God wants people to be baptized. He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). Yet God also speaks strongly against attempting to earn salvation through our works either works done under Moses law or good works we do. For by grace you have been saved not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8-9). Do these two truths conflict? Is baptism a work done to earn salvation and therefore forbidden by God? Let’s examine what the Bible teaches on the issue of works done to earn salvation and whether baptism fits into this category.
Several Bible passages condemn attempts to earn salvation by our works. What are the characteristics of works done in misguided efforts to merit salvation?
Works done to earn salvation would prompt justified boasting. When we receive salvation, it would be because we deserve it! For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God (Rom 4:2). Had his works earned him salvation, Abraham could have bragged to all but God about his accomplishment. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8-9). When God’s grace is involved, boasting is excluded (Rom 3:27). But if we earn our own salvation, why can’t we brag about it?
Works done to earn salvation would eliminate our need for God. Here is the key in these works they are all about us! If we do them, we save ourselves salvation is of yourselves (Eph 2:8) rather than the gift of God and we can boast in our self-sufficiency. In fact, Paul states that if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain (Gal 2:21). Why did Jesus need to die if we can save ourselves without Him? Instead, New Testament passages hammer into us our deep need for God’s mercy because of our inability to save ourselves. God has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace (2 Tim 1:9). Paul told Titus to remember that not 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 3:5). These works are about us; salvation is something only God could initiate and provide. This does not eliminate our need or ability to work but hoping to earn salvation through works is a dead-end.
Works done to earn salvation would make it a due payment rather than a free gift. If we put our hopes of salvation in the works basket, our only hope is to earn it. Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt (Rom 4:4). There is a difference in earning a wage and receiving a gift. There is a difference between placing ourselves at the mercy of a loving God (grace) and standing on our own merits (works). If we think we can do enough to make God owe us salvation, we set aside the grace of God (Gal 2:21) and ask for what is due. Are we prepared to settle accounts with God to grab Him by the throat and cry, Pay me what you owe ?
Many people are baptized in the New Testament record, yet none of them boasts that they have saved themselves. People take many baths, but taking baths does not make us worthy of salvation, nor allow us to boast in what we have done.
Does baptism eliminate our need for God? Far from it! Paul calls baptism God’s work rather than our own: buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Col 2:12). Peter tells us that baptism now saves you not the removal of the dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Pet 3:21, NASB). Notice that God is deeply involved in the process of salvation through baptism. He is the one doing the work of salvation, we are only obeying His command and giving our appeal to God for a good conscience through baptism.
Does baptism make salvation a due payment rather than a free gift? Read this passage carefully: not 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 3:5). In the same breath, inspired Paul reminds us that salvation is not on the basis of righteous works yet there is a work of washing to be done! It is not something we deserve or have earned yet the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit still have a part in it! Throughout the Bible from Noah to Jericho to Naaman God’s grace always has conditions. Yet consistently, the Bible shows us that meeting God’s conditions never puts Him in our debt. Baptism is a part of salvation by God’s grace not of salvation we earn.
On Pentecost, some asked, What shall we do? (Acts 2:37). There are some actions works we must do to be saved. The work of God is that we believe in Jesus (John 6:29). True repentance involves corresponding actions (Acts 26:20). Faith must be confessed (Rom 10:10). We must be baptized into Christ (Gal 3:26-27, Acts 22:16). Faith must continue to be shown through works (James 2:18). Paul urges us to work out your own salvation (Phil 2:12). Denying the relation of works to salvation soon leads to rejecting the majority of the Bible.
Yet when all these works are done, Jesus reminds us: So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do (Luke 17:10). We must never forget, however great our works become: we are servants doing our duty, unworthy of the price paid for us. We will never earn our salvation.