That’s a good question. Most people are aware that there are different points of view on the question of whether baptism is required for salvation. Scripture, however, is abundantly clear. Baptism is NOT required for salvation.
Christian baptism has its roots in a much older tradition. Converts to Judaism were baptized in a ritual bath called a MIKVAH. This immersion was a public statement that you wanted to join a community of faith, that you believed as they did, and that you intended to live that way. There are other uses for MIKVAH, such as in preparation for beginning ministry as a Jewish priest, cleansing tools and utensils for use in the Temple, and so on.
When Jesus was baptized, He was beginning His ministry. When those who came after Him were baptized, they were making a public statement of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and of their intention to join the Christian community. There’s no part of the ritual that leads to salvation.
Of course, Christians were commanded to be baptized in Scripture…but not until they were Christians. While there are certainly a few verses that appear to teach that baptism cleanses a person from sin, closer inspection shows that they don’t. We have examples of people being saved before baptism, and that should clear things up. Certainly the thief on the cross comes to mind, as do the words of Romans 6:3-4…
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Baptism symbolizes Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our decision to partake in the benefits of His sacrifice. Paul pointed to the fact that salvation doesn’t require baptism when he wrote to the Corinthians:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul definitely would not say that if baptism were necessary to go to heaven. Possibly the most damaging evidence against the belief that baptism is a requirement for salvation is found in Acts 10:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
The Gentiles (non-Jews) believed the gospel and were saved…and then they were baptized. Again, Scripture is clear on the matter. If you have specific questions about particular verses, let me know.