Summary: When we are baptized into the body of Christ, we become part of that great family of believers of all times and places.
I now invite you to turn in your bibles to the second chapter of the book of Acts and follow alone as I read verses 38 and 39.
38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks Be to God.
Can You Baptize?
Lets take a hypothetical situation. Suppose your are visiting a friend in the hospital, and you realize that she is about to die right now. It is the end. Your friend manages to say, “I believe in Jesus, but I was never baptized. I don’t want to meet Jesus without being baptized, so will you baptize me?”
You look for a chaplain or pastor, but you know how those guys are, they are never around when you need them. It’s just you. The question is: Can you take water out of the sink and baptize that dying friend in such a way that it will be acceptable to God? Can you baptize or do you need an ordained minister of the gospel?
Of course you can. In a case of necessity, any believer can baptize a person who is sincerely seeking baptism, and that baptism is effective. Ordinarily though, baptism is done in the church by an ordained minister.
Can You Be Saved Without Baptism?
But that leads to another question. Suppose that in spite of your best efforts, your friend in the hospital dies before you administer baptism. Can she be saved without it? Or, to ask the question another way, Is she doomed to go to hell because she was not baptized. Back in the medieval ages, the church would have answered, Yes. In that time, the church literally believed that baptism saves you. Thus, any unbaptized person was doomed to hell. That was why they rushed to baptize newborn babies. In that time, infant mortality rates were appalling—about 50%. They knew that there was a good chance the baby would die. So, they rushed babies down to the church and got them sprinkled; thereby ensuring that the child would go to heaven.
That was the medieval view. The Reformation in the 1500’s led us to reinterpret the doctrine of baptism. Today the large majority of Christians say that Baptism is symbolic. To put it bluntly, the water does not save you.
In the gospel of Luke, chapter 23, we have the incident of the good thief. Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of them derided him and mocked him, but the other rebuked the mocker, and said to Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It does not appear likely that this thief on the cross was dunked or even sprinkled while he was on that cross, but we have the word of the Lord that he is in heaven with Jesus, and that is good enough for me.
That answers the question about your friend in the hospital who died without baptism. If she believed in Jesus, as she said she did, then the word of the Lord for her is: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Can you be saved without being baptized? Of course you can. Because baptism does not save you, it is a symbol of salvation.