Mark 16:16 is a classically troubling text to many Christians who recognize the errors of either baptismal regeneration or works-righteousness:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:16
It doesn’t do much good to argue that Mark 16:16 is probably not original to Mark, because the sentiment is echoed elsewhere, as we’ll see shortly. So how should we understand this? Is baptism required for justification?
There are several things we could say about the logic of Mark 16:16, but what I want to focus on is the rhetorical structure. The verse is a kind of antithetical parallelism—a figure of speech in which two similar but opposing ideas are contrasted. Parallelisms trade on symmetry: what is true of the first part must also be true of the second (in this case, in reverse).
The reason I bring this up is that there is an apparent asymmetry here: the first part mentions both belief and baptism; the second part mentions only belief. But since what is true of the second part must be true of the first—only in reverse—we can see that belief-and-baptism in the first is being identified as meaning the same thing as just belief in the second. Jesus does not say that whoever does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned; he says only that those who do not believe will be. But given the structure of the parallel, he is speaking about the same thing in the second part as in the first. It therefore follows that baptism must be a kind of merism that describes what it means to believe.
But how can that be? In what way does baptism describe belief? How can it be considered somehow synonymous with believing?
Faith as allegiance
This is actually easy to answer—although doing so does challenge the emaciated evangelical understanding of sola fide:
The Greek term pistis, which is usually translated as belief or faith, doesn’t typically mean mere intellectual agreement. Rather, it often refers to allegiance or fealty toward a king.
For example, in 3 Maccabees 3:2 (NRSV) the Jews are said to continue to “maintain goodwill and unswerving loyalty [pistis] toward the dynasty.” In a similar statement in 5:31, Ptolemy notes that they have showed “a full and firm loyalty [pistis]” to his ancestors. The Greek expansions to Esther 3 similarly describes Haman’s relationship to King Artaxerxes as one of “unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity [pistis]” while Josephus, writing c. 75 AD, uses pistis routinely to refer to allegiance or loyalty (some examples are: Antiquities 12.47, 147, 396; The Jewish War 1.207; 2.341). [Cited in Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017).]
So if pistis is as much about allegiance as it is about belief, Mark’s identifying baptism with pistis suggests that being baptized is a paradigm case of showing allegiance; a token that stands in place of pistis itself. Although this sounds odd to our ears, it is a typically Jewish way of thinking—in terms of wholes rather than their parts, and in terms of combining rather than dividing or categorizing, as we tend to. It’s called Semitic Totality. [ Bernard J. LeFrois, Semitic Totality Thinking, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1955), 17, no. 2:195–203.]
This suggests that Mark sees baptism as a kind of pledge of allegiance. I think this is corroborated quite explicitly by 1 Peter 3:21—another classically troubling text for Protestants. Peter sees baptism precisely in these terms. If this is right, the parallelism of Mark 16:16 is saying, in effect, that “whoever places allegiance and pledges allegiance will be saved, but whoever does not place allegiance will be condemned.”
Baptism as a pledge of allegiance in 1 Peter
So why do I think that Peter imagines baptism as a pledge of allegiance? Here’s the text:
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as a pledge [eperotema] to God of a good conscience [syneidesis], through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 3:21
BDAG and others note that eperotema can mean both pledge and appeal. This is reflected in the divided translation choices that different Bibles make: the NIV, NET, HCSB and others say pledge; the ESV, NASB, NHEB and others say appeal; the BLB even says demand. Others try to hedge their bets in various ways; Faithlife’s LEB translates it appeal, but in the study notes it adds, “a pledge of loyalty to God;” the NLT preserves the ambiguity by rendering eperotema as response.
I think surely this last choice is basically right, in that it recognizes both ways as valid: Peter is using a double entendre. This is a pledge of the kind of allegiance that appeals to God’s mercy.
By the same token, syneidesis (“a good conscience”) refers at least as much to attentiveness to obligation as mere moral knowledge (cf. 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Corinthians 10:25, 27-29; Hebrews 9:9, 14). I.e., it is not just a moral compass that “points us north,” toward God; rather, it is our particular effort of going north, toward God; of heeding the needle’s pull. Peter isn’t merely saying that we appeal to God for a clear conscience in baptism. He is saying that we pledge fealty to God from/with/out of a clear conscience (cf. Hebrews 10:22–23).
Translating verse 21 this way also makes much more sense of 1 Peter 3:22, which emphasizes Jesus’ kingship over all things. The thought-sequence is consistent: baptism saves us as a pledge of allegiance, made to the king out of a clear conscience, relying on the resurrection as the power and proof of our adoption into his family (cf. 1 Peter 1:3).
Other strands of evidence
Romans 6:3–4 further links baptism to an identification with Jesus’ resurrection. There is an analogy between Jesus being raised from death, and our being raised from the water. Since the resurrection was how God publicly testified that Jesus was his now-reigning king (Romans 1:4), baptism is, by analogy, how we testify that Jesus is our now-reigning king.
Moreover, Christian baptism has its roots in John’s baptism, which was a public profession of repentance (Matthew 3:6; Acts 13:24 etc). This is why Peter tells the Jews to repent and be baptized—it is a parallelism that required no further explanation, because they already understood that to be baptized just was to publicly repent: to turn from one’s loyalty to self and sin and other gods (cf. Psalm 82:1; Exodus 12:12; 1 Corinthians 8:5 etc), and to pledge allegiance to Jesus. Now, obviously there was a qualitative difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus, which is why the latter was necessary—but the point is that baptism itself as a public profession of faithfulness was taken for granted (cf. Acts 16:15).
This view of baptism as a pledge is also reflected in the early church. Tertullian, writing early in the third century, observes:
When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Tertullian, Of the Soldier’s Crown, 3
Interestingly, Tertullian elsewhere refers to baptism as “the solemn declaration of the sacrament” (Of the Soldier’s Crown, 14)—and the Latin word sacramentum itself originally referred to a pledge or oath; as, for instance, a Roman soldier’s oath of allegiance to the emperor.
Obviously there is more we could say here, and I’ll have more to say about baptism and 1 Peter 3 at another time. But the takeaway for now is that baptism is a public renouncement of one’s former enslavement to Satan and the other spiritual rulers of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12 etc), and a pledge of allegiance to the enthroned king, Jesus.