This is a major question among religious people today. The majority of denominations would say that baptism is a work, and therefore, not something necessary for salvation. Of course, much of the reasoning behind that belief is found in Eph 2:8-9, where Paul says that salvation is not of works but of grace, lest anyone should boast.
A while back, I wrote another post on that passage, but there are a few other points about Paul’s discussion of works that I thought might be helpful to consider.
First of all, at the time the Bible was written, there was a great deal of conflict concerning the Law of Moses. Many of the Jewish Christians had trouble letting go of the religious practices that had been hammered into them for generations. Laws concerning circumcision, clean and unclean foods, feast days, etc, were things that many Jews still felt they should be observing. Beyond that, they thought that those were things all other Christians should be doing as well. Evidence of this turmoil is seen throughout the New Testament, but it’s most obvious in passages like Acts 15:1, Acts 15:24, 1 Cor 7:18-19, and Col 2:11-23.
There are many passages, and many of Paul’s writings in particular, that constantly reiterate that the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ’s death. If there were Jews who felt that they needed to observe some of the customs from that law, then they were encouraged to do so (Romans 14, 1 Cor 8-10, Col 2), but they were not to bind those practices on others. Christians had been delivered from the physical laws that the Israelites had been forced to keep.
The big problem was that the Jews, particularly the Pharisees thought they had everything all figured out. Romans 10 talks about this. In the beginning of the chapter, Paul says that the Jews have zeal, but not according to knowledge. They sought to establish their own ideas of righteousness without submitting to the righteousness of God. They thought that keeping the law would get them into heaven, not by God’s grace, but by their own achievement. It was almost the idea that God would owe them salvation because of their good deeds. Christ illustrated this point in Matt 23:23 and said that while it was good that they followed the law, they had left out the weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith.
And that’s why Christ’s law in the New Testament is so different. It transcends our physical actions and goes to the heart — if the heart isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter how many good things we do, we won’t be pleasing to God. The church in Ephesus is a prime example of this. In Rev 2:1-7, Christ tells them that their actions are superb. They have labored, the have patience, and they can’t stand evil. Those are all excellent things. He doesn’t rebuke their actions at all. But they are still in danger of falling away because they have left their first love. Their hearts are not in serving God! Their actions are righteous, but they aren’t for the right reason. And just like the Pharisees (Rom 2:17-24), they’ve missed the whole point.
So when Paul says in Ephesians 2 that salvation is by grace and not of works, he’s merely pointing out the same thing Christ did in the passages we just mentioned: service to God requires our entire being. Our heart must be right, first and foremost. But in the same manner, just as Christ told the Pharisees that they should have had their hearts in their service without leaving undone their good works, we must also make sure that we aren’t leaving good works undone.
So let’s go back to our original question, is baptism a work? And if so, does that mean it has nothing to do with salvation?
Well, I don’t know if you can really classify baptism as a work or not. I mean, it’s definitely a physical action, but it’s certainly not difficult, and there’s no inherent “good” to it (in other words, it’s not like caring for the sick, or feeding the poor). But I don’t think we really have to classify it one way or the other. If you don’t mind, let me offer you a couple of examples that might help clarify this issue. Sometimes, when we’re too close to something, it’s hard to really identify it correctly. So it might help if we look to a couple of examples that are a little clearer.
There’s a popular game show right now called Deal or No Deal, which you are probably very familiar with. Now, the purpose of this game show is to allow contestants to win varying amounts of money. When the game is over, did the contestant win, or did they earn the money?
Before you answer, really think about it. Each contestant must put forth the effort to travel to the game’s studio. They would then have to sit through some type of orientation to tell them how to act and what to expect. I’m sure there are legal documents that have to be signed, the contestant would have to agree to having their likeness used in ads, etc. And then they still have to play by the rules of the game. If you think about it, there’s quite a bit that goes into it. If they win $100,000 is that something they earned, or something they won?
I think we’d probably all agree that they won it. Why? Well, the things they were asked to do in no way related to the prize they won. It may have taken effort on their part, but did anyone owe them anything based on that effort? Nope. It was still the good will of Deal or No Deal that allowed them to go home with some extra cash.
But that may not be the best example. So let me use one from the Bible. You may be familiar with the story of Naaman, found in 2 Kings 5:1-19. Naaman was a commander in Syria’s army, and he was a leper. But through a young Israelite servant girl, he found out that someone in Israel could heal him of his leprosy, Elisha the prophet.
To Naaman’s credit, he had enough faith to take an entourage to Israel in order to be cleansed. And when he arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha sent out a servant who told Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River 7 times, and he would be clean. Well, Naaman was angry, and he went away with no intention of doing what he had been told. Why should he? Wasn’t it a silly request? As Naaman said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”
Luckily, Naaman was not so foolish that he couldn’t listen to his servants. They asked him if the prophet had told him to do some great thing, wouldn’t he have done it? So why not take advantage of it when he’s told to do something simple? Naaman turned around, went to the Jordan River, dipped in it 7 times, and arose cleansed.
The solution to Naaman’s problem was so simple to everyone but him: just do what the prophet said! Naaman didn’t need to worry about why or how it worked, he just needed to do it. And when it worked, do you suppose he or his servants suddenly thought that Naaman had earned his cleansing? Now that he had “worked” for it, did it somehow limit the blessing he’d been given?
Is it any different for us today with baptism? There are so many passages that tell us baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Rom 6:3-4, and 1 Pet 3:21, among others), but one of the only reasons people think it can’t be is because of statements like the one found in Eph 2. I think we’re making it much more complicated than it has to be. It’s obvious that Paul was talking about the kind of belief the Pharisees held onto — that their good actions could earn them a spot in heaven. And that’s simply not the case. Does God want our obedience? Absolutely (1 Sam 15:22, 1 John 5:3). But he also wants our hearts.
Naaman finally realized that all he had to do was obey what he had been told. Whether it’s the way he would have done it or not is irrelevant. We have to be the same way. I don’t mean to over-emphasize baptism. Just like anything else, if we don’t have true faith in God, then getting baptized is no different than jumping in a swimming pool. And if we don’t turn from our previous lives of sin, we can’t be pleasing to God either (Acts 2:38, 2 Pet 3:9). And if we don’t confess the name of Christ, then he won’t confess us before his father (Matt 10:32, Rom 10:9-10). God has required all of those things from us to receive salvation, and that really shouldn’t surprise us. Doing those things ultimately represents complete submission, and that’s all he requires.