Billy Graham passed away today. Some may not be familiar with what he taught. He said, "I believe baptism is important, and I have been baptized. But I think we violate the Scriptures when we make baptism the prime requirement for salvation … Paul's central theme was Christ and His saving power. Although he spoke of baptism, he said: 'I thank God that I baptized none of you … lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name' (I Corinthians 1:14-15)." And, "If baptism were a requirement for salvation, we would certainly say that. But you couldn't support that knowing, for example, that the thief on the cross had no opportunity for baptism or church membership. Yet on his confession, paradise was secured. Jesus said to him, 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43)."
In I Corinthians, Paul was not denying the essential nature of baptism. He was condemning disciples for aligning themselves with preachers. "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Corinthians 1:10-13).
The same apostle Paul also wrote, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27). Logically, if I haven't been baptized into Christ, I haven't put on Christ. And, "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:3-11). We "walk in newness of life" when we rise from the waters of baptism. Can we do so without baptism? If so, what verse teaches that?
This is in perfect keeping with the words of Jesus: "And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.'" (Mark 16:15-16).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read, "There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21). This is as straightforward a passage as can be found, baptism is the point at which we are saved. Not just simple belief, which Mr. Graham taught, for "even the demons believe — and tremble" (James 2:19). Ananias told Saul of Tarsus: "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Baptism washes away sin.
As to the thief on the cross, he lived under the Law of Moses, where baptism was not a requirement. Remember, baptism represents the death, burial, and resurrection of the old man. It is our baptism in water that connects us to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-11). Jesus had not died, been buried, or resurrected at that point. So, Jesus could say to him that he would be in paradise. But under the Law of Christ, in Acts 2, the requirements changed, and baptism became necessary.
One gets a very different picture of baptism than that painted by Mr. Graham when all of the New Testament's teaching is considered. The "faith only" doctrine that he taught is denied by scripture, "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24—the only place in the Bible where "faith only" is found).