Dialogue with Robert Prater: What Is “Faith”? Part 3 (Baptism)


Okay. Baptism is, oddly enough, where many in the Churches of Christ got things wrong in the last century. That and the Holy Spirit.

We wanted to prove that baptism is essential for salvation. We argued, therefore, that it is a work, and then we argued that works are required to be saved — based on James. The result was the certain works became essential to our salvation, because if the work of baptism is essential, then so is the work of a cappella worship or the work of weekly communion or the work of a plurality of elders and on and on.

When someone challenged this works-salvation, citing the many obvious passages that contradict this doctrine, the defenders of orthodoxy routinely responded with baptism and James: if works aren’t essential, then neither is baptism and if works aren’t essential, then you dispute the inspiration of James. And this led to a very works-based religion.

Now 20th Century Churches of Christ never insisted on moral perfection, only doctrinal perfection. And most were reluctant to be quite this bold, but the logic seemed irrefutable. Because baptism is a work and baptism is essential, works are essential. But, of course, there are at least two flaws in this argument.

First, it just might be true that some works are more necessary than others. Second, who said baptism is a work?

Is baptism a work?

I’ve argued this at length elsewhere. For our present purposes, let’s just notice how Paul treats baptism in Galatians. Notice closely —

(Gal 3:25-27) Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

(Gal 5:4) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Notice how Paul contrasts “faith” with “law,” which is short for “works of the law” (e.g., 2:16). And he says we are saved through faith “for all of you … were baptized into Christ.” “For” translates gar, meaning because. If Paul saw baptism as a work, he could not make this argument.

If it’s not a work, what is it? Well, it’s a gift. Martin Luther got it right,

But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God’s (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper’s baptism). God’s works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended. For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God’s command and ordinance, and besides in God’s name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation. Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it.

Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.

Think about it. Baptism is always in the passive voice. We believe (active) and are baptized (passive). We receive baptism as a gift.

As Paul quite plainly doesn’t consider baptism a work, any theology built on the assumption that it is is flawed from birth and to be rejected.

And — praise God! — this frees us from the need to create a works-based salvation just to defend the necessity of baptism. Rather, our theology of baptism must be something else entirely.


19 Responses

  1. So if a person comes to a true faith (knowledge, assent and trust) in Jesus for his/her salvation but in ignorance neglects to be baptized is that person saved? or if the person is baptized as an infant and considers themselves baptized, or was baptized by some mode other than immersion – is that person saved? There are so many both in and out of the CofC that are confused in their thinking on baptism.

    Of course they are saved if they had true faith. Or is there a theology test they had to pass regarding the proper mode and cognitive processes they experienced at the time of their baptism.

    Alexander Campbell got it right in the Lunenburg letter. A paedobaptist is my brother/sister in Christ ahead of the one immersed if that person is more generally conformed to his likeness in their overall relationship with Christ. He (Alex. C.) spoke of folks being caught up in the smoke of their own chimney and others that may defer to those they consider their spiritual betters. Haven’t we all fallen into one of more of these categories from time to time? How wrong to think we not saved because of it!

  2. Randall,

    I am in agreement with A. Campbell. I used to argue that a paedobaptist is automatically lost because they have not obeyed baptism as I understand it to be taught in scripture. However, one day I woke up wondering what if I am wrong. I have spent so much time saying God cannot extend grace in honest error and realized that my own argument was a judgment on me if it turned out that I was the one wrong. Ultimately, I will let God do the judging. I will accept those who confess the name of Jesus and are commited to live the life he called us for (what I term a “confessionally committed” Christian) as my fellow Christian and in the end, God can sort out who is in error on baptism (my suspicion is that we all will be in theology school regarding the doctrine of baptism/salvation for a few days).

    Also, for the critics…I will continue to teach immersion and try to persuade a paedobaptist to be immersed as a confessing believer.

    Grace and peace,


  3. Jay,

    Discovering the passive voice in the command to be baptized was a critical point. Before I always struggled with the whole dynamic between faith and works (realizing that scripture does teach against a works oriented salvation). But then I realized that baptism was God’ work in us and not our work for God.

    Grace and peace,


  4. Jay, I heartily agree with you. One of the big mistakes that almost everyone has made is classifying baptism as a work. I like what Jeff Walling says: “Your main ‘work’ is to hold still!” Baptism is no more a work than belief is.

    I’m convinced from the Bible, especially the story of the Philippian jailer, that baptism was considered a part of faith, not something separate.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  5. Baptism seems to be a commitment on the faithfull believer that what is symbolic will become real.
    We die to sin and become a slave to righteousness.


  6. You are correct. You said “We believe (active) and are baptized (passive)”.

    Baptism never stands alone. It is always faith in Christ Jesus our Lord that saves, not faith in baptism. In being buried in the likeness of His death and being raised in the likeness of His resurrection, for a moment in time we surrender completely to another. What a wonderful picture of the gospel story acted out as we publically and on purpose declare our allegience to Jesus.

    Christian baptism is the beautiful submission that marks one out for Jesus and plants a firm anchor in history, a new beginning of the new life and death to the old life.


  7. We have to understand what Paul meant by a “work.” A work is something we do in order to try and achieve righteousness. Paul rejected the possibility of that happening and said in Romans 1:17-18 that righteousness comes by faith. He says it does not come by works so that no man can boast. So what is belief? What is repentance? What is baptism? They are responses to the unmerited favor of God. Here is the crunch. We have then concluded wrongly that if they don’t save us then they must not be important. Wrong.

    In Paul’s theology, as best I can tell, he believes that God is looking for a response of faith to the saving actions he has already completed on mankind’s behalf (the D,B,R of Jesus). When he sees faith in our life he brings righteousness to us. We didn’t earn it. He did it. But faith was a necessary response (and therefore somewhat of a condition) of faith that had to be present. It is possible for God to require the saved to have faith for him to save them but that faith not merit or earn God’s salvation.

    Our logic has gotten us all messed up because we have rejected true principles (that faith and baptism don’t save us) because we came to faulty conclusions of where that would lead (that they would no longer be important or necessary, while the NT clearly teaches they are).

    So we have to accept that baptism is not a work that we do that saves us. It is a submissive act that we allow to be done to us in faith because God has told us that is what he desires. That act does not force the hand of God. That act does not warrant Jesus dying on the cross. Baptism does not accomplish so much in us that we earned Jesus’ and our own resurrections. Here is the hard part…but God still requires that we have faith and that we respond in that faith through repentance, baptism, etc because it shows that we have responded to what he has already done in a transformative and submissive way.

    I could go on and on here but I hope you get my point by now. Baptism is important but not because it earns anything. Only God can save. And we can say that and at the same time say – and baptism is still important because it is the kind of response to God’s gracious acts he has already done on our behalf that he is looking for.

  8. Exactly… This is exactly how baptism needs to be taught in relation to faith (not just because you said it Matt :-)…but because this is biblically correct) and if so, perhaps in time people would not see baptism as a work to earn salvation (which is how baptism seems to be increasingly viewed even in our fellowship) but as a means of grace God is working in us.

    Grace and peace,


  9. Jay,
    I have wondered about the argument about baptism being a work for some time. As you stated, baptism is something passive that happens to us. We are not working when we are being baptized.

    However, I have wondered about circumcision. It is also something that happens to us. Most of us were not circumcizing ourselves when we were circumcized. However, it is considered a work.

    Would you mind explaining a little more about why bapstim is not a work while circumcision is? (By the way, I am not trying to argue that we are saved by works. I have just wondered about this question for a number of years.)

  10. It occurs to me that even Jesus had to seek someone out to baptize him. Even he couldn’t baptize himself. He had to submit to baptism.

    Someone mentioned to me that the mikvehs (pools for cleansing those coming to worship) in the temple courts had stairs in and out. The Jews washed themselves by walking down and back up out of the water. Christianity used many of the same pools to baptize, but baptism was never self-administered. It was a significant change from cleansing self to receiving cleansing.

  11. These are the conclusions that I came to about 10 years ago.

  12. Terry,

    If you follow Paul’s arguments in Romans you see that even circumcision is not a work that earns salvation. Abraham was considered righteous by faith prior to his circumcision. Try out a little E.P. Sanders or look up covenantal nomism to get a fuller explanation of how they viewed things like circumcision and holy days. They were not seen so much as what gets you in. They were seen as things to do to stay in (if my memory is right…correct me here Rex, if I am off base). So even in the Jewish view circumcision was a boundary marker but was not seen in and of itself to be a work that earned salvation. It was a “sign of the covenant” and was also done passively to the person, just like baptism. Hope that helps.

  13. Right on again…to the best of my memory (it’s been a while since I read Sanders). 🙂

  14. Water baptism is a work.

    The argument that water baptism is “passive” does not fly, since the Bible also considers circumcision a work, which is also passive. Since Romans 4:1-12 considers circumcision a work, and since water baptism replaces circumcision as the mark of the visible church, then water baptism is a work.

    Moreover, Jesus considered His water baptism as part of fulfilling all righteousness. Is not fulfilling all righteousness works? Compare “fulfill all righteousness” with “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,” in Titus 3.

    Not only is water baptism a work by the recipient, but also by the one doing the baptizing. We see this In Mark 1:8, where John the Baptist contrasts the water baptism man administers with the Holy Spirit baptism that Christ administers:

    “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

    And in fact, John 4:2 says of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly ministry: “(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), …”

    More info:
    The Danger of Believing Water Baptism saves:

    Nowhere Does the Bible Teach that Water Baptism Saves:

  15. Paul tells us to “rightly divide” the word and I have been told that a more literal translation of that phrase might be to “cut a straight path.” I’ll be content to let other folks parse whether baptism is a work or not. I do surmise that that type of parsing is closer to something a former president might have done that cutting a straight path. The bottom line is that baptism requires an outward action (i.e. walking the aisle and stating a desire to be baptized) as a sign of commitment rather than a condition of the heart. I think it is a result of a condition of the heart but so are (other) works.

  16. Sorry Steve,

    But your argument doesn’t fly theologically. It just doesn’t fit Paul or first century Palestinan Judaism’s views of circumcision. Look at Romans 4:11. Paul wrote that he “received” the sign of circumcision. It was done to him. Read my comment above. Read E.P. Sanders. Read James Dunn on Romans. Read Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright or any of the more reputable New Testament scholars and you will see that the parallels you are drawing just aren’t valid. I see where you are getting them from and I certainly appreciate your serious study of God’s word but I have to disagree respectfully with you on this one brother,


  17. Steve,

    Welcome to the discussion. Thankfully our salvation does not hang on whether we get this question right. With that being said, I am not sure why you think the passive voice means nothing. It means everything. It means baptism is God’s work in us rather than our work (though I know there are some who wrongly present baptism as though it is our work). Also, there is no where in scripture where you will find baptism replacing “circumcision as the mark of the visible church…” The Holy Spirit is that which marks the visible church (cf. Eph 1.13-14; 1 Jn 4.2). And along with Matt Dabbs, I would also commend Dunn, Sanders, Witherington, and Wright for their work on Romans and/or Pauline Theology.

    Grace and peace,


  18. An 8 day old baby boy can only recieve, he has no choice in the matter. Of course some adults were circumcised but the usual thing was as Paul, “..the eighth day..”.

    The whole point is not are you acting or being acted upon in baptism. What matters is that you trust Christ and not in the act of baptism.


  19. Matt,
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I don’t deny that Paul “received” circumcision, but the question is, does the Bible consider it a work? How we define a work should be determined by the Bible.

    The Bible should be our standard for answering metaphysical questions, not our own finite, fallen reasoning. The book of Galatians is clear circumcision is a work.

    When we move on to Romans 4:12, we see that Abraham is the father of all who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

    If we were to add water baptism to justification, no one today would be able to “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised,” since Abraham’s faith was faith alone, not faith + works including any religious rites (even if someone denies circumcision and water baptism are works, adding these rites to justification are still at odds with what is taught in Rom. 4, that Abraham was justified by faith alone).

    Clearly these verses that teach justification by faith alone do apply to New Covenant belivers, since Abraham is the “father of all who believe.” Romans 2:25-29 is also clear religious rites play no role in salvation.

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