Baptism in the context of the new testament world was a ritual people entered into in order to show a change of religion. The word itself means to immerse, dip, or place into; initiation into. I believe baptism is a first step of obedience and testimony that is to be taken by one who has believed in Christ's substitutionary sacrifice for all their sins and is therefore already in possession of eternal life. (John 3:16, 5:24)
I like to use the formula (taken from Eph. 2:8-10) following to show how baptism relates to salvation (it is a 'work' we do): FAITH = SALVATION + WORKS. Note what is the cause here and what is the effect.
Below I have listed all the verses where we find the word baptize or a form of it(for your personal study), that give us any information about the subject. Some of these scriptures speak of spirit baptism, rather than water baptism, and the two are not synonymous. I challenge you to look them up...study them for yourself.
I have listed some 125 verses here that show the means of salvation to be faith in Christ. (See for example, Acts 10:43, Rom. 4:5, 5:1, John 1 :12, Romans 10:10-13, Acts 16:31) I have also indicated that sound interpretation of the scriptures includes following the bulk of what scripture teaches, rather than picking out isolated or unclear passages and ignoring the bulk. There are (listed below) 5 verses that are often cited as evidence that baptism "saves" us (as opposed to the 125+ that give no indication that baptism is a requirement). God certainly does not contradict himself. So the logical thing to do is to determine whether there is another possible interpretation for the 5 verses, rather than trying to reinterpret the 125.
John 3:5 First note that the word baptism does not occur in this passage. Then note that verses 4,6 and 7 all refer to a physical and a spiritual birth. That is most likely the idea of verse 5. Physical birth is a birth by water - amniotic fluid to be specific. Thirdly, note that the explanation immediately following speaks of believing as the way to be saved - verses 15-18. Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt and presumes that it means baptism, it may well be Christ was simply using a "euphemism" for change of religion, which baptism meant. (Changing religions would have been a radical thought for Nicodemus, a devout follower of old covenant law!) The euphemism would be similar to my telling a girl she needed to "walk down the church aisle" to get married, when the aisle of the church had almost nothing to do with her marital status!
(If John 3:5 refers to water baptism, that creates a problem for the LDS in that Mosiah 27:24 and 28 speak of one being born again, and born of God BEFORE he is baptized.)
Acts 2:38 Checking the Greek preposition here (be baptized for the remission of sins) we find that it could as correctly be translated "because of" - thus "Be baptized because of the remission of sins." Further, we must accept this as a partial explanation of how one is saved because verse 40 says it was.
Acts 22:16 The statement of Ananias to Paul I consider a partial and figurative reference to salvation. Paul was giving his testimony, not preaching or teaching on how to be saved. Obviously he wanted to indicate he had truly changed religions. For the complete story of Paul's conversion, see Acts chapter 9.
Mark 16:16 This verse and the ones following it are not found in some of the oldest manuscripts - a fact which is indicated in any good study Bible. Some new translations omit the section. The parallel passage, Matt. 28:18-20 gives several instructions, but the fact is, it is not specified in the giving of instructions just at what point the salvation comes in either of these passages. I firmly believe that all who genuinely believe in Christ, if they are able to do so, are going to want to follow him by being baptized. But there are some reasons (following) that I do not believe it is the baptism itself that cleanses us from sin.
I Peter 1:21 does have some complicated wording: "the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us." That needs some study. First, we can see we are dealing with symbolism ("figure"). The idea seems to be that just as water saved Noah, so baptism saves us. Did water save Noah? Or was it the Ark? Or was it God's command that he obeyed in building the ark? If water didn't save Noah, then baptism doesn't save us! So what is the meaning of this passage? It is that we are saved by what the water symbolizes. Both the flood water and baptism symbolize death (Romans 6:4), and through that death (Christ's) and resurrection we are saved, as the end of the verse states -- "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Please don't think I want to just ignore baptism. The scriptures command leaders to baptize their converts (Matt. 28:19-20). But it grieves me to see a false focus. What I mean is this: If it is the ritual itself that works a spiritual change in us, then salvation is in the hands of men, and it becomes important who baptizes you and how. But the scriptures show that it is a message believed that saves us(Rom. 1:16) -- i.e., the focus is on what Christ did, not which authority structure you become a part of. The efficiency of this is wonderful -- people who hear the radio in iron curtain countries, read gospel literature, see the truth via the internet, can be saved NOW... they don't have to wait for the government to allow people to come to them to "save" them. And that is just what is happening for hundreds of thousands. The changed lives of 3rd world Christians, willing to live lives far more fervent than most Americans, even unto martyrdom, is evidence that God has no "franchise" on salvation such as the LDS, Roman Catholics, or others have presumed. And the fact that the scriptures do NOT focus on the who and how of baptism is significant in itself (see list of scripture references below).
The Mormon concept of baptism is that it is a covenant we make that we will obey God. And if we keep that covenant, then we will be "saved" (celestial glory or exaltation). But there is no verse in the Bible that indicates this. The fact is that the covenant that saves me is spelled out in Hebrews 8:10-12 and Hebrews 10:16-18. If you will read those passages, you will see that this is a unilateral covenant. In other words, it has an "I will do this" part authored by God, but it doesn't have an "if you will do that" part which we must do. We simply enter into that covenant by faith... just as a bride either says "I do" or "I don't".
It isn't that I am against obedience to God in general; quite the contrary. I think if the average Mormon or Catholic, or even devout ones were to match "good works" with me, I would come out pretty well. But I don't serve to gain salvation; I serve because I love God for giving me salvation as a gift.
Consider just one statement of Jesus: John 6:47 starts with terminology that means "I am telling you the truth about this", and Christ says by believing we receive eternal life. Inescapeably, if baptism is necessary for eternal life, Jesus blatantly lied here!
I like to think of baptism as a wedding ring. The ring itself doesn't make me a married woman. It is just a customary way of showing I'm married. One can wear it without being legally married; one can also be legally married without wearing it. But I would be suspicious of anyone who says "I am saved, but I don't want to be baptized." What bride would refuse to wear her groom's ring?
Personally, I know I was saved before being baptized, because it was in that in-between time that God called me to be a missionary (I consider myself to be a missionary to Mormons primarily, and others who don't understand the true gospel as well).
Matt. 3:1-16, 21:25, Mark 1:4-9, Luke 3:3,16, 7:29, 20:4, John 10:40 Acts 10:38, 13:24 , 18:25 are all references to the baptism of John, which is not applicable to our time period - see Acts 19:1-7.
Matt. 20:22 , Mark 10:38-39- "initiation" usage
Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 22:16, I Cor. 1:13-17, Col. 2:12, Heb. 6:2, I Peter 3:21- discussed above
John 1:25-28, 31-33, Acts 1:5, 22 , 11:16 water vs. spirit baptism
John 3:22-23,26 Jesus' disciples baptize - John 4:2
Acts 8:12-16 - Phillip baptizes
Acts 9:18 - Paul baptized
Acts 18:8 - Paul baptizes
Romans 6:3-4 - discussed above. A definitive statement about baptism relating to a new life. Some feel these verses have a double application - to spirit baptism as symbolized by water baptism.
I Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27 - Spirit baptism. These are important passages in that they define what it is that actually puts one into God's "true church". Note in the first passage that it says we are baptized into that body (the church) (bold & italics) by (end both) one spirit. The word by refers to instrumentality -- it tells us who is doing the baptizing. It isn't men's hands or man's action that gives me spiritual birth -- it is an act of God's Spirit! (Laying on of hands isn't the way either -- see Acts 8:36-40 and 10:44-48.) Mormons would put God into a box that is too small for Him!
Eph. 4:5 - "one baptism" (I believe this puzzling statement refers to the fact that one can only be "initiated" into something once.) believe it refers to Spirit baptism as the reality of which water baptism is the shadow.
"To Him (Christ) give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins." Acts 10:43 (Note that this is indicated as the test of a true prophet).
It makes no sense to me that Jesus would be so thorough as to speak of the plan of salvation in the Bible far more than 125 times, specifying "faith" as the cause, and in all those times, fail over and over to mention baptism if it were truly the "saving" factor! Genuine salvation focuses on the true savior - Jesus Christ, not on fallible men or a human organization.