In this series of posts I will show that we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ after meeting the conditions that God placed on that gift. We are not saved at the point of faith, but when we are baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.
Part 3: We are saved by faith, at the point of baptism, and not by our works. Baptism is “work of obedience”, not “a work to justify us by our merit”.
The Bible teaches that we are not saved by works. I believe what it is saying is that our works are not the BASIS for our salvation (the death/blood of Christ is). But this principle does not rule out us having to meet conditions to receive salvation which is based upon the death of Christ.
Look at each of some example of actions having to be taken to receive the blessing or promise from God:
- The walls of Jericho (Hebrews 11:30) – the Bible plainly says that the walls fell down “by faith” – does anyone believe that the walls would have fallen if the Israelites had not walked around them for 7 days? They did not knock them down themselves – God did that (of His own might) when the Israelites met the specified conditions. Just because they had to meet certain conditions doesn’t mean that the feat wasn’t accomplished “by faith”.
- Naaman (2 Kings 5:8-14) – he was cleansed of his leprosy when he had met God’s specified conditions – dipping 7 times in the Jordan. He was rewarded for his faith, but he still had to dip the proper number of times in the proper river. Just because he had to meet those conditions doesn’t mean he accomplished it by works and not faith.
- Noah (Genesis 6:9-7:24) – God warned him of the flood and saved him, but he was required to build an ark.
- Israelites (many verses) – God offered them forgiveness, but they were required to offer animal sacrifices
- Salvation under the New Covenant (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21) – our sins are forgiven by Jesus’ blood and sacrifice. We’ve not done (and can’t do) anything to earn it. But God has told us that in order to accept this gift, there are specific conditions that we must meet. That we must do these things is still consistent with Ephesians 2:8-9.
Here’s another way to look at it is this: if my brother mails my daughter a $20 check for her birthday, it is a gift. That doesn’t mean that she can get it without doing something. She has to go to the mailbox, open the envelope, endorse the check, and cash it or deposit it in the bank. She has not earned the $20, but she’s fulfilled the accepted conditions that go along with actually taking possession of the money. In the same way, God’s offering salvation to us as a free gift, but we’ve got to do a few things (have faith, repent, confess Christ, be baptized) in order to actually take possession of our salvation.
I think we can get messed up with the word “works” (much like we do with “judge” – condemn vs. discern). Let’s not confuse these two uses of the word works:
- “works” of obedience
- “works”, a system of justification by human merit
In Romans 3:20 Paul says we can’t be justified by “works of the law” and Ephesians 2:8-9 says that salvation is “not a result of works” – both of those refer to earning our salvation by “being good” or “helping people” or whatever way we want to describe it – justifying ourselves by our efforts.
Compare that to being justified by grace through faith – we aren’t earning anything when we are required to meet the conditions of salvation (faith, repentance, confession, baptism). In John 6:29 Jesus describes faith as “the work of God”. Most would agree that we cannot be saved without faith. But Jesus says here that we have to do this work!
How do we harmonize all this? I believe we have to understand the difference between the obedience that God requires to be saved by grace and the works that constitute perfect obedience (justification by human merit):
- If a man believes in Christ, he does not “merit” salvation.
- If a man repents of his sins, he does not “earn” salvation.
- If a man confesses Jesus Christ, he does not earn or merit salvation.
Just the same, if a man is baptized in obedience to God’s command, he has not earned salvation! Must he do these things in order to be saved? Yes, he must do all of them, but baptism is no more a “work” in the sense of earning something than belief, repentance, or confession – it is merely another thing we do in order to meet the conditions God has set down for our salvation.
Luther had a difficult time with James’ epistle because he couldn’t accept the idea that grace is still grace even if it has conditions attached. Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4); James says that he was justified by works (James 2:21). As I understand it Luther chose to reject James – I am definitely not prepared to attempt that! Instead, we have to harmonize them: Abraham was justified by grace through faith…but his faith was made complete by his obedience. James ties faith and works together (2:20-24) and shows that a living faith must act.
In a sense, we’re just dancing around the real point. If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, then let’s call it whatever we like – a work or not a work, but it is still necessary. If we want to have our sins forgiven, we have to be baptized. We can argue that baptism is a work (in the sense of meriting salvation), but we are still faced with two facts presented by Scripture: we are saved by faith and baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. Since we can’t deny part of Scripture we have to reconcile those two facts. I maintain that the Scriptures do not present baptism as a “work of merit”, but as a condition of salvation.