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
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?
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).
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.
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