" salvation. That we "receive" salvation by the act of baptism; agreeing that salvation is a gift of God, and His grace, but baptism being a requirement to "receive" the free gift of salvation. We are to repent and be baptized for the remissino of sins. Save the translation argument of the word "for" ..for another day. Scripture references such as Acts 2:38, among others, would be supportive of this viewpoint.
If you're of a Baptist (again, there may be others, but this is the simplest, most obvious, delineation) persuasion ...then you likely adhere to the later; that baptism is an act of obedience, an identifying with Christ, following salvation ...which occurs after calling on the Lord; confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead.
I have a very dear friend who adheres to the church of Christ view. We have lunch together, and seek the truth together. I am grateful for him and we, in no way, "spar" over these topics. We agree that it is an area of disagreement ....and I just wanna' get to the bottom of it. And I believe there "is" a bottom to it. :)
From the church of Christ defense: I firmly believe that my brothers and sisters here simply want to honor, obey, and follow God's word as it is given to us, inspired, in Scripture. I will never, never consider this "foolishness", and have learned, via my friend, that this isn't even necessarily a "legalistic" attitude. It is, simply, an "obedient" attitude. If it were merely a matter of erring on the side of caution .....I'd flip to this view in a heart-beat ...based on what is known, arguments in translation inclusive, of Scripture. By the way... I wholly agree with my church of Christ friends on matters of elder leadership, denominationalism being far from Christ' intentions and hurtful to "the church". That, alone, may start another discussion. I'm all for it. :)
From the Baptist defense: However, I believe this idea of baptism, and its essential-ness, is "more" than a matter of a lesser of evils (forgive the pun), or erring on the side of caution. Most of the genuine believing, Christ-following Baptist brothers and sisters I know would also follow suit, drop their preconceived notions, and adhere in obedience if so warranted. BUT... to blindly agree to a precept such as baptism being essential to salvation means that the Baptist must disregard his / her belief that salvation is by grace, through faith. To simply "err on the side of caution" would be to disregard the view that God's atonement is solely from Him and no "good work" we may do, inclusive of the good work of baptism, should suffice. The Bsptist beleiver, a true Christ-follower, would not dare consider a slap in the face of God so easily. Not saying that is what it would be (a slap in God's face), but this would be the general perspective, I believe.
Now ....on to the conflict! I keep reading an often used statement, by church of Christ brothers, in relation to baptism and the thief on the cross. The statement is.. "How do we know the thief wasn't baptized years before by John or Jesus?" My only rub with this statement is that it certainly seems to contradict an attitude, toward Scripture, that church of Christ brothers also adhere to; that of Scripture either indicating a practice or belief be held, or that it is not ...and no assuming inbetween. The opposing / conflicting argument would be in relation to instruments in the worship service. Whether or not instruments should be allowed in worship, or if the Lord truly gives a flip, but is more interested in our motivation… I can take or leave. If in doubt… I would, as I have said many times, throw every instrument out the window ….simply to remove even the idea, or notion, as a distraction to worship, fellowship, edification, the strengthening and building up of Christ’ church ...and simply to honor my Lord and His mandates, wishes, or desires. This, to me, is a no-brainer! And I think I can be so bold as to say we would all agree that salvation does not “directly”, at least, depend on which of the two view-points one chooses (instruments or not). I say “not directly” only to make allownace that the hardened, prideful heart that might be dogmatic one way or the other ….may also not be humble enough to believe and receive the gift of salvation.
BUT!!!! What I don’t believe that a true Christ-follower will simply just take or leave is the matter of “what is required to obtain or receive salvation?” This is a far greater issue than that of instruments or no instruments. Even greater than having a designated "pastor" and being congregaton governed, or being elder lead.
That statement (How do you know the thief wasn't baptized years before by John or Jesus?), in and of itself, makes sense to me. It is certainly plausible that the repentant thief was indeed a back-slidden believer. To my knowledge, there is no way to know; no record one way or the other in Scripture.
But here’s my conflict. I have heard and read several accounts of the above statement, as a defense to the statement / question… “If the thief on the cross was saved, and to be with Jesus in paradise, then doesn’t this indicate baptism as a non-essential??”
From the same mouths stating ....“If Scripture doesn’t state it, then we do not assume it.” (e.g. musical instruments) I hear / read a possibility, a supposition, of "How do we know the thief on the cross wasn't baptized previously?" It is agreed that… nowhere in the New Testament is any indication given that there are instruments used in worship. Moreover, no inference that an instrument ever “was” ….unless you factor in Old Testament worship.
So, how can reference be made to even the remote possibility of an event (How do we know the thief never was baptized?) in a positive, or supporting, fashion… and at the same time state that no assumptions or assertions be made of Scripture? Implication cannot even be factored in ..in relation to the thief on the cross. To my knowledge, nowhere is it “implied” that the thief may have been baptized at some point. The evidence simply is not there. So, if we would not allow instruments in worship, based on implication or lack thereof, then shouldn’t the same rules apply for the matter of baptism and the thief on the cross? By the way, so that we don't get too hung up on the instrument issue, my church of Christ friend makes very clear that he is not dogmattic about this being right or wrong (instruments in worship), but if he cannot find evidence supporting the idea ...then he doesn't feel there is any authority by which to apply it. This would be true with instruments or anything else. But again, why would implication be made of the thief on the cross possibly being baptized at some prior time??
One who believes baptism is essential to salvation would not dare desire dishonoring God, or questioning His mandate, by even considering anything other than what God has required.
Likewise, one who believes baptism is NOT essential to salvation should, likewise, desire to honor God. The common view here is….. I wouldn’t want to apply a mandate to something which God did not, and therefore, undermine His gift of grace ….or in any way apply “good works” to the receipt of His gift of salvation.
That (a and b) is, honestly, the conflict, I believe. Any truly repentant Baptist I know would be willing to concede, in a heart-beat, baptism unto salvation …..”IF” it were clear that is what God mandates. But to take that view changes EVERYTHING! This is no easy switch! The Baptist mind, generally speaking, keeps going back to… “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Discussion, here, would be wonderful, warranted, and desired. But please, let's not just re-hash what we already know about this difficulty. But if you have something new to add .....I know many a Christ-follower would be grateful.