As was stated in the previous lesson of this series, the debate over how a person is saved is intense. It is not a simple matter of doctrine, but one that cuts to the core of Christianity – what does it mean to believe, trust, obey, and have unflappable faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior. What we say about justification and salvation is going to affect some people in ways that no other topic will. But its importance is paramount. Paul makes it clear that this is the subject of foremost importance to the Gospel message (1 Corinthians 14:1-4). To argue one way or the other is going to have eternal consequences. What I would like to do during this lesson is address some of the most common scriptures that are thrown back and forth in the debate over salvation through “faith only.”
The members of a large crowd of Jews celebrating a festival in Jerusalem ask a very pointed question in response to Peter’s sermon. “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). In response, the inspired apostle exhorts, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Many have gone to great lengths, however, to make these verses say something else. From the most objective position possible, the teaching here is that repentance and baptism are both absolutely necessary to obtain God’s mercy and the forgiveness of sins. One of the most despicable ways to go about arguing against this verse is by instilling in the minds of more ignorant people the idea that the verse is mistranslated. They assert that the verse means “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and let each of you be baptized.” But I am hesitant to subscribe to any doctrine that hinges on the Bible being mistranslated. One can make all the fancy arguments in the world, but that does not change the fact that the vast majority of Greek experts agree that Acts 2:38 is appropriately translated into English.
Next, opponents of this verse try to argue that the word “for” (eis) means “because” and not “in order to obtain.” However, the Greek word translated “for” commonly and predominantly means, “unto.” Of the 1,773 occurrences of the Greek word eis in the New Testament, only four mean “because.” In addition, if we argue that the expression “for the forgiveness of sins” means “because you have already been forgiven”, then is it true of all the uses of that phrase? For example, Jesus shed His blood “for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). So did our Lord die for people who were already forgiven? Consider the use of the word eis in Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore and return, that (eis, literally, “unto the blotting out of your sins”) your sins may be wiped away…” It makes no sense to command people to repent of their sins “because” their sins are already wiped away. If that is true, then repentance should not be required. But the Bible teaches that repentance is prior to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Finally, let us consider carefully the context of Acts 2:38. If these people were saved at the moment of belief and are forgiven of their sins prior to baptism, then why does people keep exhorting them to “be saved from this perverse generation” in 2:40? Why would one need to be saved if he or she is already saved? Also consider 2:41, in which it is made clearer still that it was not until people had “received the word” – that is, obeyed the Gospel and responded to the sermon with fruits in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8) – and were baptized that the Holy Spirit says souls were “added” to the number of those who were saved.
“For you are all sons through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). This verse is often written off by “faith only” supporters who argue that the baptism mentioned here is not water baptism – it is, instead, the spiritual baptism of the Spirit. The “faith only” person’s inability to understand the intimate relationship between faith and baptism blinds him to the wonderful reconciliation of the two in this verse. When faith works hand in hand with baptism, it produces the relationship to God that is described so well in Galatians 4:1-7. We are sons through faith, and we become sons through faith by putting on Christ in the required act of baptism. There is no other way to clothe ourselves with Christ in this scripture. Not only that, but how is it defensible to say that this baptism is not water baptism, when it is baptism in water that is commanded of us (Acts 10:47-48), and it is water baptism that saves us (Mark 16:16), and it is water baptism that makes us disciples (Matthew 28:19). We are clearly talking about water baptism when we mention anything related to clothing ourselves with Christ or putting Him on. “In the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38); “buried with HIM in baptism” (Colossians 2:12); “baptized into Christ… buried with Him in baptism” (Romans 6:3-4).
So baptism brings us into Christ, or into His body (1 Corinthians 12:13). But if we are saved before baptism by faith alone, then what does baptism really do? This verse forces the “faith alone” people to confront the contradictory statement that they are saved by not in Christ. How can you be saved without clothing yourself in Christ?
1 Corinthians 12:13
“For by one Spirit you were all baptized into one body…” It is here contended that the baptism that puts one into the body of Christ is Holy Spirit baptism, yet the passage is not talking about being baptized into the Spirit. It is saying, “BY one Spirit,” or through the agency of the Spirit. Throughout the Gospel message, the Spirit tells us that we need to be baptized to be saved and to be a part of the body of Christ. Once again, the “faith only” people are confronted with a problem: they claim they are saved before baptism by faith alone, but are not part of the body. How can you be saved but not part of the body?
Some believe the “water” in the following passage is a figurative expression for the word of God, but is that what the verse actually says? “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). So is it the baptism into water that represents the word, or is the Sprit? More often than anything else, the word is associated intimately with the Spirit (1 Peter 1:23, James 1:18, Ephesians 6:17 states, “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”). It makes more sense to the honest Bible reader to see that water baptism is being referred to in this verse. Consider also Ephesians 5:26, which states that Jesus Christ sanctifies us “by the washing of water with the word.” Faith that is produced by hearing the Word (Romans 10:17) leads us to be baptized. They go hand in hand.
“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which have been done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…” (Titus 3:3). This verse is used often to show that it is not our deeds that save us, but God’s grace working through faith. However, we also are introduced to a very powerful lesson when we consider the meaning of baptism. While it must be admitted without hesitation that our meritorious deeds do not save us (Ephesians 2:8-9), we need to realize something about baptism that “faith only” proponents fail to see. Baptism is not a work that we do of ourselves, contrary common misconception. It is not a deed that we perform that deserves merit or recognition. We do nothing in baptism that makes it saving. Notice again how Paul puts it in Titus 3:3, “According to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration…” It is God who is doing the work in baptism, not us. Baptism itself does not save, but the appeal to God for a clean conscience (1 Peter 3:21). It is God washing our sins away with the blood of Christ. It is God showing mercy to us, undeserving though we might be. It is God drawing us near to Him, not us drawing ourselves. When we are baptized, we give ourselves over to God to do the merciful work of forgiveness. Baptism is most definitely a work, but not a work that we do.
Ephesians 2:8-9 is the hallmark verse for the supporter of “faith only.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” Immediately, we hear people clamor to this verse, citing it as the definitive answer to the debate. However, there is nothing the Christian should fear about this text, because it actually supports the proponent of faith and baptism working together for salvation. Let us consider this verse closely.
“By grace you have been saved” – There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. There is no deed that makes us worthy of heaven. It is only by God’s mercy that any of us have hope in eternal salvation. But does this mean we are not expected to something to receive that grace? Surely not, or else most of the New Testament would be a waste of time. All of the regulations, commandments, and exhortations have no bearing on us if there is not something we need to do. To receive grace, we must be obedient (1 John 2:1-6). But does our obedience somehow detract from the grace of God? Does the fact that we have to unwrap a free gift on a birthday make it earned? Does the fact that we have to go somewhere to fill out paperwork and collect our prize make the prize earned? So just because I am doing what I am told by God does not mean I deserve salvation (Luke 17:7-10). Consider the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14, in which beggars from the street are invited to partake of a grand feast. This gift was completely undeserved, but those in attendance certainly were not absolutely passive in the process. Even though it was a free gift, they still had to accept the invitation, and walk to the wedding feast. Even beyond that, they were required to wear appropriate clothes (and clothes in that time period were even provided for those with small means). The guest who did not wear the right clothes was expelled from the party and thrown into the outer darkness. So it is clear that even when something like salvation is a free gift by grace, realized through faith, there are some steps that are absolutely necessary to receive it.
“And that not of yourselves” – That is, salvation is arrived at outside of ourselves. We have sanctification done to us, similar to a drive-through carwash. You have to drive to it to use it, you have to follow the rules and stay on the track, and you have to follow the orders of the employees operating the car wash, but in the end, your car has had an action done to it, outside of itself.
“Not as a result of works” – Salvation comes through the mercy of God, and not because we earn it. But this cannot exclude works of every kind, for even faith is a work (John 6:29). We need to realize that there are many kinds of works, and only one kind of work can result in salvation:
· There are works of righteousness, by which no man can be saved (Romans 10:3, Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:9);
· Works of the law of Moses (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16;
· Works of faith (1 Thessalonians 1:3);
· Good works (Titus 3:8-14). These are works ordained by God as good and are not left to man’s judgment (Ephesians 2:10). They could also be called “works of God” (John 6:28-29);
· And then there are works that God does in this world. So is baptism a work that we can take credit for, or is it a work that God does to us? The answer to that is a key component to the discussion. We need to realize that God saves us through faith and baptism – the former by giving us opportunity to hear (Romans 10:17), the latter by washing us, cleansing us, and purifying us by power that is outside of ourselves (Psalm 51:7, 9-14).
“That no one should boast” – Is it boasting in ourselves to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation? How is this detracting from faith in any way? Baptism saves us because it is the power of God that brings us up out of the water (“and raised us up with Him” [Ephesians 2:6]). I cannot boast about being baptized, for I did nothing in the process but accept it. I chose to be baptized, and then let God do the rest. Even though one may call baptism a work, there is no way we can boast about it, since it simply something we are required to do. “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:7).
Unfortunately, like the Pharisees and rulers of Luke 7:29-30, those who adhere to the doctrine of “faith alone for salvation” have not done what they ought to have done – and those who are baptized are doing it for the wrong reasons. They have rejected God’s purpose for their lives.