Contrary to majority view, baptism is absolutely necessary for receiving salvation just as is faith and repentance (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; Gal. 3:27). However, that which Paul penned in Ephesians 2:8-9, perhaps more than any other passage, is cited as proof that we are saved without baptism. It is said that baptism cannot be a necessity because Paul says salvation is not “of works” and “not of yourselves.” In reality, when rightly understood, Paul’s point has no relevance to the requirement of baptism for salvation.
Paul is speaking about what salvation is based upon—the grace of God through the blood of Christ. He is emphasizing God’s great love and mercy by reminding the Christians at Ephesus that though they were once lost in their sins, being “dead” (vss. 1, 5), they were saved by God’s grace (v. 8). Nothing is clearer in the Bible than that our redemption is rooted in the sacrifice of Christ. He shed His blood “for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28). This is God’s magnificent grace, that while men in their unrighteousness are unworthy of His goodness, Jesus still yet “died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
So, when Paul tells the Ephesus church their salvation is “by grace” and “not of works,” he’s saying they did not earn their redemption by their works. They could not “boast” as if they, instead of God, made it possible to be saved. Earn is the key word here. God did not owe it to them. Neither does He owe it to us. But by no means is Paul talking about performing a work required as a condition for receiving forgiveness. Baptism is essential, but not because a man earns eternal life by it, but simply because God chose it to be a condition (as is faith and repentance) we must meet. Man’s adherence to baptism does not make the death of Christ meaningless; neither does it somehow bypass His grace. Yes, the Lord’s death and the shedding of His blood is the basis of forgiveness, but baptism is a condition for receiving it. God has determined that baptism puts one “into [Christ’s] death” (Rom. 6:4) and “into Christ” (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27).
Let’s be clear:those who reject baptism as a necessary work for salvation reject it on the basis that salvation is not earned by works, but the Bible teaches that baptism is necessary as a condition of the gift of salvation, and not as a means of earning it. By their “labor,” the Israelites did not earn the land given to them by God (Joshua 24:13), but God required certain labor as a condition for it, such as marching around the city walls of Jericho (Joshua 6) and engaging in warfare (Joshua 8:7). Performing works as a condition upon receiving something is a very different thing than having received it due to earning it by works. God provided the means for Noah be saved from the destruction of the flood by telling him how to build the ark, but the actual building of it was a required condition on Noah’s part. Certainly the building of an ark was a “work” that did not earn Noah salvation from worldwide destruction, but was nevertheless something God required of him.
Turning over to James 2, we see a different context, in which baptism’s necessity actually does have relevance, unlike Ephesians 2. James speaks not on what salvation is based upon (the blood of Christ), but rather what salvation requires on the part of man—obedience. It should be no surprise, then, that here, James teaches that justification is “by works” and not “faith alone” (v. 14, 20, 24). It’s all about context!
Not Of Yourselves
As Paul states, salvation is “not of yourselves” (v. 8). It was God who prepared the plan to send His beloved Son to die so that men, by believing and obeying Him, could be saved (Heb. 5:9). Salvation didn’t come from men. This is exactly what Paul affirms to the Ephesians. It wasn’t they who created the way of salvation; they didn’t derive a way to clean their own sins or construct their own path to God out of their own ideas—it was through God’s grace. Nevertheless, despite the understanding of most of the denominational world, this has nothing to do with whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation as a condition. Men did not dream up baptism; it didn’t come from them (thus they cannot boast in it). God thought of it, and it was He who laid it down as a provision: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). The forgiveness of sin is what saves a man (when a man’s sins are gone, he is no longer condemned), and this forgiveness is possible by Jesus’ death (Matt. 26:28), not baptism, but God chose baptism, when performed out of faith and a repentant heart, to be when this absolution takes place. In this respect, baptism “saves us” (1 Pet. 3:21).
Saved Through Faith
Furthermore, Paul writes that salvation is “through faith” (v. 8). Absolutely! Through faith a man obeys the gospel by repenting and being baptized. The Israelites believed God would bring down the walls of Jericho (as He said He would) if they adhered to His conditions—marching around the city, blowing their trumpets, and shouting (Joshua 6). Their faith led them to obey God’s requirements and “by faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days” (Heb. 11:30). The construction of the ark was a necessary condition for escaping the watery demise of the flood, which Noah’s faith “moved” him to do, so “by faith” Noah “prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (Heb. 11:7). It’s the same concept with baptism: we are saved “through faith” when that faith moves us to repent, confess Christ (Rom. 10:10; 1 John 4:15), and be baptized.
Multitudes of preachers blindly lead the blind with a false gospel saying baptism comes after salvation rather than before it. They are wrong. Men cannot earn their pardon, but they can look to Christ, obey the Gospel, and be saved. It is in baptism, that Christ forgives the sins of the man who has believed and has repented. So all in all, Christ is still doing the saving, not the water, and not the man. Baptism is certainly required, but this doesn’t nullify the fact, the absolute fact, that without the unobligated, unearned, undeserved grace of Jesus Christ in sacrificing Himself as a payment for our transgressions, no redemption could be possible anyhow. Thanks to God for His love and grace through Jesus Christ!