Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
I recently had a question asked by a reader of this column: “You’ve written that one must be baptized to be saved, but doesn’t the Bible say that we are not saved by works? Since baptism is a work, wouldn’t that mean that we don’t need to be baptized to be saved?”
I appreciate the question. While the Bible does teach that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), it also clearly teaches that baptism is something one must do to be saved and have sins forgiven (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Certainly baptism is something one does, and is therefore a “work.” Consider this, though. Is baptism a work of merit (by which one EARNS salvation)? Or is it a work of faith (by which one RECEIVES salvation)? Furthermore, who is the one doing the work? Is it the person submitting to being immersed in water? Or is it God who forgives and regenerates them through the blood of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit?
There are different kinds of works. Works of merit are done to earn something. Those who have done such works believe they “deserve” something; they believe they will be saved because they kept the Ten Commandments, did good deeds or went to church. They do not realize all the good we do cannot outweigh even one sin (James 2:10). This is why we need God’s grace and faith to be saved (Romans 3:27-28; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-5).
There are also works of faith, which are done to receive something. Those who do works of faith believe they “deserve” nothing because they understand their obedience does not earn or merit their salvation. They know their salvation rests upon God’s grace and mercy, not because God owes them anything. Thus, works of faith could also be called works of God. In fact, Jesus called faith itself a work of God (John 6:28-29). Other works of faith commanded by God are repentance (Acts 17:30) and confession of faith (Romans 10:9-10).
It’s hard for some to comprehend that even though works such as faith, repentance and confession are commanded by God, they are not meritorious works. We do not earn salvation through them. Instead, they are works God ordained we do to receive His salvation. When all is said and done, salvation is still by God’s grace and mercy.
Baptism, therefore, is a work of faith. It requires faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-37). It is an act of faith by which one receives (not earns) forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Through it one receives (not earns) union with Christ in His death and is resurrected with Him to new life (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27). The fact that baptism is not a work of merit is emphasized by Paul when he wrote that God saves us “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” – an allusion to baptism – but does not save us by “works of righteousness” – i.e., works of merit (Titus 3:4-5). God does not owe us salvation because we were baptized. Baptism, like faith, repentance and confession, is simply an act of faith by which we receive salvation.
This is because baptism involves the working of God. While talking about baptism, Paul said we are buried and raised with Christ “through faith in the working of God” (Colossians 2:11-13). God does the work, not us! We are dead in our sins, but when we are baptized into Christ God makes us alive, forgiving us of our sins. He saves us, not us. He saves us “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5)…baptism.
Look at it this way. When you undergo surgery, you have faith in the skills of the surgeon; otherwise there’s no way you’d put yourself on that operating table! After the surgery, you don’t think you’ve “earned” feeling better. Rather, you had faith in the doctor and were willing to submit to him. In like manner, baptism is a spiritual operation in which the Great Physician does His work. Our faith in God and in the death of His Son for our sins prompts us to submit to this spiritual operation of baptism in which God does His wonderful work of cleansing us of sin.