The interplay of baptism, the Holy Spirit, and salvation
Let's start with the crucial issue: We are saved when we are "sealed" with the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:13 says, "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit" (Cf. 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 4:30). Notice that the Spirit is granted when we believe: "By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive" (John 7:39); "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?" (Gal 3:2; cf. v. 5; Acts 19:2); "God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth" (2 Thess 2:13). Few would dispute this clear scriptural teaching.
So what about baptism? The Bible links belief with baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12–13; 18:8; 19:4; Col 2:12). Again, this "belief" is not a theological stance on a point of Christian doctrine; it is obedience to the will of God. Baptism is thus a visible vehicle of faith. For example, in Acts 8:12 "When they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women." The same is said of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13), Crispus (Acts 18:9), and these twelve disciples (Acts 19:4–5). Paul puts it this way: "Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col 2:12). The notion that acts of faith (such as baptism) have no place in our conversion, that somehow belief is intellectual assent rather than submissive obedience, is anti-biblical and should be thoroughly rejected. As an act of faith, it was natural for the Apostles to connect baptism to conversion. Peter said, "This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). Paul wrote, "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 (Rom 6:4). John cites Jesus, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5, see also Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Gal 3:27; Col 2:11–12). Those with a low view of immersion should reconsider their position based on the high position it repeatedly takes in Scripture. This is not our work for God but indeed his work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:27; Eph 4:5). Yes, the Holy Spirit is connected to baptism!
Obviously, the Holy Spirit is involved with the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11; Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 10:44-46; 11:16). But the Spirit is also clearly connected with water baptism (Eph 4:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Titus 3:5; John 3:5). This is natural enough since both the OT (Psa 46:4-5; Isa 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; 58:11; Eze 39:29; Joel 2:28) and NT (John 3:5-6; 7:38–39) describe the Holy Spirit in terms of working through or like water. Even more specifically, several "New Birth" texts mention both the water and Spirit as effective forces in the conversion process (John 3:3-7; 1 Cor 6:11; Titus 3:3-7). But is this "water" merely a metaphor, or does it signify immersion? There is no question that the Holy Spirit is connected to immersion in Acts 2:38-39; 19:1-6 and 1 Cor 12:13. It seems fair, therefore, to interpret the other "water" passages as baptism. The bottom line is that the Holy Spirit is clearly connected with water baptism in the process of conversion.
So, belief, baptism and the Holy Spirit are all central to Christian conversion. The Holy Spirit, the true mark of a Christian (Rom 8:9; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13) is promised both through belief (John 7:38-39) and immersion (Acts 2:38-39). Baptism is not a work by which we earn the presence of the Holy Spirit. Rather it is an expression of our faith which causes us to open our lives to the Spirit's indwelling.
But what if a person is not immersed? Oddly, the NT never considers that options. Immersion was a normative conversion experience of early Christians. So we are asking a question the Bible is not designed to answer. That will require a bit of speculation. Be that as it may, let me offer my own firm conviction that conversion is about a relationship with the Father brokered by the Holy Spirit. It is not about rules or works, merit or legalism. The bottom line is that God wants a relationship with us and will do what it takes to make that happen. Perhaps a metaphor will help. Can a baby enter this world without passing through its mother's birth canal? Sure, we call it Caesarian Section. While it is not optimal, it is definitely possible. Medical doctors mastered this technique because of their commitment to life. Is God less interested in bringing life into the kingdom? It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is expert in the unexpected and abnormal. After all, most of our lives don't follow any kind of normal, predictable tract. So for those billions of believers who have had faith in the Lord Jesus, and confessed him as Lord, the Holy Spirit has sealed them. The plan was to do this commensurate with immersion, but this "norm" hardly restricts the Holy Spirit's work outside to fulfill the Father's passion to bring us under his loving rule and adopt us into his family.
Why is this long entry on the John 3:30 blog? There are two justifications. First, I get this question a lot so it probably deserves a thorough answer. On the one hand, some have difficulty with baptism playing any role in our salvation and I find that to be a mistake. On the other hand, some want to make baptism an entry requirement (kind of a secret handshake before admittance into the lodge), to which I am equally opposed. It seems to me that both positions have a mechanical view of salvation rather than a relational view. Salvation is neither a "zap" from God through our faith, nor is it a meritorious reward for jumping through the right hoops. Salvation is a relationship of submission to Jesus. If he increases and we decrease there is no problem in following him in Christian baptism where we die to self and live for him. Nor is there a problem admitting our own need for the Holy Spirit to do something extraordinary, unexpected, and beyond our abilities to predict, adjudicate, or control. To those on both sides of this issue I would humbly confess my own absolute failure at controlling my own life, let alone God's rescue of my soul.