Kevin asked his question about baptism with such insight that I hate not giving him the best answer I can. On the other hand, like many readers, I’ve had my fill of the wrangling and false accusations and repetition of stale arguments.
I’m not going to go long with this, and I’m not going to tolerate the “my verse is truer than your verse” proof texting so common in both Church of Christ and Baptist rhetoric. We’ve heard it all before so very many times.
Rather, the only question I want to consider is whether baptism is a “work” as Paul uses the term. Therefore, there’s just not much in the Gospels or Acts relevant to the question. Obviously, there is much in those books relevant to baptism, but not to Paul’s use of “work.”
More precisely, my question is why Galatians 5:6 doesn’t exclude baptism as a means of appropriating the grace of God made available to us through Jesus —
(Gal 5:6 ESV) 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Reader Kevin has laid out the question regarding the necessity for baptism nicely.
I have been visiting your blog for quite a while, and I am working my way through your review of M&S. A little background…I have been in conservative churches of Christ all my life, but I am not one who is disillusioned. I like to challenge my thinking, so I am a frequent visitor here. I agree with the conservatives on many, many issues … but not all.
The first difference that I can recall was over the outcry in reference to a Rubel Shelly comment: “We do not contribute one whit to our salvation.” Now, I don’t know the full context of Bro. Shelly’s comments, but on the surface, I wholeheartedly agree IF he was referring to efficacy. Unless Shelly went full bore Calvinist, and I do not believe that he did, there is absolutely a sense in which we do not contribute to our salvation.
[JFG: Rubel is no Calvinist.]
I have long had a different opinion regarding Eph 2:8-9, a passage to which you refer in your review of chapter 5. The passage states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (ESV)
Most conservative church of Christ commentators first seek to disprove “faith-only” teachings relative to the passage and then they often mention “works excluded” and “works included.” I have always rejected this position. In my view, Paul excludes any works whatsoever from the free gift of salvation by grace through faith.
[JFG: Couldn’t agree more. Paul is really very plain. And we should build on that understanding — not question it.]
On the other hand, I believe the Bible teaches the essentiality of baptism, so how do we reconcile these two ideas? Indeed, this attempt at reconciliation is what leads many within churches of Christ to adopt the “works excluded / works included” position.
[JFG: Exactly right and very perceptive. The effort to rescue baptism from the Baptist argument that baptism is a work has led many in the Churches to insist that works — certain works — are essential to salvation. They start with baptism, and then add countless other works — the entire “pattern” regime — as exceptions to faith “not as a result works” — as though “not” doesn’t mean “not.”]
I have a different idea, and I would like your opinion, if you have time. I am a career Marine (26 years and counting), and we often speak of Ways, Means, and Ends. We apply this construct to many things: strategy, transformation, warfighting, etc. I believe the NT often applies this methodology to salvation. For example, Eph 2:8-9 is referring to the “ways” of our salvation. Back to the Shelly comment; my position is that we do not contribute one whit to the salvation that Paul has in mind in this passage. Paul is discussing God’s work, or ways, relative to salvation, not man’s appropriation, or means. “We are saved through faith. This salvation is not of your doing; it is the gift of God. It (salvation) is not of works, so that no one may boast.”
[JFG: First, thanks for your service in the Marines. Second, we need a definition here. Why is circumcision a “way” and baptism not a “way”? Those insisting on circumcision weren’t saying that sacrifices of sheep were required in addition to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. They weren’t arguing the insufficiency of Jesus to save. They were arguing that faith in Jesus is insufficient to appropriate (to grasp or obtain) the grace of God available through Jesus. How is this different from the Church of Christ argument regarding baptism?]
Christ is the WAY, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Christ. Once we sin a single time, we need grace. Absent of Christ and His death, burial, and resurrection, we are hopelessly lost. Even if we never sinned another time throughout the rest of our lives, we can never atone for that single stain on our soul. All the prayers that we may pray, the hungry that we may feed, the money that we may give, the good deeds that we may do, the needy that we may aid, the prisons that we may visit … all is for naught over that single, solitary sin. Thank God for His grace and the work of Christ! In this sense, I agree with Shelly; we do not contribute one iota to the Ways of our salvation. That is 100% God.
[JFG: Amen, and well said!]
Since nothing we do can ever atone for a single sin, we can never boast.
[JFG: Would that it were so! Some of the most astonishing arrogance I’ve ever seen has been preachers claiming to be so doctrinally perfect that grace is not available for doctrinal error unless and until repented of — by correcting the error. These men truly believe that they meet this standard! And their supposed superior understanding of baptism is at the heart of their arrogance. We’ve taken an experience that should be a sign of humility — allowing oneself to be symbolically killed for sins committed — we die to self! — and we turned it into a mark of our vastly superior wisdom and Bible knowledge — so much s0 that we claim that those so foolish as to disagree with us (nearly all of Christendom) deserve damnation for their willful rejection of the gospel. And so I commend you for starting at exactly the right place: with questions. That is, humility.]
The only person who can boast is the one who lives a sinless life. That person would have merited salvation, but of course, no such person exists. Consequently, no human activity or amount of obedience can ever be viewed as meritorious or seen as earning salvation. Sin prohibits such, or should prohibit such.
[JFG: Again, we entirely agree.]
Other passages deal with the “means” of our salvation, such as John 8:24, Luke 13:3, Mark 16:15-16, etc.
[JFG: These refer to faith, repentance, and baptism. I’m not sure they are sui generis, that is, of the same category. Doesn’t Paul plainly make faith a different category from all else? And don’t forget, that because faith includes becoming faithful, repentance from sin is normally subsumed within “faith.” Moreover, we use “repent” to mean “repent from sin.” But if you study Acts closely, you’ll find it often used to mean “repent from unbelief” or “repent from being separated from God due to your rejection of Jesus.”]
It seems to me that much of the confusion in the religious world relative to salvation is the result of confusion between the “ways of salvation” and the “means of salvation.” My Baptist family and friends confuse the two when they eliminate virtually all human response other than belief and trust from the means of salvation based on Eph 2:9, and conservative churches of Christ confuse the two when they add “works included” to the ways of salvation in the same passage.
First, let me compliment you on having very well stated the conundrum. How can it be faith not works when baptism is sometimes spoken of as “into Christ” or “for the forgiveness of sins”? Doesn’t this imply that baptism is essential? And yet, if baptism is essential, why is it not a work? How is baptism not like circumcision, which Paul’s opponents insisted on as essential to salvation, just as the Churches of Christ insist on baptism as essential?
Unlike many, you don’t ignore the “faith not works” passages, implicitly arguing that the dozens upon dozens of passages that declare faith sufficient are somehow repealed by the baptism passages. But neither do you argue that the baptism passages are somehow magically repealed by the “faith not works” passages. Kudos. Both the Churches of Christ and Baptists push their positions by ignoring the verses argued by the other side, as though our denominational choice lets us decide which passages overrule which other passages!
[Readers: You are very welcome to discuss. But please don’t just pound your verses without respecting the inspiration and truth of the other side’s verses. Don’t tell us how your verses are true. Of course, they’re true! Tell us how you reconcile your verses with the other side’s verses.]
Starting about 15 years ago, I began very serious wrestling with these passages. Like you, I was unwilling to compel one set of passages to overrule another. I realized that the argument of Paul is not so much that circumcision is a work (it is, but that’s not the end of Paul’s argument) as circumcision’s not faith. And yet a First Century adult, male Gentile who would submit to circumcision to honor God would be a man of both great faithfulness and faith. There were no antibiotics and little in the way of anesthesia!
So why is circumcision wrong as a gateway into Christianity and baptism okay? It’s no easy questions, and entire books have been written wrestling with it. But the first and most important step is to recognize that this is indeed not an easy question.
On the other hand, I disagree with the ways and means distinction. I agree that baptism is a means (method of appropriation) but why isn’t faith also a means? Jesus is the way. Amen. Jesus provides the power of salvation (Rom 1:16). Faith is the means of appropriation. Circumcision is not a means because it’s not faith.
(Gal 5:4-6 ESV) 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
So what is baptism?
It’s the “but only” in verse 6 (and many parallel passages) that insists that circumcision cannot be a means because it’s not faith — although in the First Century, it could certainly be a product of faith — just as baptism could certainly be a product of faith.
More to come.
PS — I DISAGREE with the Baptist position — AND the traditional Church of Christ position. There are other possibilities to consider. Please don’t accuse me of Baptist baptismal theology. The Baptists get mad at me, too, and I’d rather we spend our time wrestling with the texts rather than — once again — explaining that you cannot prove the Church of Christ view by disproving the Baptist view … or vice versa. There is no proof without an explanation for both the “faith not works” and the “baptism into Christ” verses.
I have no interest in yet another trip on the “Yeah, but my verses say …” merry-go-round. Everyone here already know what your verses say. What they wonder is how ALL the verses can fit into a single, coherent theology of baptism that makes sense in light of Romans and Galatians.
And the old argument that “none of the verses say ‘faith only'” is irrelevant. You’ll notice that neither I nor Kevin has argued “faith only.” Kevin and I have both argued “faith not works” — a summation of Ephesians 2:8-10.
See also —
(Rom 11:6 ESV) 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Notice that, again, Paul’s logic is not “certain works don’t save” but “If it’s not faith, it doesn’t save.”
(Rom 4:4-9 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.
Oh, one last point. And this is important. It’s common cant in the Churches of Christ to argue that “faith” includes baptism. The claim is not proof. And it’s plainly untrue.
In the above passage, Paul says that faith is sufficient to save because of God’s covenant with Abraham to count faith as righteousness. See the rest of Rom 4 and also Gal 3. It’s a key part of Paul’s theology generally unheard of in Church of Christ preaching. (It doesn’t fit our narrative and is therefore ignored.)
Obviously, Abraham was never baptized, and yet this faith was counted as righteousness. And this is the foundational promise of God to bless the nations (us!) through Abraham’s seed.
That being the case, certainly in Rom 4 and Gal 3, Paul uses “faith” in the Abrahamic covenant sense — which includes covenant faithfulness by Abraham’s family and trust as well as belief in the intellectual acceptance of certain propositions sense. And it plainly does not include water baptism.
And so it’s not a very helpful argument — as tempting as it is to make because it would seem to explain so much. But it just can’t be right in light of the historical and narrative arguments made by Paul.