Two insights from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that help us get a better understanding of baptism:
1) Baptism is seen in the New Testament as part of God’s reconciling process. Here are some words from Oepke in Kittel,
“Christian baptism certainly has as its final goal new and eternal life…the new life stands in firm causal connection with purification from the guilt of sin. This is particularly clear, though, often overlooked, in Paul. Because God is the only source of real life, and His holiness excludes sin, the basic conception both of Paul and of the NT generally in relation to baptism is that of the cleansing bath (1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26; Heb 10:22; cf. Acts 2:38; 22:16). The significance of baptism thus depends on the fact that it is a real action of the holy God in relation to sinful man. Hence both a superstitious and also a purely symbolical understanding are excluded…” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 1, p. 540)
2) Baptism is done to us in submission by God through the hands of others:
“Though mediated by men, baptism is the action of God or Christ (Eph 5:26). Hence baptism by others rather than self-baptism, and hence also the predominance of the passive. The middle [voice] is used of Christian baptism in the NT only in Acts 22:16. Standing in a definite and absolutely indispensable historical context, baptism derives its force from the reconciling action of God in Christ, or more exactly from the atoning death of Christ (1 Cor. 6:11; Eph 5:25f; Tt 3:4f; 1 John 5:6; John 19:34; 1 Peter 1:2; Heb 10:22). It places us objectively in Christ, the second Adam; it thus removes us from the sphere of death of the first Adam to the δικαιωσις ζωης and divine sonship (Gal 3:26f, Rom 5:18f).” – Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 1, p. 540-541
Baptism, Faith, Grace and Works – Putting the pieces together:
Many people who do not believe baptism is necessary for salvation turn to Ephesians 2:9-10 for the solution, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” The argument is that because baptism is something we do it qualifies as a work and since we are saved by faith, not by works baptism must not be essential for salvation. A work, as defined by Paul in Romans is something you do with hopes of being compensated (Rom 4:4). It earns something. Yet salvation is God’s gift (Rom 5:15ff & Eph 2:9-10) and there is not enough good we can do to earn it.
However, in Greek the verb for baptism used in the New Testament is Baptizo (Βαπτιζω) and it is used almost entirely in the passive voice (as was mentioned above). That is why we have in English to “be baptized.” It is something done to you and not something you do to yourself. That is the first reason it is not a work, as defined by Paul. The second reason it is not a work is the mindset. A work is done to earn something. When we are baptized we do not believe that being dipped in water is a sufficient to earn our salvation. Baptism doesn’t pay the price for our sins, Christ does. We don’t pay the price for our sins earning it through submitting to baptism. It is done to us in faith as a response and in recognition of salvation as God’s gift.
What about belief, repentance, and confession?
What is even more amazing to me is that those people who have a problem seeing baptism as necessary for salvation don’t have a problem with hearing, repentance or confession being necessary. Those are all actions on our part, things we do that are clearly found in scripture. If anything could be seen as a work it would be these things, not baptism. And yet baptism gets the boot in the minds of many as unnecessary or merely symbolic and is quickly and easily replaced with a “sinner’s prayer” that is never found in scripture. What is ironic is the “sinner’s prayer” is far more an act we do than baptism and yet it is done in lieu of baptism because baptism is a “work”! Unlike baptism, which we are commanded to submit to, these things we are commanded to do ourselves. And yet, correctly, none of those are “works” because we know that none of these things earn our salvation but yet are necessary responses of faith in light of what God has done for us through Christ.
Who is to blame?
Maybe we in Churches of Christ have some blame here. It is easy to point the finger and say other people need to study harder or whatever. I wonder if by calling it things like “5 Steps of Salvation” we haven’t painted ourselves into a corner because from the very beginning we make it a list of things we are supposed to do to be saved with little focus on what God is doing in us. That doesn’t diminish the importance of these scriptural responses to God. We just need to be careful that we are giving God more focus and more credit than we give ourselves in the saving process. The good news is we can do that in a very biblical way as people like Paul spoke of these things in terms of what God is doing in us.