Think about that statement for a bit. Many of you who believe as I do that baptism is essential for the remission of sins may initially think “that can’t be right! We have to be baptized. It’s a command, and when we obey it, we do something. That makes it a work!”
But consider how works are described in scripture, specifically in the context of following Christ. And ask yourself this question:
What “work” does God call us to do that we only do once?
In fact, when the Bible discusses the idea of works in context of Christianity, it’s almost always (I say almost because I can’t confirm what I haven’t found yet – so I’m going to say I’m 95 percent sure!) about things that we do on an ongoing basis (Romans 2:6, for example). They are continual actions inspired by our faith and love for God (Eph. 2:9 and others.) They serve as an outward identification of God’s people (Matt. 5:16, John 6:28, I Tim. 5:25).
We understand that good works do not cancel out sin. That is what Paul argued in Romans, when he discussed the Jews’ attempt to justify themselves before God by their observance of the law of Moses.
When the Jews (generally speaking – Paul does not mean that all Jews had this mindset) sought God through obedience to the law, they saw their righteousness and compliance as something that entitled them to God’s blessings. Worse, they believed that they could live in such a way that they fulfilled the righteousness of the law.
But the same Paul who says we are saved apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:21), says this about obedience:
“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
– 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESVST
A failure to obey the gospel will result in condemnation, according to Paul. And that’s not an isolated verse. Read in Romans 10:14-17, where Paul talks about the spreading and acceptance of the gospel, and adds, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “ Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (v. 16) In other words – the preaching of the gospel brought salvation to many, but not all because not all obeyed it! But in v. 17, he says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.” Do you notice how Paul here uses the concept of obedience, belief and faith interchangeably? It’s because you cannot have one without the others.
How is that possible if “works” do not save us? It’s simple: baptism isn’t a work – certainly not a work we do with the goal of proving our own righteousness. We’re baptized into Christ because we know that we need the redemption that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice (Col. 2:11-13). It’s a statement of dependence and an acceptance of grace, not an act of righteousness.
Obedience is not work – not in the sense that it is done to earn salvation. It is done because when a servant is called to act, he acts (Luke 6:46). Works are a manifestation of our love for God, which we do throughout our lives, so that people may see them and glorify God. They almost always involve a benefit to those around us (Titus 3:8, 14, James 3:13 and others). They are things that some might even be tempted to brag about – as the Pharisee did in Jesus’ example of unacceptable prayer in Luke 18.
Does anyone truly argue that being baptized into Christ is an act that should exalt us before God and man? And yet, Peter says in Acts 5:32 that the Holy Spirit is given to those “who obey him” – which agrees with what he says in Acts 2:38, where we read that the Holy Spirit will be received by those who respond to the command to “repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins.”
We’re saved by the grace of God through faith, but we are called to “the obedience of faith” (Rom, 16:26), and we will be held accountable if we refuse. Rather than debating between one or the other, let’s just submit to God and do what he asks! Isn’t that what it means to love the Lord?