Saved by Grace #9 — IS BAPTISM A WORK?

Many in the Christian world will vehemently reject just about everything I said in the previous lesson (part 8, “Saved by Grace, Saved in Baptism”). This is because they view baptism as a work, and believe that this automatically prevents baptism from having anything to do with salvation, since salvation is by grace. In this lesson I will show why this is false thinking.

Historically, for its first 1,500 years Christendom was nearly unanimous in its belief that water baptism is the moment of time when God initially bestows saving grace upon the sinner. This includes Martin Luther, who forcefully taught this view. He said, for example, that one is baptized so that he “may receive in the water the promised salvation” (“The Large Catechism,” IV.36). Luther saw no conflict between baptism for salvation and salvation by grace.

The Copernican Revolution regarding the meaning of baptism came with the Swiss Reformer, Huldreich Zwingli. In the years 1523-1525 Zwingli completely reworked the doctrine of baptism. He repudiated any connection between baptism and salvation, and invented a totally new approach to it. In essence, he declared that baptism is the exact NT equivalent to OT circumcision, and is thus just a sign of an already-existing membership in God’s covenant people. Zwingli of course knew this was a new view. He declared that “everyone before me has been wrong about baptism.” Most Protestants have adopted this new view; many have done so without being aware of its relatively recent origin.

Those Protestants today who reject baptism as a salvation event follow Zwingli on this: they believe that such a view contradicts salvation by grace. The argument is this: Premise 1: We are saved by grace through faith, NOT by works (Eph. 2:8-9). Premise 2: Baptism is a work. Conclusion: Therefore baptism can have no connection with salvation. Those who follow this argument rightly want to be true to the grace concept of salvation, but they have become Zwinglianized, i.e., deceived into thinking that embracing grace somehow requires giving up baptism as a salvation event.

How may we respond to this approach? Can we show that baptism as a salvation event is consistent with salvation by grace? YES! ABSOLUTELY! The question, then, is HOW can these two be reconciled? I will explain this in two steps, one following Luther and one following Paul!


This approach says that the controversial element in the Zwinglian revision is its second premise: “Baptism is a work.” Luther’s Zwinglian opponents challenged his adherence to the 1500-year consensus on baptism on this grounds. How can you say works are of no use for salvation, they asked him, and then say that baptism is for salvation? Is baptism itself not a work? What about faith? Here is Luther’s stated answer to this challenge (“Large Catechism,” IV.35): “To this you may answer: Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however is not our work but God’s . . . . God’s works are . . . necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith.”

I have often used Luther’s excellent and Biblical reasoning on this issue. The fact is that every NT reference to baptism’s meaning depicts it as accomplishing something that only God can perform (e.g., forgiveness, regeneration, baptism in the Spirit, resurrection from spiritual death). The only one really working in baptism is God; we come to it simply with “faith in the working of God” (Col. 2:12). The one being baptized is passive, allowing something to be done TO himself or herself.

In the new Zwinglian view of baptism, God himself is doing NOTHING; the only significant work being done therein is by the one being baptized, for whom baptism is his or her response, commitment, expression, testimony, pledge, announcement, confirmation, or demonstration—all HUMAN works. In Scripture, though, NONE of these things is ever connected with baptism. The only things the baptized person is doing in baptism is believing (Col. 2:12) and praying (Acts 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21)—both of which are indisputably consistent with grace. (The translation “pledge” in 1 Pet. 3:21 is wrong.)

But is not baptism really a “work” in the simple sense of “something we do”? Would this not make it a work in the sense of Eph. 2:9, which excludes works from the way of salvation? The answer is NO, this is a faulty approach to the works issue. To see why this is so, we must make sure we are DEFINING the term “works” in the proper Pauline sense.


I have concluded that the main reason people think baptism for salvation and salvation by grace are contradictory is that they are using the wrong definition of “works” as used in Eph. 2:8-9 and elsewhere in Paul’s writings. It is uncritically assumed that a “work” is simply “something WE do,” especially as opposed to something GOD does.

The fact is that “works” CAN be defined and used this way, as Jesus himself uses “works” language in John 6:26-29. But I have concluded on good evidence that this CANNOT be the sense of “works” as Paul uses the term, because this would put him in contradiction with Jesus in John 6:26-29. In this text Jesus uses “works” in the generic sense of “something we do,” and he applies this terminology to FAITH ITSELF. Thus FAITH is a work in the sense of “something we do.” But here is the kicker: Paul makes a clear distinction between faith and works (Rom. 3:27-28; 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9). This forces us to conclude that Paul must be using the term “works” in a different sense. It cannot mean simply “something we do.” For Paul, it must mean something more specific.

So what exactly DOES Paul mean when he uses the term “works”? Paul himself answer this question when he uses the more complete expression, “works of law” (as in Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). When you examine his “works” language closely in context, you will see that he always means “works of law,” even when he says just “works” and does not add “of law.”

So what are “works of law” in Paul’s vocabulary? (Note that there are no articles in any of Paul’s uses of the phrase.) One thing he cannot mean is just the “Law of Moses,” because in the Romans context he is including the Gentiles and Abraham in the discussion. The bottom line is this: for Paul, a “work” or “work of law” is ANY deed (external or internal, sinful or righteous) done in response to the law code that God as Creator has bound upon us as creatures. (Romans 3:28 through 4:8 shows that even sins belong in this definition.) Positively (as good works), works of law are just our acts of everyday obedience to God’s teaching on how to live a holy life. They are acts of obedience to our law code. They are “living the Christian life.”

Now here is a crucial point: in Paul’s vocabulary, not all obedience to God is obedience to one’s law code; not all “things we do” are the creature’s response to God as Creator and his LAW commands. For Paul, some “things we do” are the sinner’s response to God our Savior’s GOSPEL commands, i.e., instructions to sinners on how to be saved. These are NOT “works of law,” but are “obedience to the gospel.” This latter is the expression Paul uses in Romans 10:16 (properly translated) and in 2 Thess. 1:8. When Paul is excluding “works” from the way of salvation, he is excluding “works of law,” not “obedience to the gospel.” The latter is fully consistent with grace.

What are the gospel commands directed toward sinners by God in his role as Savior, instructing sinners on how to receive salvation? (Whatever these are, they are NOT WORKS in Paul’s sense of the term!) Here I would list the first four fingers of the venerable “five-finger exercise”: faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. I would NOT include “living the Christian life,” which counts instead as works of law.

Baptism thus is NOT a work, in Paul’s sense and use of that term. He does NOT have baptism in mind when he writes Ephesians 2:8-9. Yes, baptism is “something we do” (just as faith is), but it is not something we do in response to a law command. “Be baptized” is a grace command, a gospel command. As an act of obedience to the gospel, baptism is just as consistent with grace as is faith.

Based on this Biblical analysis, it no longer makes any sense whatsoever to reject the Biblical view of baptism as a salvation event because of some alleged but unfounded contradiction with grace.

“Men and brethren, what shall we do?” We shall fully embrace both salvation by grace AND salvation in baptism, a la Luther and especially Paul. Also, we shall henceforth be honest and rational in our exegesis of NT teaching concerning baptism. Finally, we shall speak the truth in love regarding this subject of baptism. When we preach, teach, and write about baptism, we must be more concerned about what GOD thinks of our presentations than about what men think. “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4, ESV). Let God’s WORD be true, though every one were a liar. Let our PREACHING of God’s Word be true, though everyone else were a liar.

Full Series

Saved by Grace #1 — GRACE ISN’T FAIR, BUT THAT’S GOOD!

Saved by Grace #2 — SAVED BY GRACE, NOT BY LAW




Saved by Grace #6 — GRACE VS. GALATIANISM



Saved by Grace #9 — IS BAPTISM A WORK?



Saved by Grace #12 — LIVING BY GRACE


Saved by Grace #14 — Once in Grace, Always in Grace?

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Saved by Grace #9 — IS BAPTISM A WORK? — 16 Comments

  1. I think back to my baptism. I was not just a dunking like my brother & sister used to do while playing in the lake. My baptism was Special. I arose out of the water with most glorious feeling.
    I did not have that special feeling when I gave my profession of faith.
    Often I think back to that feeling and wish I could have it again but it was a once in a lifetime. I am now under Grace of God covered by the blanket of Saviour Redeemer Christ Jesus. I can go to God and ask forgiveness of my sins and God will forgive me because He acknowledges me as one in the sheepfold.

    • Being under the blanket of the Savior Jesus means that you are under the blanket of forgiveness at all times. See Romans 4:7-8. As a Christian you can go to God and THANK him for his forgiveness of your sins, because God IS FORGIVING you at all times. Being justified (forgiven) means that we are living in a STATE of forgivenness. And yes, it began when you met Jesus in the waters of baptism!

  2. I agree with the reasoning here. I used to believe that baptism was a “work” that people did, rather than seeing that God gave His grace to those who obeyed Him.

    I cannot do anything to earn God’s grace. All I can do is obediently receive His saving grace.

    I think that Paul refers to that as being “obedient from the heart.”

  3. Jack,

    Questions, does the quote in your post “Zwingli of course knew this was a new view. He declared that “everyone before me has been wrong about baptism.” have a source? or is this a paraphrase on your part of his beliefs? Just curious. Thanks for your post!

    • This is a direct quotation (in translation, of course) from Zwingli’s 1523 essay on baptism: “In this matter of baptism, all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles…. For all the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.” “The Fathers were in error…because they thought that the water itself effects cleansing and salvation” (“Of Baptism,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, “Library of Christian Classics,” vol. 24 [Westminster 1953], pp. 130, 156). He is wrong, of course, in thinking that these “doctors” (i.e., teachers) believed that it was the WATER that brought about the cleansing, rather than God himself. He is quite correct in saying that they believed the salvation occurred at the time of the baptism.

      • I made a mistake on the date when Zwingli published his essay “Of Baptism.” It actually was published on May 27, 1525, not 1523.

  4. Very well said! You explained this better than I’ve seen anyone else do so. I think you nailed it on the head regarding Paul’s use of the word “works”. It’s very evident to me that people have expanded its definition far beyond Paul’s intended scope. The part about Luther was enlightening to me. Thanks for posting this!

  5. So, those who have death bed conversions are doing so in vain according to your philosophy. So much for accepting Christ at the end of life, no baptism, no salvation.

    • Your concern is valid, but your conclusions are premature. I have several essays here on my website that address this concern. Just type “necessity of baptism” into the search box.

      • With all due respect, the allowance of man’s “under normal circumstances ” is an attempt to justify a doctrine contrary to, and adding stipulations, beyond what the Bible teaches. Who is man to assume God makes exceptions? Either a man is saved by faith or man is saved by baptism. If a man is saved by faith, there is no need for man’s stipulation of ‘under normal circumstances ‘ for those deathbed conversions and no need for other stipulations to live his eternal life with God. If a man is saved by baptism, then deathbed conversions require man’s assumption of ‘under normal circumstances’ to be saved. Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” My conversion was upon my confession of faith and baptism came after that conversion as an outward sign to other believers that I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Throughout Acts, baptism is used as a sign of conversion, not a source of conversion. I realize you have always held your doctrine and this discussion will not persuade you to accept baptism as a sign. And, having read your doctrine I will never accept baptism is a source of salvation. I do appreciate your post and the opportunity to discuss important doctrinal issues. This discussion will be resolved when we meet Jesus face to face and ask him about this doctrinal question.

        • Sam
          Just a point you might want to consider on your use of Romans 10. If you consider the letter of Romans from chapter 1 to 16 a single letter which I believe it is. The way you use chapter 10 it is out of context.

  6. Some months ago a preacher proclaimed that baptism in the NT took the place of circumcision in the OT. I challenged him on it and he pointed me to a place in Col. and upon reading it I saw that the fellow didn’t know what he was talking about. Your article was abundantly clear on the subject. Thank you, my brother.

  7. So I was baptized in a Conservative Baptist Church and now I am a member of a non-denomination Christian Church. My question is, do I need to be baptized again just because mans interpretation differ?

    • My answer is based on Colossians 2:12, which says that God’s work in baptism is conditioned not upon what a denomination teaches nor upon what the baptizer believes, but on the faith of the one being baptized. You have to ask yourself, to the best of your memory, if you were believing that God was somehow working upon you in that moment. You would not have to understand the details; that usually comes later. But there must be some “faith in the working of God.” That is my “man’s interpretation” of what GOD has said.

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