Vol. 8, No. 12
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It is frequently suggested that man cannot do anything--other than believe, in terms of his salvation,1 that "works" are the natural consequence of salvation, but they do not have any role in securing or receiving salvation. Is this popular doctrine in harmony with the revealed will of God? Consider what the Bible has to say:
Faith is a work. John recorded, "Then they said to Him, 'What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent'" (John 6:28-29). The disciples asked, "What shall we do...?" In his response, the Lord neither corrected nor condemned them for their sincere inquiry. He did not say, "Do? Beloved, you cannot do anything pertaining to your salvation." On the contrary, Jesus said, "This is the work of [from] God2 that you believe." If all works are excluded from the plan of salvation as some allege, then faith itself is eliminated because Jesus clearly identified it as a work. Circle the word "work" in your New Testament and then make an arrow to the phrase "that you believe." Then in the margin write, "Faith is a work" (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26).
Repentance is a work. Jesus said, "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah..." (Matthew 12:41). Circle the phrase "they repented" in your New Testament and then cross-reference it to Jonah 3:10. There the Bible states, "Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way..." Watch it--the men of Nineveh engaged in works when they repented. In the margin of your Bible beside Matthew 12:41 write, "Repentance is a work." Are works of repentance necessary for salvation?3 Jesus thought so. He taught, "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3; cf. Acts 3:19; 17:30).
Baptism is a work. While some will reluctantly agree that faith and repentance are works (and that both are necessary), they will deny that baptism is likewise essential to salvation, because to do so would somehow imply that remission of sins was earned. This is simply not true. Granted, baptism requires that something be done, but that does not mean it is a meritorious endeavor. In point of fact, Scripture explicitly teaches that baptism is not a work that entitles us to the forgiveness of sins. In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul taught that we are "not [saved] by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 2:5; cf. John 3:5). Note the contrast--we are not saved by works of righteousness which we have done (e.g., works of human merit), but we are saved through the washing of regeneration. The washing of regeneration is an obvious allusion to baptism. Even Martin Luther, who coined the phrase "salvation by faith only" understood this passage to refer to baptism and taught it was necessary for salvation.4 In the margin of your Bible beside Titus 2:5 write, "Baptism is not a meritorious work." In Acts 22:16 Ananias told Saul, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins..." When we compare these two passages, it's clear as to how an individual is saved. He's saved through the washing of regeneration--through baptism (cf. Mark 16:16)5 at which point he washes away his sins.6 That's why the apostle Peter could say "baptism doth also now save us" (1 Peter 3:21).
Now we're not saved through water baptism alone any more than we are saved through faith alone (James 2:17, 24, 26) or repentance alone. All are necessary (Psalm 139:17; Matthew 28:20) even though all are works of a sort (cf. 2 John 8; Philippians 2:12). No, they are not works of the Law of Moses--which require sinless perfection (Galatians 3:10b). No, they are not works of merit--which entitle us to salvation (Ephesians 2:9). Careful Bible students recognize that there are different kinds of works mentioned in the divine record and that faith (Hebrews 11:6), repentance (Acts 2:38) and baptism (Matthew 28:19; Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27) are works of God (cf. John 6:27, 29) in the sense that he has ordained them for us to obey (Acts 10:35; Matthew 7:21; Hebrews 5:9) in order that we might receive the free gift of divine grace.
1 "Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort" (Discipline of the Methodist Church. New York: Methodist Publishing House,1939, p. 40).
2 Obviously faith is not a "work of God" in the sense that he believes for man. The New English Translation removes the ambiguity and says, "Jesus replied, 'This is the deed God requires--to believe in the one whom he sent.'"
3 "That's the danger of even beginning to think that I have to do something other than believe in Jesus in order to be saved" (Mrs. Ken Berggren, "Salvation's cause is grace through faith," McLean County News, Aug. 24, 2006, p. 3A -- emphasis mine, mb).
4 "What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow? It effects forgiveness of sins?.. Through baptism he is bathed in the blood of Christ and is cleansed from sins. ...To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save" (Luther's Small Catechism). See also Luther's Large Catechism, pp. 98-102.
5 Note what Jesus did not teach about this passage: 1) He who does not believe and is not baptized will be saved; 2) He who does not believe and is baptized will be saved; or 3) He who believes will be saved and may optionally submit to baptism. Jesus plainly taught that both faith and baptism are necessary in order to receive salvation (cf. Acts 8:36-37).
6 "We obey, and go down into the water because we believe. We arise from the waters of baptism and say we are saved by faith, but not faith only" (Jerry Moffitt, "The Nature of Saving Faith." Denominational Doctrines. 1996, p. 76).