My question is, the baptism of John - how important is it (or baptism in general) for salvation?
Thanks for the e-mail. I'll try and respond briefly on this difficult and touchy subject. John said "I baptize you with water for repentance ... He [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matt.3:11). There is only "one [true] baptism" - the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Eph.4:5), the gift of the Spirit that all receive upon belief in Christ independent of any ritual (cf. Acts 10:44-47 where the water follows the more important reality). In light of the fact that Paul can tell the Corinthians "Christ did not send me to baptize [i.e., with water] but to evangelize [i.e., give the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus Christ]" (1Cor.1:17), it seems quite clear to me that the Great Commission of Matt.28:19 that commands the apostles to "make disciples" by 1) baptizing into the Persons of the Trinity [Greek: eis to onoma], and 2) teaching them to follow Jesus' commands, is talking about the Spirit baptism that follows acceptance of the gospel message (Christ "baptizing with the Spirit" - not water). For if being a disciple is to believe in Christ and follow Christ, then "following" the commands ought to be coupled with belief, and that must be the core of "baptizing them into the Person" [lit. "name"], rather than a ritual observance - water baptism isn't/can't be "magic".
An important note: nowhere in scripture are believers baptized late after the fact of faith and/or in organized public ceremonies. The ritual, where recorded, is always simple, generally private, and always immediate upon faith in Christ. So whatever one feels about the significance of the ritual, it was clearly never meant to be what it has become in many groups today. One can certainly make the case that disputes over modes, methods, and meanings in baptism have been the historical cause of much division in the Church (unnecessary to my mind), but I believe that it is very difficult to make the case that ritual water baptism has had a significant positive effect. People who truly love Christ, look back fondly to accepting Him, not generally to ritual water baptism. Generally, Christians are very confused about what the water-baptism they underwent even means (a fact in itself that should make one question its earth-shaking importance). This is an important issue because baptism is an area where it is very, very easy to manipulate people; Christians, wanting to please their Lord, are most susceptible (unless they understand this somewhat difficult issue extremely well) to feelings of guilt when someone insinuates that there was anything amiss about their mode/manner/method of baptism (and especially if they have never been water-baptized: note that in all the epistles and Acts, despite the correction of much egregious conduct, no one is ever criticized for not being water-baptized or not water-baptizing others - suggesting strongly it wasn't an issue).
So, on the one hand, water baptism is insignificant in the true spiritual experience of believers. If the person to whose gospel message you responded poured out water on you and recited the Matt.28:19 formula, well and good; if not, you are not by any means in gross violation of God's will. It is hard to imagine someone who truly professes faith in Christ refusing at that moment to be baptized were that a requirement of salvation (it is not). On the other hand, water baptism has been exploited to manipulate people over the years, similar to the way that Judaizers in the early Church played on superstition and guilt to have people become circumcised, telling them it was necessary for salvation (it is not). Care should be taken, in my opinion, before becoming involved with groups that put an inordinate emphasis on water-baptism, especially if they wax emotional about it and try to pass on feelings of guilt. This is a pretty clear sign of a manipulative tendency that will almost certainly be found elsewhere in their operations as well.
I'm not sure how effectively I've addressed your question, but I hope this rambling e-mail has been of some help to you in your search for the truth. Please see also the following links for more about the subject:
Baptism: Water and Spirit
Baptism and Following Jesus
Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?
The 'baptism which now saves you': 1st Peter 3:21.
An Extended Conversation about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Is water baptism required for Christians today?
Best wishes in Jesus Christ,