One of the most common objections to baptism for the remission of sins is that it is “a work” and “salvation is not of works” (quoting Ephesians 2:9 out of context).
The principle problem of the Jewish Christians in the early church was that they were coming out of a corrupted practice of the Law of Moses. The Jews of Jesus day had begun to practice a Law of meritorious works. That is, they believed it was the works themselves that justified a man. Jesus rebuked them continually over their corruption of the Law. These Jewish Christians were trying to syncretize their corrupted Judaism with Christianity. Paul dealt with it in much of his writing (cf. Rom. 4:2, 4-6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8; etc). When we see these passages cited as justifying the false doctrine of “faith only” salvation, it ignores that Paul was dealing with this specific Jewish problem.
Romans begins and ends with the statement “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Paul says the very purpose of his apostleship was to bring people to an “obedience to the faith!” “The faith” is the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (cf. Jude 3; Acts 6:7; 1 Cor. 16:13; Col. 1:23; et al.). Obedience to “the faith” is the same thing as obeying the gospel (cf. 2 Thess. 1:8). The gospel is defined as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). How does one “obey” the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Read Romans 6:3-6!
When talking about works of faith – i.e. the things we do in faithful obedience to God – Paul most definitely includes baptism as a prerequisite work of obedience necessary for salvation! When Paul said that our salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5), he includes baptism in the very next clause as being saved by God’s mercy – “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” The same word for “washing” isused in Ephesians 5:26, very clearly referring to baptism – “the washing of water by the word” (cf. John 3:3, 5). The same root word is used in Acts 22:16, again referring to baptism (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 1:5). Not only that, but Paul includes baptism in how the Ephesians were saved by grace in Ephesians 2:5 and 8. We were dead in trespasses but, by the grace of God, we were made alive together with Christ! (Eph. 2:5). We were dead before being buried with Christ in baptism and were made alive when we were raised with him to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3, 4; Col. 2:11-13). The salvation that is by grace Includes Baptism!
Baptism is not a work of righteousness that we have done. It is a “work of God” that He gave to be obeyed. It is a work of God just as faith is a “work of God” (John 6:28, 29). They asked Jesus “what shall we do that we may work the works of God?” That is, “what do we have to do to be obedient to God?” Jesus said to believe! So faith is a work! But it isn’t a “work of righteousness that we have done.” It is a work of humble and faithful obedience to God – just like baptism!
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