Dialogue with Robert Prater: Baptism, Circumcision, Galatians, 1 John, and GraceConversation

dialogueThe question has been raised in private emails and comments here whether baptism might be a work. After all, circumcision, which is certainly a work in Paul’s vocabulary, is also passive. To answer this one, we need to get away from an atomistic view of the scriptures and take a broader look.

I mean, for a very long time, Baptists and Church of Christ members have debated along these lines, with the Baptists arguing that baptism is a “work” and therefore not required for salvation, as we are saved by faith, not works. Some (not all) in the Churches of Christ have argued that, yes, baptism is a work but obedience is required for salvation and hence baptism is essential. Of course, this reasoning would suggest that all works are as essential as baptism, and that teaching that has been horribly destructive to the Churches.

The fact that baptism is in the passive voice suggests the likelihood that baptism is not so much a work as a gift, but does not by itself make the case. The argument must be found in deeper analysis than that. As I argued in an earlier post,

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.

It is impossible for baptism to be a work and for Paul to argue that we are sons of God because our baptisms clothed us with Christ.

Now circumcision is sometimes a work and sometimes not. If it’s done for, say, health reasons, Paul says,

(Gal 6:15)  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.

And so circumcision is not inherently a “work.” But Paul also writes,

(Gal 5:4-6)  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Paul constrasts faith with “trying to be justified by law” and with circumcision. Circumcision is thus a work when performed as a means of seeking justification. If, say, a Christian Jew chooses to circumcize a child in obedience to the Law of Moses but not as an effort at justification, it’s a matter of indifference.

And so we begin by knowing the answers. Christian baptism is not a work. Period. Circumcision undertaken to achieve justification is. Period. The interesting question is how all that works, but the answers have been given to us and therefore aren’t up for debate.


Now N. T. Wright, and many others before him, notes that in First Century Greek, “justification” is a legal term meaning “acquittal.” It’s what the judge announces at the end of trial when he says “not guilty.” In the New Testament, therefore, it refers to God’s declaration that we are forgiven and his children. I like to think of in terms of Jesus’ baptism. When John baptized Jesus, three things happened —

  • The Holy Spirit descended onto Jesus.
  • God declared Jesus his beloved Son
  • God declared that he is well pleased with Jesus.

And when a Christian is baptized, the same three things happen for us. God gives us his Spirit, makes us his children, and declares us well pleasing. Hence, baptism is very closely associated with justification, although it isn’t quite exactly the same thing. Rather, in the normal case baptism is when God declares us not guilty.

But, of course, in Galatians baptism is hardly the center of Paul’s argument. Galatians is mainly about justification by faith, not baptism.

(Gal 2:15-16)  “We … 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

Here Paul says we are justified — declared not guilty by God — by faith in Christ. That has to mean that our faith shows to the world our acquittal by God just as does our baptism.

Now, notice that “justified” is also in the passive voice. We don’t justify ourselves. Rather, it is God who justifies.

(Rom 8:33)  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.

And notice the legal language. To “charge” is to accuse or demand payment. No one can charge us with wrongdoing because our judge is God, and God acquits.

To say that we are “justified by faith,” therefore, means that our faith assures us of God’s justification.

(1 John 5:1)  Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.

(1 John 5:13)  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that [not whether!] you have eternal life.

John agrees.

Now, as I’ve already argued, “faith” does not mean mere intellectual assent. Faith (which can also be translated faithfulness) includes submission to Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9). But this doesn’t mean perfect obedience or perfect submission, of course.

And so, why is circumcision a work? Well, it’s only a work when undertaken as a means of justification. That is, if we claim that only those circumcised are saved, then we’ve argued that circumcision justifies — it marks the saved as different from the un-saved — and that makes it a work.

Well, then why aren’t faith and baptism works? Don’t they do exactly that? And yes, they do. The difference is really quite simple. God’s in charge. He gets to decide what will mark the saved as distinct from the lost, and he’s picked faith in (loyalty to) Jesus and baptism. Anything else that we choose as a mark is a work. But — and this is important — we have to remember that faith/faithfulness has consequences in our lives, and these consequences show our faithfulness/faith. But we err — and err seriously — when we pick this or that as the proper evidence of faithfulness. We really have to let God instruct us.

Marks of the church

And in Galatians, Paul is quite precise as to the justifying marks that must accompany faithfulness to Jesus as Lord.

(Gal 5:6)  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

“Any value” is better translated in the KJV as “availeth anything.”  To avail is to accomplish what you intended to accomplish. Hence, if our efforts are unavailing, we failed to do what we tried to do. Paul is saying that circumcision does not show us to have been justified, that is, acquitted by God. However, what does count (“avail” in the Greek) is faith/faithfulness expressing itself in love.

Again, John agrees,

(1 John 4:7-8)  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

(1 John 4:12)  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

(1 John 4:16)  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

Why is this so? Well, it’s not just that God has commanded us to love, although that figures in. Rather, it is that love is the command.

(Gal 5:13-14)  You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

(Rom 13:9-10)  The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

(Mat 22:37-40)  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

(John 13:34-35)  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Jesus himself declared love to be a mark of the church. Of course, even the damned love others. The key is that our love is to be an expression of our faith — we loved because Jesus first loved us. As Rabbi Hillel said, “All else is commentary.”

Now, we have to note, of course, that God has promised to help us with this, through his Spirit.

(Gal 5:16)  So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

(Gal 5:18)  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

(Gal 5:22-25)  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Why is it that “there is no law” against the fruit of the Spirit? Plainly, because these are the traits of those who love. Hence, if we are led by the Spirit, we are not under law, because our hearts and will point us toward behaviors that don’t break the law.


This analysis leads to several critically important conclusions —

* Paul quite plainly says that only faith expressing itself through love avails. When we try to mark ourselves off as God’s people by means of, say, the order of worship or church organization or whatever standard we prefer, well, it doesn’t avail. It doesn’t justify. These things don’t show us to be God’s people. They may well show us to be obedient to what we believe God’s commands to be, but if we rely on them to draw lines between the lost and the saved, we have seriously messed up.

Notice that Paul doesn’t follow his lesson with a tract on acts of worship or institutionalism. He follows with lessons on love. Galatians 6 is all about how to live a life of love (Just as Romans 12-15 follows Paul’s lessons on justification with an extensive lesson primarily about how to love our neighbors.)

* Paul wrote,

(Gal 5:4)  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

If I’m right — or even close to right — then our doctrine that there are certain “marks of the church” that distinguish the saved from lost runs seriously afoul of Paul’s teachings here and in v. 6. I mean — and I sincerely hope that I’m wrong — I have trouble escaping the conclusion that many among our conservative brethren stand judged by this verse.

(Gal 5:10)  I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.

Paul seems to be particularly concerned with the salvation of those who teach this error, much more so than those who are their victims. But Paul is deadly serious —

(Gal 1:6-9)  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

The conventional interpretation of this passage in conservative circles is if you disagree with the author’s interpretation of the marks of the church, you are damned. That’s almost right. It’s just that you have to agree with Paul’s, John’s, and Jesus’ interpretation. And they speak in terms of faith/faithfulness and love (which is how faithfulness necessarily expresses itself because that is how the Spirit works. 1 Cor 13.).

We have this teaching that because love for God means obeying his commands, obedience to certain particular commands (or inferences or silences) mark the saved separate from the lost. But that is precisely the thinking Paul condemns. Rather, we are marked by our love and our faithfulness. And so those who celebrate certain holy days believing they are obeying God in so doing are faithful — so long as they don’t separate themselves from those who refuse to celebrate holy days to honor God. Both are acting out of faithfulness.

This is why Romans 14 treats the celebrating of holy days as indifferent while Galatians treats it as risking damnation (Gal 4:9-11). The issue doesn’t damn if we don’t divide over it. If we make it a mark of the church (Wright would say a “boundary marker”), it does. Scarey, isn’t it?

* Of course, should someone acts contrary to his conscience, to him it is sin.

(Rom 14:23)  But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith[fulness]; and everything that does not come from faith[fulness] is sin.

* In Galatians, the sin that leads to falling from grace is adding marks of salvation. We in the Churches of Christ have traditionally figured that the smart move was to add marks just to be safe. It was exactly the wrong thing to do.

* Galatians is not driven by theology so much as the desire of Paul to bring the Gentile and Jewish communities into a common fellowship. The theology is given as a basis for unity. Unity is, of course, the natural result of limiting the marks of the church to faith expressing itself through love. When the false teachers demanded circumcision as a requirement of salvation, they excluded the Gentiles from the table fellowship of the church.

The only way for us honor the teaching, therefore, is to extend fellowship to all those justified by faith. Mere theoretical acknowledgement is not enough.

(Gal 2:12-14)  Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

Paul was not so much concerned with Peter’s theology as his actions. Peter was not in actual table fellowship, and that brought Paul’s rebuke. We’ve not honored the lesson if we sit in our buildings and refuse to cooperate with other churches — for fear of those who belong to the “marks of the church” group.

* Now, I realize that this GraceConversation thing is controversial. Not everyone likes the arguing. I’m not very fond of it myself. But I figure that there are lots of men out there who are in deep, deep spiritual trouble — and they are making messes of the lives of other people, too. It’s easy enough to post what I think is right over here at One In Jesus, and it helps. I know because I get emails and comments that say so. But I don’t think it’s enough.

My concern is to generate the biggest audience possible from within conservative circles. And I figure they’ll click over to see a couple of progressive upstarts get theirs. And while many won’t be persuaded by me and Todd, maybe some will be helped by the Spirit to see truth. At least they’ll have been exposed to it. (And frankly we progressives haven’t always done a good job of explaining ourselves.) And some just might be elders, preachers, or maybe even professors, that is, people in a position to change minds. Anyway, I can’t sit by and watch my brothers violate Galatians 5:15 without attempting to somehow get the word out,

(Gal 5:15)  If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

This is, to me, a rescue operation. And as is true of all rescue operations, the odds don’t have to be that good to make the effort worthwhile.

* Therefore, when I summarized the consequences of the conservatives’ inability to defend their doctrine of apostasy, I was pulling punches. I think the consequences — for some — will be much worse than I said. But we are a long way from being able to unpack Galatians over at GraceConversation.

By the way, the argument made here is made more thoroughly in my short book Do We Teach Another Gospel? That was written prior to my discovery of N. T. Wright, but it still works. Wright has just put more arrows in my quiver. For those of you wanting to dig more deeply into Wright’s theology of Galatians:

The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology

Gospel and Theology in Galatians

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Dialogue with Robert Prater: Baptism, Circumcision, Galatians, 1 John, and GraceConversation

  1. Robert Baty says:

    Given the following claims, I guess it is understandable why I should be the first to comment on this article:

    > And so we begin by knowing
    > the answers.

    > (T)he answers have been given
    > to us and therefore aren’t up
    > for debate.

    > It is impossible for baptism to
    > be a work…

    > Christian baptism is not a work.
    > Period.

    Now, I don't happen to share Jay's opinion in that matter.

    However, given that set-up, is there any reason for me to comment?

    Robert Baty

  2. Bob says:


    Great post. Not many replies. Eph.2:8-10 also explains a lot about grace. We are not saved by works but are made for them to give God all the glory and to show the Gospel to our friends and all around us by the Spirit living in us.

    In Christ


  3. Robert, I would say that if you want to argue that baptism is a work of God, I'd certainly agree with you … I think Jay would, too.

    I agree with him that baptism is a gift from God, and in addition to the reasons Jay has stated, here's another – and I'll quote from my own blog:

    "What did Jesus mean when confronted by a question designed to trip Him up and His response was another trick question (Matthew 21:23-27; Luke 20:1-8): "John's baptism – was it from heaven or from men?" It was more than a trick question. They knew that if they answered "From heaven," He could ask them why they didn't believe; if they answered "From men," the believing people would stone them.

    "Jesus knew that baptism was a gift from heaven; was part of the way that the 'voice crying out in the wilderness' (John) was preparing the way for Him. And He knew it was a way that would lead all the way to the cross and the tomb.

    "What a gorgeous picture from such a gory precedent! What potent portent! In baptism, we are privileged to 'act out' Jesus' death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:4). It's as if we're washed clean the way water does to dirt, but it is by His blood cleansing our sin. It's part of the way we join His bride; His family. Paul speaks of that relationship as so intimate that he compares it to a husband giving his wife a private bath (Ephesians 5:25-33).

    "Maybe there should be a baptismal commitment by the penitent that begins: 'With this baptism I die to self; and with all my worldly and other-worldly affections I Thee endow ….'

    "It's no wonder that God wants us to experience it; share it; be blessed and challenged by it!

    "How can we look at this gift and tell God, "That's nice, but I'd like something different"? Or "Ooh, ooh! I want baptism! I just don't want to get wet."

    "That'd be like saying, 'Ooh! Ooh! I want to be like Jesus! I just don't want to do any of the things He did.'

    At the same time, how can we view baptism as an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end? As if it were somehow divorced from Christ by its supposed co-equal importance? Or as if it were the only request God had made of us?

    "The trouble with Restoration churches is that we've tried to sell baptism as part of a package of minimum requirements, instead of as part of a plethora of requests from God to be like His Son and be challenged, blessed, and drawn closer to Him by them. As if there could be such a list of minimum requirements for being like Him, when Jesus Christ spent every day of His life on this earth finding new ways to walk the extra mile. As if anything we could do would even begin to merit the forgiveness, the salvation, the relationship with God that He provides."

  4. Robert Baty says:


    That "baptism IS a work" is "NOT up for debate".

    I have the answer on that!

    "I don't want to argue" the point or any other point at which "my" answers seem to differ from others who claim to have the answers.

    However, sometimes the good brethren compel me to engage them on such matters.

    Robert Baty

  5. thumper says:

    "We in the Churches of Christ have traditionally figured that the smart move was to add marks just to be safe."

    Hmm. Isn't that the same logic the Pharisees used? Jesus sure seemed to be happy with those guys, wasn't He?

  6. Terry says:

    Thank you for responding to my question, Jay. I appreciate it. 🙂

  7. Lanny Jobe says:

    Here's the problem: Grace saves; baptism saves; works do not save; therefore baptism cannot be a work, since it saves. The logical conclusion is that whatever work one wants to argue for in baptism is not man's work but God's. It's obvious to me that the "works" Paul referred to in Eph 2:8-10 was in reference to man's efforts, not God's.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Any activity a person does is a “work of merit” if they do it with the idea that God will owe them for doing it. However, any activity a person does in order to either accept a gift (thin Naaman for example) or in appreciation of a gift is a work of faith or trust if done for that purpose. We need be clear that the difference between right and wrong is in the motive and the difference between an act of faith and a work of merit is also in the motive. Neither physical actions nor mental agreement with some idea are of any value in isolation. Faith without action is of no value and actions apart from trust due to love are of no value either. So, baptism can be a work of merit if that is the motive but if it is done because one trusts in God’s promise of forgiveness then it is of faith. Simple.

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