“But baptism is a ‘work’ and we are not saved by works…we are
saved by faith alone.”
First, we must consider what the definition of a “work” is that we are using. If one defines baptism a “work” then we must also label believing a “work”. We must also label repenting a “work”. Believing and repenting are both things we must DO as a prerequisite to salvation. They are both things that require human action. Baptism is merely the last part of that equation. James tells us he will show us his faith by what he does.
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. -James 2:17
It must be remembered that although baptism is something we must do (like believing and repenting), baptism is an act of faith, not a “work.” It must also be noted that the one at “work” when we are baptized is God, not us. See Colossians 2:12. Just as we must report to the hospital before a surgeon can operate on us, so too, we must “report to God’ in the waters of baptism, submitting to God and claiming His promise so that our sins will be forgiven. Just as it is the surgeon who is the one who is at work when we are operated on, so too, it is God who is the one who is at work when we undergo baptism.
Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is our birth (John 3:3-5). Baptism is not an on going process such as feeding the poor, or clothing the homeless or offering sacrifices as they did under the Old Covenant. Doing good deeds cannot earn us eternal life.
Baptism is a manifestation of faith. It is not Man who is at work in baptism; it is God. Baptism is not a “work of righteousness.” On the contrary, if anything, it should be considered a work of UNrighteousness. We are baptized because we are corrupt, unrighteous and spiritually dead in sin. This is why we are buried with HIM into DEATH as explained in Romans 6. It is the DEAD that are buried, not the living.
But God has always measured faith by our actions, as James 2:17-26 tells us:
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. But, someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe -- and shudder. But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith apart from works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Do you see how faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called Friend of God. You see, then, that out of works is man declared righteous, and not out of faith only; And in like manner was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way? For as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Did you catch that? There are many who teach one is saved by “faith alone,” but there is only one place in the bible where the phrase “faith alone” is found—James 2:24. And it states very plainly we are NOT saved by faith alone!!!
“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
It is faith (or belief) that causes us to respond to God’s Word--the Gospel message. It is faith in God’s Word, that tells us Christ died in our place and rose again, that causes us to believe. It is our belief in God’s Word that causes us to turn from our sins and repent. It is our belief in God’s Word that causes us to go into the water in repentance for the purpose of having our sins forgiven and “washed away.” And it is in this manner that it can be said we are saved by faith. If we believe God’s Word about His salvation plan and respond accordingly, only then it can be said we are saved by our faith—because it is faith that acts as the catalyst to our response (repentance and baptism). If we do not believe, then we will not repent, nor will we go down into the water for the purpose of having our sins forgiven.
Even Martin Luther, who coined the phrase "salvation by faith only", understood that salvation by grace through faith did not preclude the necessity of baptism:
In answer to the question, What does Baptism give? What good is it? Luther replied in his Small Catechism, “It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the Devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God's words and promises declare.”
It must always be emphasized that baptism is an act in which God works, not Man. This happens through faith in God’s Word—His Son. In baptism we, the dead, are joined with Christ into His death. Then, being united with Him together in this death and burial, just as Christ arose from the dead, so too, He brings us up, still unified as one, with Him to resurrected life.
Those that have been misled into thinking baptism is a “work” and one only need say a prayer to be saved, must realize that baptism is no more a “work” than is saying the “sinner’s prayer” or “praying Jesus into your heart.”
Furthermore, it must be clarified what is meant by the term, “work”. And we must define the phrase-- “not saved by works” if we are going to debate it. Few would argue the work of the cross saves us. However, no work of ourselves can save us. Only the work of God can do that. So in the argument –“we are not saved by works…” it must be clarified that what is really meant is-- “we are not saved by works of ourselves”. But the Word of God does not ascribe baptism to that as being a work of man. The Scriptures credit baptism to that as being the work of God. Accordingly, we ARE saved by works—it’s just that the “work” isn’t ours; It’s the work of God!
Martin Luther himself was often misunderstood and misrepresented by critics of baptism who oppose the very Word of God they claim to uphold. Yet he clarified in his writings exactly what he taught:
“For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God's own work…”
“…But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure?
Now, they are so mad as to separate faith and that to which faith clings and is bound though it be something external. Yea, it shall and must be something external, that it may be apprehended by the senses, and understood and thereby be brought into the heart, as indeed the entire Gospel is an external, verbal preaching. In short, what God does and works in us He proposes to work through such external ordinances. Wherever, therefore, He speaks, yea, in whichever direction or by whatever means He speaks, thither faith must look, and to that it must hold. Now here we have the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. To what else do they refer than to Baptism, that is, to the water comprehended in God's ordinance? Hence it follows that whoever rejects Baptism rejects the Word of God, faith, and Christ, who directs us thither and binds us to Baptism.
In the third place since we have learned the great benefit and power of Baptism, let us see further who is the person that receives what Baptism gives and profits. This is again most beautifully and clearly expressed in the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. That is, faith alone makes the person worthy to receive profitably the saving, divine water. For, since these blessings are here presented and promised in the words in and with the water, they cannot be received in any other way than by believing them with the heart. Without faith it profits nothing, notwithstanding it is in itself a divine superabundant treasure. Therefore this single word (He that believeth) effects this much that it excludes and repels all works which we can do, in the opinion that we obtain and merit salvation by them. For it is determined that whatever is not faith avails nothing nor receives anything.
But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God's (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper's baptism). God's works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended…”
“…Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.”
Submerging beneath the surface of water and getting wet is not a “work”. The “work” that is done in baptism is done by God, not by man. The “work” that is done in baptism is the removal of the stain of sin from a person’s soul for all eternity. The “work” that is done in baptism is the transference of a sinner from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. The “work” that is done in baptism is God taking a dead man and making him alive! The “work” that is done in baptism is God taking the unrighteous and declaring them righteous. The “work” that is done in baptism is God clothing the sinner with the righteousness of Jesus. The “work” that is done in baptism is God uniting together man’s spirit with Christ’s. And this could NEVER, EVER be accomplished by man! The miracle that happens in baptism is not anything man does. It is something God Himself does through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Again, baptism is not our work, it is His!
In speaking about marriage, Jesus said,
“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." –Matthew 19:6
The participants of the wedding ceremony are no more credited with joining the man and the woman together than are participants of baptism. God does not give such credit to mere servants for this union, but reserves that honor for Himself--and rightly so. Jesus sees marriage as something God does, not man. And so it is with baptism.
Just as the Lord tells us it is God Himself who is the one who does the joining in marriage, so too, baptism is viewed in the same way. It is God who joins us with Christ in baptism. This is a divine miracle and something infinitely beyond human capability. In a similar sense, as a man and a woman becoming united, we become united with Christ in the waters of baptism. And in all of this, it is God who does the joining. It is God who makes the two become one. That is how it is not only in marriage, but in baptism as well. Just as marriage is a spiritual union between a man and a woman that God gets the credit for, so too, baptism is a spiritual union (between Christ and man) that God gets the credit for because it is God who does the joining.
for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church.
And Christ frequently portrayed Himself as the Bridegroom. In the book of Revelation, the church is portrayed as the bride. This indeed, is profound.
Key Point To Remember:
The Epistles (letters) are written to Christians, i.e., people who have already been baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-5, 1Cor 12:13).
The Epistles contain instructions to Christians and give instructions on how to remain in Christ and grow in Christ. The book of Acts gives examples
of people who are not Christians becoming Christians. This is a great mistake many people make. They take instructions in the epistles on faith and apply
them to conversion. But these verses do not relate to conversion, but to the converted. Once a person has been
baptized into Christ, all the passages about faith and grace then apply.
In other words, once a person has been baptized into Christ, it can be said their faith
is what continues to maintain their salvation.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. – Ephesians 1:7-8
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus Romans 8:1
The following e-mail was contributed by Jef Lee:
This page updated March 3, 2007