That’s a Funny Sounding Word
Works, that’s a funny sounding word when you just say it out loud.
This little word can have a variety of meanings.
A computer “works,” meaning it operates.
A municipality has public “works,” the infrastructure, built to support the smooth operation of a community.
A person “works,” meaning they put forth labor to produce something.
A religious person might perform good “works” or good “deeds,” meaning they are performing a religious activity or action for the purpose of pleasing God.
The Go-To Word!
When we have that debate about God’s requirement that a person must be baptized to be saved, it is often to this word, “works,” the argument turns. The anti-baptists say, “Man cannot be saved by works.”
I can’t argue with that statement.
They are correct because the Bible teaches, “Man cannot be saved by works.”
Surprisingly, both the anti-baptism folks and the folks who believe that baptism is indeed necessary for salvation agree on this point. We cannot be saved by works… so, what’s the problem?
The problem is we have not defined the meaning of the word, “works.”
What is a “work?”
Well, it depends on the “word use.” You know how the word is being used. This depends heavily on the context of where and how the word is being used.
If we are using the word “work” to refer to a “good deed” someone does in order to gain favor with God, that’s a different “word use” than if we say, “We are working FOR God” as God commands us to do.
Is Prayer a Work?
For example, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We don’t consider his instructions to mean we are to perform some kind of good deeds kind of work. We see his instructions and we are obligated to obey, to the best of our ability. In this case we might say to a friend, “I have really been working in prayer for you.”
Here’s another example. When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper and said. “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is a religious activity we do it because we eagerly want to do what he has asked us to do. We do it because we love him. Activity is another word for work though it carries a more gentle meaning.
Prayer or the Lord’s Supper are religious activities Christians, all over the world, perform on a regular basis; yet no Christian would consider these things to be “works.” They understand them simply as requests… or commands… Christ has laid before us and, as a good Christian, we are willing to humbly comply.
But something funny happens when it comes to the command to be baptized! Suddenly, the “word use” changes. We redefine baptism as a work, then conclude, “One does not need to be baptized because it is a work and we are not saved by works.”
To understand this a little better, let’s look at what the Bible actually says about salvation by works. Let’s see how the Bible defines “works” and see if baptism fits into that category.
The Romans Road
When the debate begins, the discussion about “works” often begins in Romans, so let’s start there.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast aboutbut not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Then, a little bit later in Romans, Paul continues this thought:
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspringnot only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
Let’s put this in context. What are we talking about here? Well, we are talking about how Abraham received a credit of righteousness but not because of his works. He believed God and received a credit of righteousness.
Next, we learn that righteousness comes by faith, not by works. It is by grace the promise is offered.
Considering these passages of scripture, I think we can be fairly certain that works are of little value in the salvation process. But let’s look at another passage.
Later, Paul continues this same theme…
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Here, once again, Paul contrasts faith and works. One leads to salvation, the other to stumbling over the very person in whom we should have faith, Jesus Christ.
Hey! I’m Workin’ Here!
Without question, works are of no value for our salvation.
But, we’re workin’ on works here so let’s define our terms. What are these “works” the Apostle Paul is talking about? Let’s get some context!
The works Paul is talking about is the performance of rituals established by the Old Covenant. He is talking about very specific activities Jews were required to perform, such as the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb or keeping the Sabbath, which kept them in a right relationship with God.
Throughout the New Testament, when we are comparing “works” with grace and faith, we are always talking about Old Covenant Law and the performance required by the law. Paul is not talking about some unfamiliar “good deeds” someone made up which would prove their loyalty to God and draw them closer to Him.
While it is true, people will attempt to do things for God in order to win his approval, these are not the things Paul was talking about. In context, Paul is never talking about some new “works of merit” a well meaning Christian dreamed up or even about baptism, a New Testament command.
Paul is always talking about activities, already established in the Old Testament, which the Jews were obligated to follow. He is not talking about something new which was occurring in the church.
Remember, the Old Testament Law was the frame of reference for the disciples of the first century to whom the New Testament letters were written. They would have universally understood that when Paul was talking about “works,” he would have been referring to the Old Testament Law… which was gone. His appeal, in all of his discussions about works, is to avoid sinking back into or depending on those rituals for salvation.
The New Testament establishes that we are no longer required to do those things and if we are depending on them, we are not acting with faith in Christ. The Old Covenant rules of engagement are over. It is finished.
The New Covenant Rituals
This brings us to the New Covenant. Let’s talk about the rituals the New Testament establishes… There are none! The New Testament establishes no new ceremony, ritual or even a so called “sacrament.”
Let’s return to our earlier examples of the Lord’s Supper and prayer.
These two activities are commands of Christ. They were not suggestions. They establish a pattern of behavior every Christian should be following. But why do we do them? Is it out of a legalistic, hard coded, duty to the Lord? Absolutely not! No way! That would be wildly inappropriate. We do these things because we love the Lord and want to do what he has asked us to do. We do them because of relationship not rules.
Modern Evangelicals, in the effort to deny baptism as integral to the conversion process, have somehow recategorized baptism as a “work of man” and then use this new meaning to reject baptism as a necessary part of loving Christ.
Jesus said, in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
It seems to me, we need to humbly revisit the issue of baptism and simply ask, “Did Jesus command us to do this, just as he told us to pray and share in the Lord’s supper?”
It is commanded by Jesus in The Great Commission and most churches understand this.
In Obedience to Christ… but just for that.
Many of today’s evangelical churches perform full immersion baptisms. They do it because they recognize baptism as a command. With a command, comes the obligation to obey. The problem is, they baptize people who believe they are already saved and their sins have been forgiven in advance of their baptism. Remember, the vast majority of evangelical churches teach that a person’s sins are forgiven when they accept Christ sometimes months or years before full immersion baptism.
They know, baptism is not something man made up. It is not something that someone pulled out of thin air in the first century, which sort of “caught on” and became a nice tradition of the early church.
In the first century, baptism was done, and done immediately, because they knew it was a command of Christ. They understood that it was part of the conversion process. It’s that simple. Today, churches baptize because it’s a command but not for conversion to salvation.
If we love Christ, we humbly obey his commands. Why would we argue with him about this?
Well if we get pulled off track… just a little bit… and someone is able to convince us – baptism is a work, things change. We begin to see baptism as a good idea, obeying a non critical command or even as optional.
When we are taught baptism is a work instead of a required command of Christ, we might even fight against the idea that it relates to the forgiveness of sin. If someone was able to convince us to ignore… or just minimize Jesus instructions in the Great Commission, it becomes easy conclude that baptism is not necessary for salvation, it’s just another nice ritual.
Here’s the big question. If baptism is a work and not a spiritual response to a spiritual command, how and when did it become a work?
At what point in church history did our brothers remove baptism from the “command which must be obeyed list,” and move it over to the “it’s nice thing to do list?”
They didn’t. Baptism was never considered a work. This is why it does not qualify as a work like the requirements of the Old Testament.
So why is baptism vilified and labeled with such a ghastly epithet as a “work?”
Because it IS a necessary part of the conversion process!
Can you think of anyone who might make it difficult for you to become a Christian?
Who in the world wants to prevent people from being baptized?
If baptism has nothing to do with conversion, who cares one wit if you are baptized?
Who wants to confuse people regarding the meaning of baptism?
Who wants to hide and obfuscate the commands of Christ?
Who is the author of confusion and misunderstanding?
Why would this even be an issue we debate if it were not something very, very important?
Don’t you see? Someone is trying really hard to keep you from obeying the Gospel.
He will tell you, “It doesn’t matter.”
He will tell you, “You were baptized as a baby.”
He will tell you, “But, you’re OK, You were baptized as an adult.” (Even though you still believe and teach that salvation and the forgiveness of sins occurs when someone accepts Christ.)
He will tell you, “You don’t need to obey Christ. Having him as savior is just fine.”
He will tell you, “This is all just a bunch of doctrinal hair spitting, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is what’s in your heart and you know you’re a good person.”
But then again, he really doesn’t need to say all those things, all he needs to do is convince you that baptism is a work of man instead of a command of Christ. A humble heart is eager to obey this command immediately upon accepting the Gospel.
You know if this wasn’t an absolutely critical issue, why would there be any argument about at all?