4. FAITH AND BAPTISM
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. (Romans 3:23-25a)
Those who believe the doctrine of salvation by “faith only” usually say that baptism is not necessary for salvation. They argue that faith, as God’s only requirement for salvation, excludes anything else on the part of man. Even though they state this in theory, it is not always what they practice.
If salvation is based on faith only, then nothing else should be taught as a requirement for salvation. It would exclude Bible study, listening to teaching, repentance, confession, and saying the “sinner’s prayer,” asking for forgiveness and Christ to come into one’s heart.1 These are usually considered to be included in faith by those teaching “faith only.” Why would not baptism also be included in faith, since it is no more an act of merit than the other requirements mentioned above? The one being baptized does nothing active, but rather passively permits his body to be placed under the water and brought out of the water-even as Jesus did no work in His crucifixion, but submitted to others who nailed Him to the cross. He was obedient in His death (Philippians 2:8) and we are obedient in baptism. After His death for our sins, He was buried by others and was resurrected by the Spirit (Romans 8:11).
DOES FAITH INCLUDE OBEDIENCE?
“Faith” and “believe” come from forms of pisteuo, which can be defined as “trust and reliance.” Included also is a willing response to one’s trust, which results in obedience. R. Bultmann gave this definition of pisteuo:
…”to obey.” Hebrews 11 stresses that to believe is to obey, as in the [Old Testament] Paul in Romans 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:8 (cf. Romans 15:18; 16:19) shows too, that believing means obeying. He speaks about the obedience of faith in Romans 1:5, and cf. 10:3; 2 Corinthians 9:13).2
“Faith” and “believe” indicate more than mental or emotional acceptance. They are used in contrast with “disobey,” “disobedient,” and “disobedience.” These words are translated from the Greek verb apeitheo and noun apeithia.3
John 3:36 states, “He who believes [Gk.: pisteuo] in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey [Gk.: apeitheo] the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides in Him.” The usage of pisteuo (“believes”), the positive, in contrast with apeitheo (“not obey”), the negative, is clear evidence that the acceptance indicated by the words “faith” and “believe” is completed when motivated to action.
In Hebrews 3:18, 19, a comparison appears: “And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient [Gk.:apeitheo]? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief [Gk.: apisteo].” This passage is referring to Israel’s disobedience to God by not going into Canaan to conquer it. Israel is used as an example (Hebrews 3:9-11, 16-19) to warn the Christian not to have an “unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 3:12-15). The message given to the Israelites did not profit them “because it was not united by faith [Gk.: pistis] “(Hebrews 4:2). They failed to receive God’s reward because they did not have a faith that would bring them to obedience. Hebrews 4:6 says that they failed to enter God’s rest “because of disobedience” [Gk.: apeithia]. The writer of the book of Hebrews appealed to Christians not to follow their “example of disobedience [Gk.: apeithia]” (Hebrews 4:11). The KJV unjustifiably translates forms of apeitheo “unbelief” instead of “disobedience” in Hebrews 4:6, 11, and as “believeth not” in John 3:36.
These passages clearly show that faith is incomplete without obedience. Those who did not believe were the ones who failed to obey, while those who had faith were the ones who obeyed. Faith that led to obedience was the faith that was rewarded.
IS SALVATION BY FAITH ONLY?
Perhaps Martin Luther formulated the doctrine of “faith only” to combat another extreme, the doctrine of salvation based on good works. In his German translation of Romans 3:28 he inserted the word “alone” after “faith.” This has been a foundation doctrine of most Protestant churches. The Book of Discipline, a denominational creed book, states: “Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.”4
The Bible teaches neither “works only” nor “faith only,” but “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). In Hebrews 11:6 this truth is presented: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”5 Not only do we need to believe that God exists, but we must also “seek Him” in order to please Him. “Seek” implies human effort.
James pointed out that the demons believe enough to tremble (James 2:19). He said, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17; see also vv. 20, 26). Being justified in the sight of God does not come through faith only: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Believing in Jesus is important because obedience to Jesus can come only through faith in Him (John 3:36). Suppose a person was visiting friends in a country far from home and became sick. He might be afraid to trust just any of the doctors. If his friends recommended a doctor, he would go to him and gladly take the medicine prescribed–because he believed in him, but if he did not trust him, he would not take the medicine. The same is true concerning those who believe in Jesus. Those who believe in Him will obey Him (Luke 6:46) and will thus receive eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9).
IS SALVATION BY WORKS?
Some have concluded that Paul and James were in conflict in their teaching concerning “faith” and “works” (Romans 3:28; James 2:24). If Paul and James had been writing about the same kind of works, then we would see a hopeless contradiction. However, Paul was writing about doing works of self-accomplishment in order to be justified, while James was writing concerning works based on faith in what Jesus has done to provide justification.
A good example of these two different kinds of works is seen in the destruction of the walls of Jericho. What caused the walls to fall? The work of God, and His work alone. They could not have been caused to crumble by the Israelites marching or shouting. If the walls would have fallen based on what Israel did, then the people would have used battering rams, picks, and shovels to cause the collapse of the walls. This is the type of work Paul meant when he wrote, “Not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9).
“By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days” (Hebrews 11:30). Israel’s activity, based on their faith, is an illustration of the works James was discussing. Their action was a response based on faith in what God had promised to do, not in what they could do.
Baptism cannot be placed in a category of works which produce blessings. Like faith, repentance, and confession, baptism has no innate ability to remove sins. If baptism were a work of self-accomplishment, then it could be discounted from having anything to do with salvation and forgiveness of sins. The power to remove sins is not in the water, the action of the one doing the baptizing, or the submission of the one being baptized. Only the blood of Jesus has that power (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:22). As it was with the Israelites’ activity concerning the walls of Jericho, so it is with baptism: Nothing in the works or actions of those involved can produce the desired blessing. God did not bless the children of Israel until after their faith in His promise moved them to respond to His instruction. God has given this as an example of faith that He will reward. (Hebrews 11:30).
The action of baptism corresponds to this. Paul wrote, “Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). In the same way, God responded to Israel by causing the walls to fall because of their faith and obedient response to His will. As God rewarded their faith expressed in their marching, shouting, and blowing of rams’ horns (Joshua 6:1-20), so also God will forgive our sins because of our faith in the working of God to remove our sins when we are buried with Jesus in baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Colossians 2:12, 13).
Nothing in Israel’s actions had any innate ability to produce the reward, and nothing in our being baptized has any innate ability to save us. Their blessing was not accomplished through any work they did, and our blessing is not brought about by anything we do. However, the Israelites were not rewarded until their faith in what God had promised to do was expressed in obedience; likewise, we are not rewarded until our faith in what God has promised is expressed in baptism. We are not saved by our works of merit. Nothing we do can achieve our salvation, for that was accomplished by Jesus on the cross. We are saved by action motivated by faith to receive the forgiveness that was produced by His death on the cross.
Baptism is not a work which we do. Instead of immersing ourselves, we submit to another who buries us in the water. In no sense is baptism something we do; rather, it is something that is done to us. We submit to baptism because we believe that in baptism God is working to remove our sins (Colossians 2:12, 13), and not because we believe that baptism itself is removing our sins. Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Restoration Movement in the nineteenth century, wrote,
Dead men neither bury themselves nor raise themselves to life again. In baptism, we are passive in every thing but in giving our consent. We are buried and we are raised by another. Hence, in no view of baptism can it be called a good work. The influence which baptism may have upon our spiritual relations is, therefore, not because of any merit in the act as our own; not as a procuring cause, but merely as an instrumental and concurring cause, by which we “put on Christ,” and are united to him formally as well as in heart, entering into a covenant with him, and uniting ourselves to him in his death, burial, and resurrection. Hence said the Apostle, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death”—“have put on Christ.”6
IS FAITH ASSOCIATED WITH BAPTISM?
If baptism can be separated from faith, then baptism is not necessary for salvation; for salvation depends on faith. However, the Bible inseparably associates baptism with faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12, 13; 18:8; Galatians 3:26, 27; Colossians 2:12). The statement in The New Jerusalem Bible is correct on this point:
Baptism is not contrasted with faith but goes with it, … and gives it outward expression by the operative symbolism of the baptismal ceremonial. For this reason Paul ascribes to faith and to baptism the same effects (cf. Romans 6:3-9 and Galatians 2:16-20).7
In commenting on Romans 6, Douglas Moo wrote, “Just as faith is always assumed to lead to baptism, so baptism always assumes faith for its validity. In vv. 3-4, then, we can assume that baptism stands for the whole conversion–initiation experience, presupposing faith and the gift of the Spirit.”8
In the same way, God’s blessings are said to result from faith–but only after the proper action takes place. Able offered the right sacrifice, Noah built the ark, Abraham obeyed God, and Israel marched around Jericho (Hebrews 11:4-8, 30). Salvation is similarly ascribed to faith (Ephesians 2:8)–but only after baptism (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21). No blessings were ever given to anyone in the Bible who, when told by God to act, failed to respond in faith to the Word of God. When God commanded action, He always required faith that led to action before He gave the promised blessing. Having faith in God’s promised forgiveness of sins when one is being baptized is the norm; it is not an exception to biblical faith.
FAITH, BAPTISM, AND ETERNAL LIFE
Justification (being made right in God’s sight) and eternal life are not ascribed to baptism, but to faith–and rightly so. In contrast, salvation and forgiveness are associated with both faith and baptism–and rightly so. Justification and eternal life are dependent on continuing in the faith. Paul wrote to the Colossians that Jesus died “to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach–if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:22b, 23a). Baptism is a one-time event, but faith must be ongoing in order for one to receive eternal life.
Passages which teach that eternal life comes through believing do not teach a one-time faith. The word “believes” (John 3:16, 36) in the Greek is a present participle, which indicates ongoing action rather than a single act at one point in time.9
John 3:16 teaches that eternal life is for those who continue to believe in Jesus, not for those who believe at just one point in time. The same is true of justification: It results from an ongoing faith. On the other hand, the new birth which involves salvation and forgiveness of sins is a one-time event involving the one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). It occurs when a person’s faith in the forgiving blood of Jesus motivates him to be baptized (John 3:5; Romans 3:25; Colossians 2:12, 13). At baptism the new birth takes place and the new life begins (Romans 6:4), in which we must continue by faith in order to obtain eternal life in heaven.
FAITH REALIZES GRACE IN BAPTISM
Our access into God’s saving grace comes through faith: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1,2). Grace is entered conditionally, based on faith; and faith is completed through action (James 2:22).
Grace is in Christ (Ephesians 1:7; 2 Timothy 2:1), whom we enter through baptism (Romans 6:3). We enter grace through faith and enter Christ–where grace is–when we are baptized. Since the moment of baptism is the moment when we enter Christ, it must also be the moment when we enter God’s grace that brings about our salvation (Ephesians 2:8).
The faith that God rewards is a trust in Him which motivates us to respond to His will. Faith in God’s working while one is being baptized is what God will reward with forgiveness of sins. Without faith, no act of man is pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:6); therefore, baptism is valid in the sight of God only when accompanied by faith.
We are saved when we are baptized (Mark 16:15, 16), if we believe the gospel that Jesus died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:1-3). In the phrase “he who believes and is baptized,” “the single definite article governing both participles joins the two verbs together in describing the man who will be saved; the clause could be translated, “the baptized believer’.”10 This is the person who “shall be saved.”
Baptism without faith is not valid, nor is faith valid unless it is expressed according to the will of God. By being baptized we express our faith that Jesus was buried and resurrected, for we are submitting to the same action of burial and resurrection in order to be joined with Him and in order to enter a continual union with Him. When we have faith in His blood, burial, and resurrection, we are to express that faith by being buried with Him in baptism.
1While the repeating of a “sinner’s prayer” is not a scriptural teaching, it is taught by most of those who claim that salvation is based on “faith only.” Saying a prayer cannot bring a non-Christian into God’s grace, for Paul prayed for several days before Ananias told him to “wash away his sins” (Acts 9:10, 11; 22:16).
2R. Bultmann, pisteuo,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and abr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 854.
3Apeithia is rendered as “disobedience” six times; apeitheo is translated as “disbelieved” one time (in a margin note in my Bible), as “disobedient” ten times, and as “not obey” three times. Apeithes is translated “disobedient” six times. Unlike the New American Standard Bible, Updated Ed., which consistently translates these words as “disobey,” the King James Version has “disbelieve” or “unbelief” in most cases.
4The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville, Tenn.: United Methodist Publishing House, 1976), 57.
5Those who come to believe may not yet be children of God, but they do have “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). John 12:42 says, “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” Even though these rulers believed, Jesus will deny them before the Father because they would not confess Him as Lord (See Matthew 10:33; Romans 10:9, 10).
6Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptism With Its Antecedents and Consequents (Nashville, Tenn.: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913, 205.
7Henry Wansbrough, gen. ed., The New Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1875, n6a.
8Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, gen. eds. Ned B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996). 366.
9The present participle represents ‘”linear’ action” (C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2d ed. [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959], 99), and is like the present infinitive, “timeless and durative” (A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 4th ed. [Nashville, Tenn.: Broadmen Press, 1923], 891).
10Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961). 511.