Okay. Baptism is, oddly enough, where many in the Churches of Christ got things wrong in the last century. That and the Holy Spirit.
We wanted to prove that baptism is essential for salvation. We argued, therefore, that it is a work, and then we argued that works are required to be saved — based on James. The result was the certain works became essential to our salvation, because if the work of baptism is essential, then so is the work of a cappella worship or the work of weekly communion or the work of a plurality of elders and on and on.
When someone challenged this works-salvation, citing the many obvious passages that contradict this doctrine, the defenders of orthodoxy routinely responded with baptism and James: if works aren’t essential, then neither is baptism and if works aren’t essential, then you dispute the inspiration of James. And this led to a very works-based religion.
Now 20th Century Churches of Christ never insisted on moral perfection, only doctrinal perfection. And most were reluctant to be quite this bold, but the logic seemed irrefutable. Because baptism is a work and baptism is essential, works are essential. But, of course, there are at least two flaws in this argument.
First, it just might be true that some works are more necessary than others. Second, who said baptism is a work?
Is baptism a work?
I’ve argued this at length elsewhere. For our present purposes, let’s just notice how Paul treats baptism in Galatians. Notice closely —
(Gal 3:25-27) Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
(Gal 5:4) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Notice how Paul contrasts “faith” with “law,” which is short for “works of the law” (e.g., 2:16). And he says we are saved through faith “for all of you … were baptized into Christ.” “For” translates gar, meaning because. If Paul saw baptism as a work, he could not make this argument.
If it’s not a work, what is it? Well, it’s a gift. Martin Luther got it right,
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. For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God’s command and ordinance, and besides in God’s name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation. Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it.
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.
Think about it. Baptism is always in the passive voice. We believe (active) and are baptized (passive). We receive baptism as a gift.
As Paul quite plainly doesn’t consider baptism a work, any theology built on the assumption that it is is flawed from birth and to be rejected.
And — praise God! — this frees us from the need to create a works-based salvation just to defend the necessity of baptism. Rather, our theology of baptism must be something else entirely.