Baptism: A Grave Response to Grace (June 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rick Atchley
June, 1993

Recently two visitors came to my office unexpectedly and asked for some time with me. Immediately it was clear that they were there to question my loyalty to truth and sound doctrine. It seems their chief concern was my association and friendship with another preacher who, as they put it, teaches “you are saved by grace only.” I told them I could only speak for myself, but if the charge was believing that salvation was by grace instead of works, then I was guilty. Their response intrigued me. “Then,” they asked, “you don’t believe that baptism is necessary, do you?” “I most certainly do,” I replied, “and for that matter, so does my friend. And if you would go spend some time with him, perhaps you would be slower to listen to his critics.”

It was clear that these two brothers and I had very different perspectives on the relationship of baptism to God’s grace. And it is this misunderstood relationship between baptism and grace that lies behind most of the controversy concerning the importance of baptism. I believe the words of Jesus can make the matter clear, but first let’s consider the words most often used by men.

WHAT MEN SAY

Perhaps the most common view I hear in the religious community is: “Baptism is important but not necessary.” Those who hold this view do not question the necessity of belief and repentance in the salvation process. Yet, though the New Testament knows no such thing as an unbaptized Christian, they insist baptism has no role in the process. Their concern is that such a view would violate the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.

This view is opposed by another which says: “Baptism is necessary because faith is not enough.” Those who think this way are trying to honor the many New Testament passages that link baptism to a change in the sinner’s state. Their conclusion is that God did his part to make salvation possible, and now man must do his part to complete the process. They tend to view man’s part as a series of steps, with faith being one of the first steps and baptism usually being the last.

The first group turns to Ephesians 2 for support: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – not by works.” The second group turns to James for ammunition: “Faith without works is dead.” Both groups say some things that need to be heard. But I believe both views are wrong.

WHAT JESUS SAID

When considering any matter, the first thing Christians should do is hear what Jesus has to say. This is especially true when it comes to the question of baptism. It is my belief that the example and words of Christ could clear up much of the confusion.

The place to begin is with Jesus’ baptism (see Matthew 3:13-17). John had predicted that Christ would come as a baptizer, so he is surprised when Jesus comes to receive baptism. His reaction to the request of Jesus tells the reader that, unlike all the rest who received John’s baptism, Jesus did not come seeking forgiveness of sins.

So why was Jesus baptized? Several of the possible reasons which have been suggested have merit. It is interesting to note that Jesus often used the term “baptism” as a metaphor for his own death (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38-39). This implies that one reason Jesus was baptized was to demonstrate his willingness to accept the costly mission on which his Father had sent him. In a sense, his baptism was the beginning of his death, the first visible indication of the radical quality of his servant-hood.

But the bottom line is that Jesus was baptized to obey God. When John questioned his need for baptism, Jesus replied, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15). Another version puts it, “We should do all things that are right.” (ERV) Still another says, “We do well to conform in this way with all that God requires”(NEB). What was right for Jesus was to obey God by seeking out John and being baptized. And the reaction of heaven as Jesus came up out of the water makes it clear that God was pleased with this fulfilling of his will.

I believe the Christian community should spend more time with this incident from the life of Jesus when discussing the importance of baptism. Behind every believer’s baptism is the baptism of Jesus.

Next we notice that baptism has a significant place not just at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, but at the end as well (see Matthew 28:18-20). In Matthew’s record of the last words of Jesus to the church, Jesus instructed his followers to make disciples all over the world by baptizing them into the name of the Triune God and instructing them to follow Jesus’ teachings. “Into the name” was a technical term from the world of commerce that indicated entry into an account. The idea is that at baptism one is united with the Godhead in an ownership relationship. To put it another way, at baptism the believer comes under new management.

So baptizing is part of the final marching orders of Jesus to the church. He makes it an indispensable part of the “making disciples” process. Does this not challenge the view that baptism is important but not necessary? How could Jesus’ example and command make baptism optional for the believer? Isn’t obeying the one you call “Lord” always necessary? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14-15). The Scriptures give many reasons why baptism is essential for the believer, but all we really need to know is this: Jesus was baptized to obey God, and Jesus commands that all who would be disciples be baptized. His example and his words ought to be all the motivation anyone needs.

The view that baptism is important but not necessary simply isn’t congruent with the life and teachings of Jesus. But does that legitimize the view that works do play a role in our salvation? Is Jesus saying that baptism is necessary because faith is not enough? Again, the Gospels answer that question.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ final marching orders, we read these words: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). (I am aware of the textual problems concerning the long ending of Mark. However, these words, if not the actual utterance of Jesus, do reflect the understanding of the early church concerning the teaching of Jesus.) Now we need to distinguish between “gospel” and “baptism.” Belief and baptism are not the gospel, but how one responds to the gospel. Only after one understands the gospel that Paul summarizes in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 can he be rightly challenged to make the proper response.

But what is important for our purpose in this passage is the close connection between faith and baptism. The construction will not allow either to claim more importance than the other. The idea is that the efficacy of baptism presupposes the presence of faith. Indeed the negative clause indicates that without faith one would never even consider baptism. There is no description here of baptism as an additional step that is added to faith. The idea instead is that baptism is an expression of faith in the gospel of Jesus. A person will either do both – believe and be baptized – or do neither, but not do one without the other. This is why, as the renowned Baptist scholar Beasley-Murray has noted, all the gifts of grace promised to faith in the New Testament are also promised to baptism. Baptism is a declaration of faith in the gospel.

This is also affirmed in the fourth Gospel. In John 3:3-5 Jesus tells Nicodemus of the necessity of the new birth of water and the Spirit. When one considers the baptism of Jesus, the promise of John, and the words of Peter and Paul, it becomes obvious why the first Christians understood this water-Spirit rebirth to refer to baptism. But we must not just stop at verse five when preaching on this text. Reading on, we once again notice how Jesus connects baptism to faith.

He tells Nicodemus, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:12-15).

Just after saying “you must be born again to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “everyone who believes in me may have eternal life.” Jesus consistently taught the sufficiency of faith for salvation. In fact, the next few verses in John 3 make that very point: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18).

The Gospels allow no room for the view that “faith is not enough.” At the same time, the Gospels teach the necessity of baptism. How can this be? Again, the answer is in understanding Jesus’ view of baptism. He did not see baptism as a work that must be added to faith in the gospel. Rather, Jesus taught that baptism is a faith response to the gospel.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the word “work” ever associated with baptism. Yet it is only reasonable that men must do something in response to the gospel. In fact, they must do a work! But what does Jesus say that work is?

“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).

We must do something to receive God’s gracious offer of salvation, but whatever we do must in no way be seen as earning our salvation. “By grace through faith” teaches human responsibility without in any way suggesting that God can be obligated. And Jesus says baptism is one way that faith is manifested. Baptism is an expression of faith, not an addition to it. As Paul puts it in Colossians 2:12, in baptism we are buried and raised with Christ through our faith in the power of God.

We see this principle illustrated in the conversion of the Philippian jailer. When he asked Paul what he must do to be saved, he was told, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). There is no need to treat that answer like it is not sufficient. It does not need to be “amplified.” Just keep reading the story. It says Paul told the jailer and his family about the gospel of Jesus, and immediately they were all baptized. Why? Because that is how believing in the Lord Jesus is expressed. As Luke puts it, “the whole family was filled with joy, because they had come to believe in God” (v. 34).

It is extremely ironic to me that some consider the preaching of salvation by grace as undermining the place of baptism. We do not have to choose between Acts 2 and Ephesians 2 when preaching the gospel. “Repent and be baptized” does not contradict “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – not by works”; the former endorses the latter.

Have you ever considered how passive one is in baptism? Is it not something done to you? In baptism, Jesus is the actor and you are the participant. Nothing is earned. Everything is given. Baptism is a sublime faith statement that I am not relying on my own efforts for salvation, but trusting instead in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is my way of declaring “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” Baptism does not contradict salvation by grace; it declares that salvation can be received in no other way!

I think that is one reason Satan attempts to diminish the place of baptism in the Christian community. Satan can tolerate a lot of what churches do or say as long as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are left out. But baptism won’t let us forget the gospel. In baptism the believer declares faith in the most important events of history, and the gospel is preached all over again. It is a grave response to the grace of God.

When we listen to Jesus, we do not view baptism as an option. When we listen to Jesus, we do not view salvation as faith plus works. When we listen to Jesus, we hear a gospel of grace that can be received in submissive faith through a new birth of water and the Spirit.Wineskins Magazine

Rick Atchley

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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