Baptism – Related to Salvation but Not a Work

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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.

10 Responses

  1. Good analysis of this. I think we also share the blame because some brothers have argued for faith+works salvation, using James 2. They’ve accepted the definition of baptism is a work, then tried to dig their selves out of that hole. Your approach is much sounder.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Hi there,

    I believe in believer baptism as a response to Christ’s command.

    I needed to spend some time on Greek tonight so I thought I’d put some of what Kittel’s written to the test. I did a search using Textus Receptus for all uses of the root βαπτι (further shortened to make sure I got modified endings back). 95 verses were returned.

    I took a subset, the first two books, Matthew and Mark. 31 verses, so roughly 1 third of the total use of the word in the New Testament. Not bad for a sample.
    Out of that subset 18 verses only contained nouns which wouldn’t be useful to us for now (Matthew 3:1, 3:7, 11:11, 11:12, 14:2, 14:8, 16:14, 17:13, 20:22, 20:23, 21:25, 6:24, 6:25, 7:8, 8:28, 10:38, 10:39, 11:30). 15 had verb endings (3:6, 3:11, 3:13, 3:14, 3:16, 28:19, 1:4, 1:5, 1:8, 1:9, 6:14, 7:4, 16:16) (the variation is because some sentences contained verbs and nouns).

    Result: 12 are in the passive voice, 1 is middle and 7 are active.

    I would say that the statement, “and hence also the predominance of the passive.” is incorrect unless the other 2 thirds of the use of the verb change drastically.

    Also the second quote hinges off Ephesians 5:26. The word used in the text is λουτρόν and is accurately translated as washing rather than baptising. Also the context is that of church rather than believer baptism.

    Have I missed something?


    1. “I would say that the statement, ‘and hence also the predominance of the passive.’ is incorrect unless the other 2 thirds of the use of the verb change drastically.”

      100% of the time in the NT the person being baptized takes on a passive role. 100% of the time the person who does the baptizing to them is mentioned the verb is in the active voice (the 7 you pointed out below). Thanks for pointing out these verses. That was a great addition to the post. Have a look at my response below for more details.

  3. Here’s the “research”:


    * Matthew 3:1 βαπτιστηςG910 N-NSM
    * 3:7 βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    * 11:11 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 11:12 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 14:2 βαπτιστηςG910 N-NSM
    * 14:8 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 16:14 βαπτιστηνG910 N-ASM
    * 17:13 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 20:22 βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    * 20:23 βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    * 21:25 βαπτισμαG908 N-NSN
    * 6:24 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 6:25 βαπτιστουG910 N-GSM
    * 7:8 βαπτισμουςG909 N-APM
    * 8:28 βαπτιστηνG910 N-ASM
    * 10:38 βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    * 10:39 βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    * 11:30 βαπτισμαG908 N-NSN


    3:6 εβαπτιζοντοG907 V-IPI-3P
    3:11 βαπτιζωG907 V-PAI-1S βαπτισειG907 V-FAI-3S
    3:13 βαπτισθηναιG907 V-APN
    3:14 βαπτισθηναιG907 V-APN
    3:16 βαπτισθειςG907 V-APP-NSM
    28:19 βαπτιζοντεςG907 V-PAP-NPM
    1:4 βαπτιζωνG907 V-PAP-NSM βαπτισμαG908 N-ASN
    1:5 εβαπτιζοντοG907 V-IPI-3P
    1:8 εβαπτισαG907 V-AAI-1S βαπτισειG907 V-FAI-3S
    1:9 εβαπτισθηG907 V-API-3S
    6:14 βαπτιζωνG907 V-PAP-NSM
    7:4 βαπτισωνταιG907 V-AMS-3P βαπτισμουςG909 N-APM
    16:16 βαπτισθειςG907 V-APP-NSM
    * 20:22 βαπτιζομαιG907 V-PPI-1S βαπτισθηναιG907 V-APN
    * 20:23 βαπτιζομαιG907 V-PPI-1S βαπτισθησεσθεG907 V-FPI-2P
    * 10:38 βαπτιζομαιG907 V-PPI-1S βαπτισθηναιG907 V-APN
    * 10:39 βαπτιζομαιG907 V-PPI-1S βαπτισθησεσθεG907 V-FPI-2P

    1. Mark,

      Great work. Let’s have a look at all the instances of the verb that are active. You will notice in all of these cases it is never said that the believer being baptized is taking the action on themselves. The one who does the baptizing does. So in all cases in the NT someone who is baptized is doing so in the passive sense – it is done to them. Otherwise they would have to baptize themselves. That is the only way to have a believer take an active role in their own baptism.

      Matthew 3:11a – “I baptize you with water for repentance”
      – Here John is talking about himself as a baptizer and emphasizes the point that the one being baptized is not the one doing the work. They are a passive participant in the action of baptism done by another (here John).

      Matthew 3:11b – “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
      – Here Jesus is the one who will do the baptizing. This is not referencing a believer who plays the active role in baptizing.

      Matthew 28:19 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
      – Same as in 3:11 – The disciples are to take the active role of baptizing people. The people who are being baptized are still seen as passive participants. It is being done to them. So in both of these instances (3:11 and 28:19) the verb is active because they are referring to those doing the baptizing. In this discussion we are talking about the person who is “being baptized” and how that is a passive/submissive act.

      Mark 1:4 – “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”
      – Same as Matthew 3:11

      Mark 1:8a – John is speaking here and says, “I baptize you with[d] water,”
      – Same as Matthew 3:11 and Mark 1:4. John is the baptizer. But those who are baptized by them would be in the passive role. So yes, this verb would have to be active.

      Mark 1:8b – ” but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
      – Again, referencing Jesus as the one who baptizes.

      Mark 6:14 – King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
      – This is in reference to “the Baptist” which literally reads here “the [one who] is baptizing.” This is more a title than anything else but still emphasizes that yes, John is the active participant in the act of baptizing.

      So at the end of the day I still agree with Kittel/Oepke that the believer takes a passive role in baptism. Yes there are 7 instances of the verb in an active voice but it is always in reference to the one who administers the baptism whether John, Jesus or the disciples.

  4. It’s a bit late on this side and my brain is starting to go numb. This is going to take a while to absorb. Your comments have made me rethink. Thanks for the mental fodder.

    In Christ,


  5. Thank you for such a great post! — I agree with everything you said. An old preacher once wrote (Robertson Whiteside) that: “God has always tested mans willingness to do his will. To be a real test, the thing commaned must be such that the person can see no connection between the thing commanded and the result to be obtained. Exampes: The brazen serpent (Num. 21:4-9); and Naaman’s dipping in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:1-19). Baptism is such a test.”

    Surely, no believer would say that the Israelites and/or Naaman were healed (saved) by works rather than by faith in God?! Yet, they still needed to DO whatever it was that God said was needful in order to be healed.

    You make a great point in showing that being baptised is not even a thing one does as opposed to what one agrees to have done to him.

    I also find it interesting that according to Jesus, even beliving in him is considered to be a “work” albeit, a “work of God” Jn. 6:28-29. In fact, 1 Cor. 15:58 and 1 Cor. 16:10 speak of the “work of the Lord.” Who will argue that we are not saved by the “work” of God?

    Regarding baptism, the Lord himself asked the following about the baptism of John — “….from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” Mat. 21:25.

    Which begs the question…. is the baptism of the great commission from heaven or from man? If it is from heaven, then IS IT a work of God or of man?

    I just don’t see a big deal in saying that we are saved by any “work of the Lord.”

    Again Matt, thanks for speaking the truth in love.

  6. Great post. Another insight is that in the Catholic Church baptism was a sacrament. When Luther and all those guys started really embracing grace, they embraced all the sacraments as “outward signs of an inward grace.” Under the Catholic Church baptism was a work, and it was wrongly thrown into their mix of sacraments. Today many still see it as a work, but a work that shows you’re saved, not saves you… like confession of sin to others and the Lord’s Supper.

    I guess the problem is that the Bible never explains it that way. You’re right though, we can make it a work again. With all our emphasis on it and our fanaticism to see it done the right way, it can become something that we put our trust in rather than the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ we’re being baptized into.

  7. Mattdabbs, this was a great post. Very clear. I appreciate you taking the time to not only write it, but respond in detail to the questions and concerns of the other comments.

  8. God set a plan for us. He Him self told a ruler of the Jews what to do read for yourself

    John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

    But lets NOT forget

    John 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

    Oh wait Peter which had the keys of truth ( Authority )
    37: Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?38: Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

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