John Piper Cautions: Do Not Look to Water Baptism for Salvation
Many teach that water baptism plays a role in regeneration and the forgiveness of sins. Among those who teach this are Roman Catholics, Oneness Pentecostals, the Federal Vision Movement, Lutherans, some Anglicans, and the Stone-Campbell movement (which includes groups under the titles, “The Church of Christ,” “The Christian Church,” and “The Disciples of Christ”). But water baptism plays absolutely no role in salvation, and to believe that water baptism saves is no minor error, but a spiritually fatal one.
Update: Several sections have undergone revision, and new sections have been added
I. Religious Rites Have Nothing to do with Salvation
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Romans 2:28, 29)
Thus circumcision—and by implication all religious rites, being outward and physical as well—have nothing to do with salvation. Conversion involves an inward heart change, effected by the Holy Spirit.
A. Some examples of specific religious rites and their inability to save:
I. Circumcision didn’t save:
“Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (Rom. 4:9, 10)
II. Animal Sacrifice Didn’t Save:
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4)
This despite the symbolic language that said they did save:
“And all its fat he shall remove as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on top of the LORD’s food offerings. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35) (see also Lev. 1:4; 4:20; 4:26; 4:31; 9:7; 16:24; Num. 15:25; 2 Chron. 29:23, 24)
III. The Lord’s Supper Doesn’t Save:
We will demonstrate the Lord’s Supper doesn’t save in the process of refuting the heretical Romanist view that says it does save.
Real quickly, though, we will refute the Lutheran view, which also says the Lord’s Supper saves. The Lutheran view, called consubstantiation, holds to a “mysterious and miraculous real presence of the whole person of Christ, body and blood, in, under, and along with, the elements.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 652, cited in Brian Schwertley, “The Lord’s Supper: Part 1.”)
Lutheran consubstantiation, writes Bryan Schwertley,
“contradicts the words of institution. Jesus said, “This is My body”
(Lk. 22:19). Grammatically this statement can only mean two things: This signifies or represents My body; or, this is My literal body. The meaning is determined by the context and other related portions of Scripture. It cannot mean “this accompanies my body.” The Romanist position (while thoroughly unbiblical) is more consistent exegetically.” (Schwertley, “The Lord’s Supper: Part 1”.)
On Roman Catholic transubstantiation, we cite several paragraphs from Schwertley, who offers several excellent insights:
“(a) When Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper and said to the disciples “This is My body,” He was still standing right there in front of them. How (we ask) could His human body which was a real, finite, flesh, blood and bones body be in two separate places at the same time? Keep in mind that Romanists are not saying that the host is part of the Savior but that “Christ is whole and entire under each species.” Obviously, our Lord’s reference to His body and blood was symbolic. Examples of Christ using figurative and symbolic speech are numerous: He referred to Himself as a door (Jn. 10:4), a temple (Jn. 2:19), a vine (Jn. 15:5), a shepherd (Jn. 10:4), and bread (Jn. 6:35). He referred to the Holy Spirit as water (Jn. 4:14). When He instituted the Lord’s supper he called the cup the new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).
“(b) The doctrine of transubstantiation is dependent upon a repudiation of the teaching of Scripture regarding the true humanity of Jesus. Every week the Roman Catholic Mass is conducted in hundreds of thousands of different locations all over the earth. Is the human body of our Lord at the right hand of God in one location as Scripture teaches, or is it in hundreds of thousands of different church services at the same time? Further, the hosts consumed all over the earth would fill a cargo ship. With relation to space and expanse this is beyond the limits of a real human body.
“The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was (and forever remains) fully God and fully man, two distinct natures in one person; yet these two natures are not mixed or confused in any way. In other words the human nature of our Lord does not take upon itself any divine attributes such as omnipresence or omnipotence. This view, set forth by the church at the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is accepted by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. Yet transubstantiation attributes divine attributes to Christ’s human nature. His human body, His flesh and blood cannot be all over the world in the Eucharist at the same time without having the divine attribute of omnipresence. Therefore, the Bible teaches that Jesus is spiritually present—not physically present—in the holy supper.
“(c) The doctrine of transubstantiation ignores the role of faith in appropriating Christ and His benefits. Nowhere does the Bible teach that we are sanctified by cannibalism. In fact God’s law forbids the consumption of blood (see Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:10, 12; Ac. 15:20). Eating literal flesh and drinking literal blood accomplishes nothing other than physical nourishment. What Christians need is a spiritual union with the Savior, spiritual nourishment. Believers are sanctified by the Holy Spirit as He applies the outward means to the heart, which receives what the sensible signs signify by faith. Transubstantiation is mystical, magical, pagan nonsense.
“(d) Transubstantiation is disproved by parallel passages regarding the holy supper that can only have a figurative sense. Note how Paul describes the sacrament in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Turretin writes: “Here Paul (explaining Christ’s words) for the body and blood of Christ substitutes the communion (koinonian) of both. This evidently cannot be understood properly and literally (kata to rheton), but only figuratively and sacramentally. Then by parity (as the victims are called the communion of the altar, v. 18), they who eat of the sacrifices are said to be communicants (koinonoi) or partakers of the altar; and the sacrifices to idols are called the communion of devils, and those who eat things sacrificed to idols are said to have fellowship (koinonoi) with devils (vv. 20, 21), not otherwise than tropically and sacramentally, to signify the mystical fellowship of those eating the victims and idol sacrifices with the altar and devils. Therefore in no other sense is the bread and cup called the communion of the body and blood of Christ.”
“(e) Transubstantiation is disproved by the analogy of Scripture which explicitly refutes the concept of the mass wherein Jesus is sacrificed again and again. According to the Roman Catholic Church, in the mass a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice to God is offered. That sacrifice is identical with the cross inasmuch as Christ is both priest and victim. The only difference lies in the manner of offering, which is bloody upon the cross and bloodless on the altar.
“The Bible teaches that Christ’s sacrifice was perfect, complete, final—a one-time event never to be repeated. The Savior “does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb. 7:27). “He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12); “not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another. He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself…so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:25-28). “But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God…. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). “Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more…. He died to sin once for all” (Rom. 6:9, 10).
“The Romanist doctrine of transubstantiation is an attack at the very heart of biblical Christianity, the sufficiency of the atoning death of Jesus. The Papal church denies this crucial doctrine by supposedly re-sacrificing Christ every day in the ritual of the mass. The Roman Catholic mass (which is the central pillar of their system of salvation) is totally unbiblical and sinful for it is a denial of the efficacy of the Savior’s suffering on the cross and death. Further, the Romanist practice of worshipping the host as God even though it is nothing more than a cracker is rank idolatry.” (Schwertley, Ibid)
IV. Water baptism doesn’t save
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 3:21)
There are several interpretations proposed of this passage, but perhaps Peter, so no one misunderstands him, is clarifying that water baptism plays no role in salvation.
Another passage to consider:
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” (Hebrews 9:6-10).
The ESV version here says “washings,” but in Greek the word is “baptisms” (Reymond, “A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 933).
Note this example where water was one of the elements of these ceremonial baptisms:
“For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people,” (Hebrews 9:19)
So long before the institution of water baptism of the New Covenant era, a baptism that included water existed that could not, according to Hebrews 9:9, “perfect the conscience of the worshiper.”
B. Consider the fact that water baptism is symbolic. On one of the things water baptism symbolizes, Robert L. Reymond writes:
“[B]ecause the very name of the ordinance is what it is, namely, baptism, it obviously symbolizes the spiritual work given that name in Holy Scripture, namely, Christ’s work of baptizing his people with the Holy Spirit (see Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 2:33; 1 Cor. 12:13), which work unites them to himself and to the other persons of the Godhead in their saving labors of regenerating, purifying, justifying, and cleansing” (Reymond, Systematic Theology, 926).
Can that which signifies salvation (water baptism), be salvation (Holy Spirit baptism)? This is logically impossible. For if water baptism was salvation, then it wouldn’t signify salvation. And, if water baptism saved, there would be no need for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (God) to save; do we really want to say that water, and not God, saves?
C. Man needs inner cleansing by God—not outer cleansing by those who administer water baptism. As John 7:37-39 reads:
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Salvation is a Gift, Not Something Earned by Water Baptism. (We disagree with this preacher’s “New Testament-only” view of Christian living (see Matt. 5:17-20), but he nonetheless makes some good points.)
II. Water Baptism is a Work
A. The Bible considers water baptism a work on the part of the one being baptized:
1) The Bible considers water baptism a work because it considers circumcision a work. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2b-3). Among those works of the law was circumcision:
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:2-6)
Note how the passage considers circumcision to be a work of the law: It says, “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Why? Because one is “severed from Christ” when one seeks to be “justified by the law.”
Moreover, Gal. 3:2, 3, links “works of the law” with “being perfected by the flesh.” That being perfected in the flesh entails circumcision is evident in Gal. 6:12a: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised …” (see also Romans 4:1-15).
Since then the Bible considers circumcision a work, and since water baptism replaces circumcision as the mark of the visible church, then water baptism is a work. Thus the argument that water baptism is not a work since it is “passive” does not hold up. Circumcision is “passive” as well, and yet the Bible also considers it a work.
2) Moreover, Jesus considered His water baptism as part of fulfilling all righteousness:
“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:14, 15)
Is not fulfilling all righteousness works? Compare “fulfill all righteousness” with “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5).” (No, this verse does not teach baptismal regeneration. For an analysis of this verse, click here.)
B. The Bible considers water baptism a work on the part of the baptizer:
1) Water Baptism is a work done by who administers the baptism. Consider the following examples, where man performs baptisms:
“And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:38)
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,” (1 Corinthians 1:14)
2) This refutes the argument by baptismal regenerationists that says “water baptism is not a work because water baptism is something that God does, not something that man does.”
Consider this: Colossians 2:11, 12 speaks of a circumcision done by Christ, a circumcision the text equates with baptism. And so the circumcision done by Christ is also a baptism done by Christ.
Now we must ask ourselves what kind of baptism does Christ perform—water or Spirit baptism? In Mark 1:8, John the Baptist contrasts the water baptism man (in this case himself) administers with the Holy Spirit baptism that Christ administers: “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (See also our analysis of Colossians 2:11, 12 here.) Thus the baptism that God does is Holy Spirit baptism, not water baptism.
We again draw attention to Titus 3:5: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5).
Salvation is a work of God alone, and not a work of man; and since water baptism is a work of man—whether on the part on the one being baptized, or the one administering the baptism—water baptism cannot have anything to do with salvation.
III. To Believe Water Baptism Saves is to Redefine the Meaning of Saving Faith
Three views of those who say water baptism saves are 1) water baptism alone is necessary for salvation, without faith; 2) faith alone is necessary for salvation, but faith includes water baptism; and 3) both faith and water baptism, which are two distinct things, are necessary for salvation.
A. We will quickly dispense of the first view and move on to the others, which redefine the meaning of saving faith. John 3:18 says:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Thus those who are baptized in water but lack faith are not saved.
B. We now move to the second view, which says that faith alone is necessary for salvation, but faith includes water baptism. Water baptism and faith then are considered to be one and the same thing, or at least water baptism is a considered to be a crucial element of faith. There are several reasons why this is wrong:
1. The Bible considers faith and water baptism two distinct things.
This distinction is seen in Acts 18:8c, where “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”
Moreover, we must consider Acts 10:47: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Here water baptism is offered to those who had already received the Holy Spirit, which obviously means they had faith prior to their water baptism.
2. Saving faith in the New Covenant era is the same as the saving faith in the Older Testament, a saving faith which has nothing to do with religious rites.
We see this in Romans 4:1-12:
“1What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
“9Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
This passage tells us that no works, including the religious rite of circumcision, plays a role in saving faith.
- Verse 10 says Abraham had the blessing (of forgiveness) prior to circumcision.
- Verse 11 says Abraham is the father of all who believe without circumcision (or of course any work), and that for all who believe, righteousness is counted to them as well.
- Verse 12 says Abraham is the father of all the circumcised who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Hence, circumcision, as a religious rite, plays no role in saving faith, and by implication, neither does water baptism. God justified Abraham by faith alone, apart from either circumcision or water baptism.
Thus those who say saving faith includes water baptism change how faith is defined in Romans 4:1-12. But if saving faith is redefined to entail water baptism, no one today would be able to “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised,” since Abraham’s faith had nothing to do with religious rites, whether circumcision or water baptism.
But since Abraham is the “father of all who believe,” we cannot believe water baptism has any relation to saving faith without contradicting Romans 4:1-12, as well as redefining saving faith to mean something other than what this passage clearly teaches. (Also see Galatians 3:7-9, which mentions that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”)
3. Saving faith, by its very nature, has nothing to do with water baptism
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14, 15)
Compare this verse with Numbers 21:7-9
“And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Commenting on John 3:14, 15, the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible writes:
“Numbers 21:4-9 records the story of the bronze serpent, which was a type of Christ. As the Israelites were saved from fiery serpents by fixing their gaze on the uplifted bronze serpent, so we are saved from eternal judgment by looking to Christ, who was lifted up” (p. 1705).
Thus, saving faith entails solely looking to Christ. “Looking to Christ” by definition excludes everything else, including water baptism; we are not to look to a baptistery or a pool of water, but Christ alone.
4. The Bible Teaches an Antithesis Between Saving Faith and Salvation by Water Baptism
In Galatians 1:6-7, we read:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
What, according to Galatians, constitutes a different Gospel? Well, at least one major aspect is seen in Galatians 3:1-6:
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?”
Notice the emphasis on linking “hearing with faith” with salvation. It does no good for baptismal regenerationists to argue that faith in this context includes water baptism, since the passage links the faith of New Covenant believers with Abraham’s: “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” As we noted previously, Romans 4 is clear that Abraham’s faith had nothing to do with religious rites.
And so this leaves water baptism not in the category of faith, but of works—which are presented in this context as antithetical to faith when it comes to salvation. Of course, many baptismal regenerationists will respond to this that water baptism is not a work.
But as we demonstrated above, water baptism is a work; but even if it were not a work, that would not in any way minimize the antithesis between saving faith and the view that salvation can be attained by water baptism.
The Apostle Paul pits the true Gospel against any so-called gospel that differs from “hearing with faith.” And so whether water baptism is a work or not, adding water baptism to “hearing with faith” as a means of salvation is a different gospel, and therefore antithetical to saving faith.
In points 1-4, we have observed that: 1) saving faith and water baptism are two distinct things; 2) saving faith in the New Covenant era is the same as the saving faith in the Older Testament, a saving faith which has nothing to do with religious rites; 3) saving faith, by its very nature, has nothing to do with water baptism; and 4) the Bible teaches an antithesis between salvation thru faith and salvation by water baptism. Thus, when someone says faith includes water baptism, that person has redefined the meaning of biblical faith.
C. Finally, the third view of salvation by water baptism, which says faith and water baptism are two distinct things, but both are necessary for salvation.
Points 2-4 above already refute this claim; man is saved thru faith alone, without water baptism. But why exactly does this claim that both faith and water baptism are necessary for salvation redefine the meaning of saving faith?
Because saving faith looks to what Christ has accomplished—not what Christ will do for somebody should somebody meet certain conditions (e.g., circumcision, water baptism, etc.). Saving faith then trusts in Christ and only Christ from the beginning, and is not a trust in salvation contingent and conditional upon a past or future water baptism.
Thus the “believer’s baptism” view (i.e., someone old enough to express an understanding of the Gospel) of salvation by water baptism is erroneous, since this view says, “Okay, I believe Christ died for my sins, and if I get baptized in water, I will be saved.” Also erroneous is the infant baptism view of salvation by water baptism, since it says, “Okay, I believe Christ died for my sins, and because I was baptized as an infant, my sins are forgiven.”
In each of these cases, saving faith—a trust solely in Christ’s accomplished work for salvation—is redefined to mean a distrust of the accomplishments of the work of Christ, and a trust in the accomplishment of water baptism.
Forward this video to the 3:24 mark. To believe water baptism plays a role in salvation is to misunderstand saving faith. Note the confusion of these two men trying to link faith with water baptism.
IV. Water Baptism is not part of the Gospel
Water baptism cannot be considered part of the Gospel since, as we have shown above, water baptism is a work, and works have nothing to do with salvation (see, for example, Titus 3:5, Romans 3:27, 4:2, Ephesians 2:9, 2 Timothy 1:9).
Water baptism also cannot be considered part of the Gospel because of the meaning of saving faith, the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Romans 4:1-12), and the doctrine that religious rites have nothing to do with salvation (Romans 2:25-29).
The Gospel throughout both Testaments involves justification by faith alone:
“For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” (Heb. 4:2) (NIV).
The “they” are those in the O.T. times. Note how the message was one of faith (i.e.,“did not combine it with faith”), not faith plus works. Again, the same gospel: “we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did”—not two different gospels, which would amount to: faith in the O.T., faith plus works in the N.T.
In fact, Paul distinguishs water baptism from the gospel:
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)
Indeed, this preaching of the gospel Paul refers to teaches salvation thru faith alone. As a few verses down say,
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:21).
The preaching is salvation thru faith alone—“what we preach to save those who believe”—water baptism is not mentioned. Thus, in light of the words of 1 Cor. 1:17, the “words of eloquent wisdom” preached by those who say water baptism plays a role in the forgiveness of sins empties the cross of Christ of its power.
It is interesting to note that just as Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,” John 4:2 says of Jesus: “(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), …”
Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and apparently the way He saved men during His earthly ministry excluded water baptism.
Some concrete examples of Jesus saving men without water baptism during his earthly ministry include Matthew 9:2, Luke 7:47-50, and Luke 19:8-10.
And even though Christ’s earthly ministry is over, He still continues to seek and save the lost, which means water baptism no more plays a role in salvation today than it did in the past. If we were to say that water baptism began playing a role in salvation after Christ’s earthly ministry, we would be redefining the meaning of seeking and saving the lost.
V. To believe water baptism plays a role in salvation is to believe in a false gospel
As we have seen, water baptism is not part of the gospel. And consequently, to believe that it is is to believe in a false gospel.
A Bible commentary writes that in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul writes against “the agitators” insistence “that the Galatians not only had to believe in Christ for salvation, but also had to practice circumcision (2:3-5; 5:2, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15).” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, p. 1889). With water baptism the replacement of circumcision, today’s agitators are those who say one must be baptized in water in order to be saved.
We continue in Galatians:
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
“But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:15-21)
In short, relying on any work for salvation instead of trusting in Christ by faith nullifies God’s grace. Moreover, Paul also writes:
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:1-6)
The Spirit is received by hearing with faith, not by any works. These passages revisit the faith of Abraham, who was justified by faith, not by circumcision.
We must note that works are the fruit of salvation, not the root. “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (Matt. 7:17). Those regenerated by the Holy Spirit will naturally do good works out of love for God, because their nature has been changed. They no more do good works to earn salvation than a healthy tree bears good fruit in order to make itself healthy.
To rely on works—including water baptism for salvation is to be under a curse:
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” (Galatians 3:10)
Paul also pronounces a curse on all who teach that justification is of anything but thru faith:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:6-9)
Now, many who believe water baptism saves argue that water baptism is not a work. While they are wrong, even if water baptism is not a work, holding that water baptism plays a role in salvation is still “a different gospel,” one “contrary to the one” preached in the Bible.
This is because Paul considers a different gospel any doctrine of salvation beyond “hearing with faith” (see Galatians 3:1-6). So whether you call it a work or not, if you add or take away from “hearing with faith,” you hold to a false gospel.
Just as saying the gospel entails “hearing with faith with acts that are works” is heretical, so is saying the gospel entails “hearing with faith with acts that are (allegedly) not works”: Either one of these “gospels” is a different gospel since both differ from “hearing with faith.”
Thus, says Joe Morecraft,
“Faith in Christ and in anything else will not bring forgiveness of sins and eternal life. If you are trusting in Christ and in your [water] baptism, you are lost. If you are trusting in Christ, and in your continual performance of obedience to God’s law, you are lost. The point of the book of Galatians is, there is no “and” in the Gospel. You must rest upon Christ alone.” (Joe Morecraft III, Galatians: What Paul Really Said in Galatians, sermonaudio.com, 58:22 mark)
We will summarize the theme of Galatians via the words of the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible:
Galatians has played a central role in Reformed theology because it clearly declares that salvation is the gift of God’s grace. Salvation is unearned and undeserved (1:3, 6, 15; 2:19, 21; 6:18) and is received by faith alone (2:15-16). Quite simply, this is “the truth of the gospel” (2:5, 14). Paul showed deep anger over the agitators’ denial of this truth (3:1; 5:12), warning that those who reject it cannot expect to be saved (1:8; 5:4) (p. 1890).
Jesus saves men through the internal cleansing of the word, not external cleansing of water baptism. Jesus says in John 15:3: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you”—He does not say, “Already you are clean because of water baptism.”
When we miss this important distinction between internal and external cleansing, we are no better than blind Pharisees. As Jesus scolded the Pharisees of His day:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25, 26)
Whoever or whatever we look to as our source of salvation is our God or god. Our God or god will either be the Creator or the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-25). If we look to Christ alone as our Lord and Savior, we acknowledge Him as God. If we look to water baptism for salvation, we deny Christ as Lord and Savior, and worship created things (water, ourselves, etc.).
And so we ask those reading, do you believe that water baptism plays any role in your eternal salvation, whatsoever? If you do, know this: you are lost. You must repent and put your trust solely in Jesus alone.
Consider Numbers 21:4-9, where in order to be saved from the deadly poison of serpents, the Israelites solely looked upon a bronze serpent on a pole. In like manner, fix your gaze solely upon Christ. As John 3:14, 15 says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Believe that Christ fulfilled all righteousness for you, and that He died for you. Believe the Gospel.
Christ and Christ alone can save you from the bondage of sin and the eternal, unquenchable torment of Hell. Water baptism cannot do this.