He chose his words carefully. Standing next to me, the university professor made his case. It went something like this. If the Bible teaches that we can not be saved by works and if works involve doing something, then baptism can not be a part of salvation because baptism involves doing something.
My friend had failed to understand Paul. His difficulty was not that he lacked intelligence. Rather, by assuming a non-biblical definition of “works” he built his castle upon sand. For the moment, let’s turn our gaze to another story.
Many years ago, a man was moved to apply pen to papyrus. God’s people needed to be warned against a growing danger. It was imperative that they be reminded of what was true and taught about the path to follow. And so words regarding salvation spilled forth. “That I might be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which is through faith of Christ the righteousness of God that is by faith.”/1 And again, “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”/2
This would be a familiar chord the early church would hear from Paul. The apostle forcefully argued the futility of trying to achieve one’s own righteousness through living up to the standard of the Law./3 In principle, completing the works of the Law would give a person cause for boasting./4 In actuality, the Law could never result in anyone being declared righteous, for it reveals the sinful weakness of the flesh./5
Paul’s pen continued to push forward. God in his grace had provided a different way for people to be declared righteous which would not take into consideration their unrighteous state. Those who would rely upon Jesus for salvation would be included in the body of Christ and declared righteous on account of Jesus./6 Thus, salvation would be gifted to those who trust in Jesus. There would be no need for anyone to earn his or her own righteousness.
When Paul wrote that salvation is by faith and not by works, was he setting “just believing” against “doing something”? Or was the apostle contrasting two competing paths by which people in his day were seeking to be justified – namely, trusting in Jesus verses the self-reliance of demonstrating one’s own goodness? As previously noted in this series of articles, to trust in someone can demand a person to do something.
What’s at stake in how someone responds? First, there is the matter of accurately understanding the intended message. Second, the practical difference between the two paradigms of “just believing vs. doing something” and “trust vs. meriting righteousness” is enormous. The first paradigm logically denies that baptism can play any role in being saved, while the second is perfectly compatible with affirming the necessity of baptism to be forgiven. In some situations in order to trust in someone, a person must do something. Can we know which understanding the apostle intended? Yep!
If when Paul penned “not by works,” he had meant we receive salvation independent of doing anything, then scripture should not tie salvation to any form of obedient activity. If it does, we can know that Paul was not denouncing “doing something” but rather was rejecting all efforts of self-reliance.
Since statements about active obedience leading to salvation abound,/7 Paul’s purpose in writing “not by works” involved rejecting those attempts to merit righteousness. For Paul, the preaching of the gospel which causes someone to come to faith in Christ involves obedience./8
Baptism does not reveal our righteousness, rather it is the prescribed faith response to Jesus whereby someone depends upon Christ for forgiveness! With immersion a person is trusting in Jesus for cleansing and inclusion into the people of God. Salvation is not by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
1/ Philippians 3:9
2/ Ephesians 2:8,9
3/ Galatians 2:16,21; Romans 3:21,22
4/ Romans 3:27,28; 4:2; Ephesians 2:9
5/ Romans 3:20; 5:21; 7:7,8; 8:3; Galatians 3:10,11
6/ Romans 3:22-25; 4:21-5:2; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
7/ Hebrews 5:9; Romans 6;17,18; 1 Peter 1:22; Acts 2:38; 6:7; 22:16
8/ Romans 1:5; 16:25,26