“Is Baptism a Work?”

Categories: Bible, Doctrine

“having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”  

(Col. 2:12)


Many people argue that baptism is not necessary for salvation based upon their conviction that baptism is a “work” and we are not justified by works but by faith in Jesus Christ. There are some problems with that reasoning that need explaining.


First of all, are we so certain that baptism is a “work” at all? Interestingly, Jesus tells us that faith is a human work (Jn. 6:28-29) but nowhere else in the Bible do we see baptism being described as a human work. In fact, from Colossians 2:11-13 we see that God is the one at work in baptism not man.

Secondly, the argument that baptism is a “work” stems from confusion about Paul’s distinction between faith and works in Romans 3-4. Look at Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Paul makes a lot of contrasting statements like this (Rom. 3:20, 27-28; Gal. 3:11) but in each case it is clear from the context that when he mentions “works” he isn’t talking about “people doing stuff” but instead “works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). Most of the time when Paul says “works” when he is contrasting it with “faith” he is talking about “works of the [Mosaic] Law.”  

So Paul has no problem with people who preach baptism in the name of Christ  for the remission of sins (Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 20:22; 1 Pet. 3:21; etc.) because he is one of those people! (see Rom. 6:3-4). Paul’s main concern when contrasting faith and works (of the Law) is with Judaizing teachers who were preaching a different gospel; namely, to be in a relationship with God they taught Gentiles had to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. Paul spends a lot of time teaching against this spiritually damaging false doctrine.


So if baptism isn’t a “work” by which man earns his salvation nor is it part of the “works of the Law” that some Jews in Paul’s day were vainly attempting to be justified by where do some people get the idea that baptism is a “work” today?


Take your mind back 500 years and pretend you’re Martin Luther seeing the corruption of the Catholic Church. You’re disgusted with the sale of indulgences (giving money to the church in order to purchase forgiveness of sins!?). Then you stumble across Paul’s language of justification by faith in Romans 4 and think, “This is the perfect stick to beat the Catholic Church with!”


Do you see what has happened? Instead of reading Paul’s inspired writings in their context and applying it to the spiritual battles Paul was fighting against the Judaizing teachers of his day, Luther reads it through the lens of his own cultural context and (mis)applies it to his own spiritual battles with the Catholic Church. Looking for a reason to condemn the Catholic practice of selling indulgences Luther completely misses Paul’s original point. He substitutes Paul’s “works” of the Law for “people doing stuff” to earn their salvation.


And today some have taken his ideas and transposed them on baptism to deny that it is necessary for salvation. Friend, the Catholics were wrong to sell “indulgences” and Luther was right to expose that evil practice. But indulgences do not equal “works of the Law” and certainly aren’t the same thing as teaching that baptism is necessary to be saved. Baptism is not a human “work” but rather a work done by God in which man submits to God’s power by faith to receive forgiveness of sins  (1 Pet. 3:21; Gal. 3:26-27).


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