One of the questions that has plagued the church through time is whether baptism is essential for salvation. Part of the problem is that the institutional church, from at least the days of Constantine, used baptism as a sacrament that empowered the church and its leadership over the people. This has caused confusion for almost all of our history.
But that is not the whole explanation. One of the reasons why the institutionalized church has been able to get away with this is because the New Testament itself connects baptism and salvation so closely together. We cannot escape the fact that baptism and salvation are connected, the question is: how?
I do not think that the water is magical. I do not think that baptism conveys any special grace beyond the grace that one reaps from following Christ in obedience. I also do not believe that any work we do, even baptism, merits salvation.
Being baptized is not the way to be saved, but it is an outward action to make the decision more than just a thought; and salvation is indeed more than just a thought. It should be considered the first step of a new life, a life of obedience. It is declaring the decision for all to see. It is a step that announces a life of allegiance to the King.
In the NT the disciples who made a decision to follow Christ took their first step into the water. Baptism is, in a sense, much like the way walking an aisle for an altar call was a few years back. Once again, we have an example of us substituting a non-Biblical practice for the one first established by Jesus. The “sinner’s prayer” is another example of this. Both the altar call and the prayer are not adequate substitutes.
Baptism symbolizes so much: not just cleansing, but a tomb (death and resurrection), and a womb (being born again). It is being completely immersed in the name of the Triune Godhead with nothing held back. It is the end of an old life and the birth of a new one.