How can baptism be a saving act? I was raised in a Presbyterian church and attended a Calvinist school (I was not a Christian at the time). So the idea of anything beyond the cross (namely baptism) being a requisite for entering heaven has been troubling for me. Initially, I thought that baptism was an internal event; a spirit-baptism, done by the Holy Spirit occurring when we accept Christ as our savior. But it’s been made clear from the Bible that water-baptism is necessary as well because it’s when the indwelling of the Holy Spirit occurs. But isn’t water-baptism a work done by man? I read on this site that it’s not a work because water-baptism is something done TO us, not BY us. But isn’t water-baptism done to us by another disciple; another person? If so then then the work has only been shifted to another person. A man’s salvation depending on another man’s effort is scarier than having it depend on his own effort. Wouldn’t the fact that a man can refuse to be baptized imply that it isn’t something done purely TO him? If our own effort causes any progress of the process of salvation, then aren’t we earning salvation? And wouldn’t earning salvation imply that Jesus’ death wasn’t enough? I’ve always thought that we rely on God’s strength not our own effort to change ourselves. Or if you like, that the only effort we should make is that of surrender; not making any effort and letting God change our hearts. The more I think about this or try to read the Bible for answers, the more I seem to confuse myself. Could some clarifying reading suggestions please be made? Any advice for how not to get worked up over doctrinal differences would also be greatly appreciated.
If God tells us that we are saved when we are baptized, then it is true. If the theology you were raised with makes that impossible, then this means that the theology you were taught is not correct. All Bible-believing Christians agree that we are not saved by works because the Bible says that we are not saved by works. Ephesians 2:10-11 teaches this, as do many other scriptures. No act or set of acts of a human being can earn salvation. We are saved by the grace of God, through the blood of Jesus and through our faith in that saving act. That is the end of the story and there is no question about this.
The question is not whether we can be saved by our own works. The question is what is required of us so that we can receive this salvation. Jesus was asked what works are required in order for us to be saved. He did not say what many Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theology would say, which is that no work is needed in order for us to be saved. Jesus said that the “work of God is to believe.” (John 6:28-29). To believe in God is a “work” according to Jesus. It is a thing we do in order to be saved. It is not that God does not ask us to do anything to be saved, but that no work on our part can save us. It is God who does the saving, through the blood of Jesus. Let me say it again. The fact that God asks us to do something in order to be saved (to believe in him) does not mean we are saved by works. Our belief does not save us. Neither does our baptism save us. It is the grace of God through the blood of Jesus that saves us. According to the Bible, our baptism is simply when he does the saving.
You noted in the previous article that I said that baptism, unlike belief, is not something we do. This is true. It is something done to us. It is something done to us by a person in the physical sense, obviously, but in a baptism it is not a person who does something. It is God who does something. Like it is clearly stated in Acts 2:38, when we are baptized we are forgiven of our sins and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Nothing could be more plain than this, despite the fact that so many churches teach something very different which is never mentioned in the scripture (that we are saved by/when saying a prayer or asking Jesus into our hearts–this is not found in the scripture anywhere). You seem concerned that if we are saved at the time we are baptized (which is the clear teaching of scripture) then this means that something someone else does is saving us. First of all, I am sure that we can all agree that nothing another human does can save us. In baptism it is God working, not us and certainly not someone else. I suppose God could have asked us to use a machine to do baptisms, but that would be pretty silly, and it would also be hard to do. In fact, in Colossians 2:11-12 we are told that it is God’s power working when we are baptized, and that power is energized by our faith. The Bible puts no emphasis on the one doing the baptizing.
What I am saying is that, in my opinion, God chose a passive act (us being baptized by someone else rather than by ourselves) as a means to remind ourselves that it is nothing we do that saves us. For your information, the Jews had many baptisms, but Jewish baptism involved a person baptizing themselves. I have witnessed this at the Jordan River myself. The Christian church changed this to a passive act, so that baptism is something done to us. I appreciate God’s wisdom in this.
You ask: “Wouldn’t the fact that a man can refuse to be baptized imply that it isn’t something done purely TO him?” Let me respectfully submit that this does not make any sense. If I refuse to let someone do something to me, this does not mean that they were not purely doing it to me. If I refuse to let someone punch me, that does not mean that the punch was not purely done to me. This is not logical. I think that Calvinist teaching has your head tied up in a bit of a knot. I submit that, rather than being controlled by the “faith alone” doctrine of Luther and Calvin, you simply ask what the Bible teaches. It teaches that we are saved when we are baptized. It is not complicated. No work can save us. That is plain, but God does require that we repent and believe in him, which is something we “do”, without which we will not be saved. After repenting, then God asks us to submit to being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. This is Bible, plain and simple.
Jesus’ death was enough for all to be saved, yet clearly not all are saved. We must respond to the gospel to be saved. The fact that we must respond does not mean that the death of Jesus is not enough. It was more than enough. Yet, we must put our faith in that death. We must decide in our minds and hearts to accept that death and even to be motivated to repent of our sins because of that death. Yes, that death is sufficient to save us and it is also sufficient motivation for us to repent of our sins.
As to making effort to change, Paul is not embarrassed to say that he made all kinds of effort to change and to help others to change (Colossians 1:29). In Hebrews 4:11 we are admonished to make every effort to enter heaven. It is not our effort that saves us and it is not our effort that keeps us saved, but God commands, nevertheless, that we make effort to be faithful and to strive for holiness. This is biblical. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that “the only effort we should make is to surrender to him.” In fact, nowhere does it say anything like this. Paul said that he beat his body in order not to be disqualified for the prize, which is heaven. He said this in 1 Corinthians 9:27. If I can say this humbly and respectfully, I am afraid that you were raised with some theology which is making it hard for you to understand some rather plain passages of scripture about our work and our effort. These things do not save us, obviously, but the Bible talks about them a lot, nevertheless. Without effort we will not stay saved. This is what the Bible teaches. This message is written all across the book of Hebrews. We must live by faith in order to make it (Hebrews 6:11-12).
I want to make a suggestion. It is that you read a wonderful book titled “Live in the Son.” It is by Robert Shank. He is a former Calvinist who was raised with a theology similar to what it appears you were raised with. He can relate to the kinds of quandries you are finding. I believe he can do a better job than I of helping you to rethink some of your presuppositions. I hope this helps. There is also the book by F. Lagard Smith titled Troubling Questions for Calvinists which you also might find useful. Do not hesitate to send me more questions.