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Baptism for Salvation—Act of Faith or of Works?
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Baptism for Salvation—Act of Faith or of Works?

Based on “The Doctrine of Baptism, published by True Jesus Church Department of Literary Ministry

To baptize disciples of all nations is a direct command of our risen Lord Jesus (Mt 28:18–20). In addition, to be baptized is a calling of our Lord to all who believe in Him and the gospel that offers the promise of salvation (Mk 16:15–16). Wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, His baptism must follow. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord Jesus must be baptized. Baptism is so integral to the proclamation of God’s kingdom and faith in Christ that it is inseparable from conversion.

Yet there are many who deny the necessity of baptism or its saving effect.
One chief objection to the belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation is that baptism is of works, and as such cannot be a condition for salvation. It is argued that assigning any saving effect to a rite such as baptism discredits and nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross. If this understanding of baptism stands, then teaching salvation through baptism would be dangerously close to requiring circumcision for salvation, a position the apostle Paul vehemently rejects.

In fact, Paul was one of the most prominent defenders of salvation apart from works. He goes as far as declaring that any attempt to be justified by works is a total denial of God’s grace,

            “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:3, 4)

In view of the fundamental doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, how are we to understand baptism?

Baptism is God in action

Those who deny the saving effects of baptism tend to speak of baptism primarily as something that man does. This, however, is not the perspective of the Scriptures. The passages that record New Testament baptism hardly mention the baptist (examples: Acts 2:3–41; 8:4–17; 8:26–40; 9:17–19; 16:13–15; 16:29–34; 19:1–7). Similarly, the act of being baptized on the part of the believer is never viewed as being responsible for the spiritual benefits that result in baptism. In baptism it is God who acts. The human actions are only a humble reception of the divine act. It is God who washes away our sins with the blood of Christ (Hebr 10:19–22; 9:14), buries us together with Christ into His death, raises us with Christ (Col 2:12; Rom 6:1–11), and brings us into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12–13). While willing participation on behalf of the believer is necessary, it does not warrant any merit except for the fact that it is an act of obedience. The Scriptures never consider this act of obedience as the foundation of the saving effects in baptism, but always attribute them to the grace of God in Christ Jesus (Tit 3:4–7; Eph 2:4–9).

Baptism is God’s grace

To examine whether baptism is of works, we need to first consider the meaning of the term “works.” By “works of the law” the Scriptures are speaking of attempting to achieve righteousness by observing and meeting the requirements of the law. The nature of this means to justification is that it seeks to earn righteousness before God rather than to receive it freely. Herein lies the distinction between justification by works and justification by faith: the former claims man’s merit, but the latter does not; the former denies the works of Christ, but the latter rests upon them. Thus, it would be wrong to view any and all forms of actions as “works of the law.” To believe is an action, just as repentance and confessing the name of Christ are actions. But such actions are actions that respond to and receive the grace of God. They do not constitute attempts to be justified by works.

Baptism is an integral part of salvation by grace through faith

Nowhere in the Scriptures can we find any reference to baptism being associated with the works of the law. On the contrary, the Scriptures present baptism in the context of grace and faith. Take the baptism passage in Colossians for example:

            In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. (Col 2:11–13)

Even though baptism is at the heart of this passage, we see no indication whatsoever that baptism is of the works of the law. In fact, it is an instrument of God’s grace. It is Christ who circumcises us, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh. It is He who makes us alive together with Him. It is He who forgives all our trespasses. All of these works done by the hand of Christ take effect in us in baptism.

This passage further teaches us that our resurrection with Christ in baptism is through faith in the working of God. Faith in God’s grace underlies the spiritual effect of baptism. Baptism is of faith, not of works.

This is further re-emphasized in Ephesians 2:1–13, a key passage on God’s saving grace:

            But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:4–9)

Both the passage in Colossians and in Ephesians talks about our former death in sin and state of uncircumcision. Both speak of being made alive and raised up together with Christ. Both attribute the spiritual transformations to the work of God. While Ephesians 2:1–13 stresses that we have been saved by grace through faith, the parallel passage in Colossians highlights baptism as the occasion for God’s saving work. There is perfect harmony between these passages, and one supplements the other. Baptism is in no way opposed to salvation by grace through faith, but is actually an integral part of it.

We’ve established that baptism is an action that responds to God’s grace, and that it is God who works in baptism. Through baptism the blood of Christ washes away the sins of the believer (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the body of sin is put off (Rom 6:1–7; Col 2:11–12) and salvation is given (Mk 16:16; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 3:21). In other words, as sinners, our conscience is defiled (Heb 9:9; 10:2,22; cf. Tit 1:15). However, when our hearts are “sprinkled from an evil conscience”, we are able to draw near to God (Heb 10:22) and respond to God with a good conscience. This is exactly what God does through baptism: He purifies our conscience with the blood of Christ, so that we can have boldness in the day of judgment. It is in this sense that baptism saves us. It is for this reason that we need to be baptized to receive salvation.

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