Baptismal regeneration (BR) has been a "hot topic" among Christian denominations for hundreds of years. The following quotation, taken from gotquestions.org, provides a good summary of what BR is:
Baptismal regeneration is the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation, or, more precisely, that regeneration does not occur until a person is water baptized. Baptismal regeneration is a tenant [sic] of numerous Christian denominations, but is most strenuously promoted by churches in the Restoration Movement, specifically the Church of Christ and the International Church of Christ. Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/baptismal-regeneration.html#ixzz33aab5xcV
The denomination in which I grew up (even though it insisted, as many denominations do, it was nondenominational!) did not believe in BR. To this day, I agree with their stance on this controversial issue, and for good hermeneutical reasons.
Perhaps the simplest (some would say simplistic) way of looking at the physical act of water baptism--and for purposes of argument I'll assume our point of reference is the baptism of a person who has the intellectual wherewithal to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, is summed up in the following sentence:
Christian baptism does not M-ake a Christian; Christian baptism M-arks a Christian.
Water baptism is biblical, to be sure, commanded and sanctioned by the one in whose name Christians are baptized:
"And Jesus came up and spoke to [the eleven], saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with always, even to the end of the age'" (Matthew 28:18-20 NASB).
There are, however, at least two truly crucial baptisms in the Second (i.e., the New) Testament, and one is primarily metaphorical, and one is primarily literal. I say primarily, of course, because there will always be some overlap between the metaphorical and the literal.
BAPTISM INTO CHRIST BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
The metaphorical baptism is by nature an invisible process, though its reality is perhaps more "real" than the literal process of being dunked in (or sprinkled by, or poured over with) water. This baptism, though not explicitly mentioned in John 1:12 and 13, occurs when a person both receives and believes in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
The Holy Spirit, not a man or woman, is the one who baptizes in this way. This baptism is metaphorical because there is no literal water involved; rather, it is a waterless baptism which is every bit as real as water baptism. Why? Because this baptism is the one through which we are united to Christ through faith. This baptism is not the work of human instrumentality; it is a work of God in the heart of an individual.
This baptism is what M-akes a Christian. At least three scriptures address this baptizing work of the Holy Spirit:
1 Corinthians 10:2 - ". . . and all were baptized into Moses"
1 Corinthians 12:13 - "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . [and] all made to drink of one Spirit"
Galatians 3:27 - "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ"
This baptism is a baptism into Christ.
BAPTISM BY ________________
The second crucial baptism is a literal baptism in or with water by a human instrumentality. That is why the heading, above, has a blank after the word BY. A number of people in the Second Testament performed this rite, which many Protestant Christian denominations call an ordinance (the other being the breaking of bread, or the Lord's Supper).
John the baptizer, of course, performed this baptism, which was a baptism of repentance. Jesus Himself baptized (John 3:22) for the very same reason. The purpose of this baptism was to M-ark a person who publicly acknowledged his or her sin and their willingness to do an about-face in life in accordance with the message of John and Jesus.
Baptism, as performed by John, Jesus, and Jesus' disciples was always preceded by their preaching the message of repentance. See, for example, Matthew 3:2,8,11 (John); 4:17 (Jesus); Mark 1:4 (John); 1:15 (Jesus); Luke 3:3 (John); 13:3 (Jesus); and John 3:22,23 (John and Jesus and the disciples). There was nothing "magical" about being baptized by either John or Jesus or Jesus' disciples; rather, it was symbolic of a person's willingness to repent in obedience to the message preached:
"And [John] came into all the district around the Jordan [River], preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3).
"From that time Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 4:17).
There were others who baptized penitents who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, but their names are few, which suggests to me the relative unimportance of who did the baptizing and the importance of who was being baptized and why! Named baptizers included Paul, Ananias (probably), Philip, and Silas (probably).
BAPTIZED INTO, BAPTIZED BY, AND BAPTIZED IN THE NAME OF: A CONCLUSION
Coming full circle, we can conclude on a fairly safe hermeneutical basis that being baptized has both metaphorical (figurative) and literal aspects.
Metaphorically, when a person places his or her faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, he or she is baptized into Jesus Christ and into His body, the church universal. Put differently, through saving faith people are made to drink of one Spirit, and that Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, who is the eternally satisfying water of life (1 Corinthians 12:13; see John 4:10 ff., and 7:37-39). This baptism M-akes a person a Christian.
Literally (but also symbolically), when a person enters into (or is touched by!) the waters of baptism and is baptized by another believer (a minister, priest, elder, deacon, rector, or fellow Christian), she or he becomes a M-arked Christian. In other words, this person is affirming publicly that he or she is now a follower of Jesus Christ. Baptism for them is an outward act which bears witness to an inner spiritual transformation. See especially Romans 6:3 ff., which is read quite aptly at a baptismal service, but which speaks more of the metaphorical baptism than the literal.
In conclusion, water baptism of a believer in Christ "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," is good, proper, and necessary, especially since our Lord commanded it of His disciples in His "great commission" to them (Matthew 28:19). Does it "contribute" to our salvation in any way? No, because we are saved by God's grace through faith; our salvation is not of works, for if it were, then people could boast (Ephesians 2:8,9). Water baptism is a good work, but it is a work nevertheless. There is not a single, solitary work any of us can do to add to what Christ has already done on our behalf at the cross, where He cried with a loud voice,
"It is finished."
Our part in this great salvation wrought for us is to believe in the name of Jesus, and all that that entails, and to receive Him into our lives by faith. Water baptism for believers is good, but it is icing on the cake of our initial obedience to the gospel message, which occurs within our hearts.