is baptism a work? (Jesus + ______)

 image courtesy of south biscayne church

This post is the fourth in a series on baptism.  The first three posts are here:

As a proponent of water baptism, one of the arguments I’ve heard most often is:

“We’re saved by faith and not by works.  Baptism is clearly a work and, therefore, is both insignificant and immaterial.”

In college — when I understood baptism differently than I do now — my answer was simple:  

“Is repentance necessary to salvation?  Because that seems like a lot more work than allowing someone to dunk you under a little water…”

I didn’t have all that many friends outside of my own little denomination.  But I understand baptism differently now.  I’m not nearly so legalistic about it these days.  And yet, I believe baptism is far more important and has much greater meaning now than I ever did then.

Baptism is passive.

I was about to list a dozen verses, but decided that’s not at all necessary.  It will suffice to say that when baptism is spoken of in the New Testament, people “were baptized” or should “be baptized.”  Both are passive.  Baptism is not so much something you do, but is something that is done to you — both in terms of God’s work and the physical actions of baptism.

None of us would claim we are capable of killing ourselves, burying ourselves with Christ, and then raising ourselves to live as new creations.  This is the work of God.  And baptism represents, accompanies, and is even able to accomplish this work of God.  And so, I don’t baptize myself.  Rather I place my life in another’s arms, vulnerable and acquiescent, and am lowered down into a watery grave.  In baptism, I am united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  It is not me doing the uniting, but I am indeed united with Christ.  This baptism venture is in every way a passive one.

[Let me interrupt myself now to offer something that is little more than personal preference.  Here in Tanzania (and lots of other places as well), I’ve witnessed the baptizee (for lack of a better word) stand upright as the baptizer aids him in the process of bending his knees and lowering his back and head until he’s squatting underneath the water.  I’m not going to say this “doesn’t count,” but it doesn’t seem like a proper burial position to me.  And it’s not very passive; the baptizee has control of his own body at all times.  I prefer the method of the baptizee laying back in the arms of the baptizer and being lowered under the water and raised out of it, all under someone else’s power.  I think there’s greater symbolism there.  Anyway, just a sidenote.]

Baptism is not a “Jesus + ____” situation.

The Colossian church had been infiltrated by false teachers (of Jewish persuasion) who argued the fullness of Christ was not enough for salvation.  The Colossians, they said, needed to be circumcised as well.  And they needed to observe the right days and times and foods and drinks.  [And maybe they even needed to worship angels?!]  The Colossians were basically being told they needed Jesus + ________ — which is still a problem today, to be frank.  And many see baptism as one of these legalistic additions, little more than an attempt to require that man earn his own salvation.

But, interestingly enough, in his argument that the fullness of Christ is indeed plenty — and that the Colossians already possessed this fullness — Paul uses baptism to make his point.  In fact he states baptism as being the moment at which the Colossians received the fullness of Christ.

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.  In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” — Colossians 2:9-12

Do you see the irony?  Many argue that in teaching baptism I am suggesting the fullness of Christ is not enough, I’m adding the work of baptism to salvation, I’m claiming we need Jesus + ______.  And Paul’s argument is similar to theirs — that it’s not Jesus plus something else.  The fullness of Christ is all you need, and you already possess it.  Except that he goes on to explain we received this fullness of Christ at baptism.  How can it be one of these works we shouldn’t be adding?

Am I losing readers with this post?

So… I’m now beginning to show a few of my cards.  And I suppose I may ruffle some feathers in the process.  I do see baptism as much more than a symbolic gesture of faith, a command to be obeyed, or an outward expression of an inward change.  And I know this, in many ways, places me in the minority.  But I hope you guys will stick with me.  And by that I mean that you’ll continue reading this series — not because I know I can convince you of my stance (or that I need to), but for two other reasons:

  1. for you to understand where I’m coming from, what I believe, and why I believe it.
  2. and to start some conversations here concerning baptism, so that we’ll all be stretched.

Next post in the series:  baptism changes one’s identity

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6 Comments

Filed under baptism

6 responses to “is baptism a work? (Jesus + ______)

  1. This is a great post. I couldn’t agree more. Very well said.

  2. I believe baptism is a work — the work of Christ — which He accomplishes through us, for us and for others.

    Often the first of many – if we are willing to let Him work in partnership with us and through us.

    • thanks for coming by and for posting, keith. you’re kind of like a celebrity signing an autograph on my blog. i really enjoy your blog and read every post. i especially liked your (somewhat) recent treatise on salvation.

      baptism is indeed a work of Christ. that was well worded, and i wish i’d said it.

  3. Pingback: baptism: a new identity and a new name | aliens and strangers

  4. Pingback: baptism is for believers | aliens and strangers

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