We in the Churches of Christ often resist the idea of being saved by “faith only,” as stated in the classic Reformation formulation, for fear of denying the necessity of baptism. Indeed, many who take a Calvinistic view of baptism, such as the Southern Baptists, like to argue that making baptism the event at which salvation occurs by the blood of Christ turns baptism into a “work,” which cannot be necessary to salvation.
This is one of those cases where both sides are wrong. The Baptists are wrong in calling baptism a work. The Churches of Christ are wrong in insisting that we are saved by faith plus works. As Paul wrote in Galatians,
(Gal. 2:16) Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
To understand why baptism is not a work, we start with Martin Luther, the author of the slogan sola fide or “faith only.”
In Luther’s “Larger Catechism” he explains,
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. From this fact every one may himself readily infer that it is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work greater than the work of God can we do? …
Hence, even Luther, famous for his “faith only” teaching, considered baptism essential and by no means a contradiction to salvation by faith in Jesus and not works.
I quote Luther because many of our preachers have condemned Luther’s teaching, presuming that he taught against baptism because he taught salvation by faith, not works. It’s just not true. He never taught against baptism. That was John Calvin.
The reason Baptists and many other denominations with Calvinist roots see baptism as separate from salvation is because of the presuppositions of Calvinism. Now, the Baptists have largely given up Calvinism, but they inherited their attitude toward baptism straight from Calvin.
In the view of Calvin, salvation is “unconditional” and “irresistible.” He taught that God arbitrarily elected some to be saved before the Creation and those who are elected cannot resist the saving work of God. Thus, the saved all have had salvation experiences in which God instantaneously converted the lost soul. In the absence of a saving experience, salvation cannot be had—not by prayer, not by Bible study, and not even by baptism—and certainly not by just deciding to respond to God in faith and penitence. Thus, Calvinist converts had to relate a “saving experience” to be accepted into the church and allowed baptism.
Had Calvin accepted baptism as the saving event, salvation would have been voluntary—someone may choose to be baptized or not—which was contrary to his other teachings. Thus, Calvin saw baptism as evidencing salvation already obtained.
As the use of the sacraments will confer nothing more on unbelievers than if they had abstained from it, nay, is only destructive to them, so without their use believers receive the reality which is there figured. Thus the sins of Paul were washed away by baptism, though they had been previously washed away.
“Heads of Agreement on the Lord’s Supper,” from Calvin’s Tracts & Letters Volume Two (Baker Edition). http://www.virtualchristiancenter.com/calvin/agreement.html. If the above quotation doesn’t make sense to you, well, it’s at least accurate.
Luther invented the “faith only” slogan and saw no contradiction with the necessity of baptism. Calvin, however, saw baptism as conferring nothing, because of his peculiar view of predestination and election.
Within the Churches of Christ we need to reach a better, deeper understanding of “works.” In one breath, we’ll claim that “works” is nothing but works of the Law of Moses. In the next, we’ll insist that “works” is any voluntary action by the convert, and so includes baptism—and because baptism is plainly necessary to our salvation, works in general must also be necessary.
In fact, works are any action that a Christian does to merit salvation. As neither faith nor baptism has any intrinsic merit, they are not works.
“Works” in Paul’s vocabulary is often short for “works of the law.” By “law” Paul means God’s will regarding how we are to live. He is sometimes referring immediately to the Law of Moses, as it reveals God’s law, but he generally has a much broader meaning in mind. For example,
(Rom. 2:14-15) (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the [works] of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
In this passage, Paul makes the point that even those without the Law of Moses know that murder, lying, and adultery are wrong. And the Gentiles were all guilty of actions that they knew to be wrong.
As C. S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, we all have a moral law written on our hearts, a sense of right and wrong. We may disagree on many particulars, but we agree that there is a right and a wrong. And we all sometimes do things we consider wrong. In so doing, Paul says, we become a law unto ourselves and our own consciences accuse us before God.
Plainly, therefore, in Paul’s vocabulary, the “law” includes the moral law, not just the ceremonial portions of the Law of Moses. After all, it’s the moral law that’s written on our hearts.
(Rom. 3:20) Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by [works of] the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Paul credits the law as telling us what is sin, but as he’s argued in the preceding chapters of Romans, we cannot be saved by the law because we cannot live righteously enough to meet its demands. In passages such as this one, we understand that the “law” means morality—right and wrong.
Baptism is not part of the law. If we were able to live perfectly moral lives, never sinning once, we wouldn’t need a Savior and we wouldn’t need to be baptized.
You see, baptism is a gift we receive from God, not an act we perform to earn our ticket to heaven. It’s always in the passive voice—“be baptized”—because we are the object of the action, not the worker of the action.
The temple in Jerusalem was surrounded by large pools in which the worshippers washed themselves to become ritually clean before entering the temple. These pools had stairs descending into the waters, and the worshippers walked down and then out of the water. They immersed themselves.
But John the Baptist changed the ritual. He initiated a form of washing where the worshiper had to come to be baptized.
Jesus and his apostles adopted the same practice. From then on, no one could cleanse himself. Rather baptism became God’s action. Neither John nor the apostles washed away anyone’s sins. Rather, God did the washing, and the convert simply submitted to God’s good gift.
Understanding this, we can give up the idea that works are a condition to our salvation. No longer do we need to explain away such passages as—
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Of course, this passages doesn’t contradict baptism, because baptism isn’t a work. Rather, we can accept what the Bible so plainly teaches—we are saved through faith, not works—and still teach an efficacious baptism.