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Is Baptism Our Symbolic Work for God or God’s Powerful Work for Us?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Does baptism do anything? Does it effect and work salvation in the one being baptized? Or does it simply symbolize the salvation, new birth, forgiveness, etc., already given by faith. Put another way, is it a "means of grace" or the confirmation of grace already given and received by faith?

Below I've listed the key New Testament passages on baptism. Read them with the above questions in mind. In these passages, do the New Testament authors attribute to baptism the power to save? Or do they speak of baptism as a rite which only symbolizes what has already occurred?

What it comes it down to is this: Either baptism is our work for God or it is God's work for us. Either it is something that we do out of obedience to God, which in itself gives nothing; or it is something that God works in us, which gives everything - salvation, new life, and entrance into the kingdom. The Scriptural evidence follows. You decide!

Matthew 28:19-20a -- 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Note: Most agree that in this passage "teaching" is a means of making disciples of all nations, that the ongoing work of making disciples takes place by the agency of teaching. However, if this is true for teaching, grammatically it should also be true of baptizing. For in the Greek, didaskontes, "teaching," not only has the exact same construction as baptizontes, "baptizing" (nominative, plural, present, active, participles), but both words are antecedents of the verb matheteusate, "make disciples;" both verbs are grammatically coordinate:

"Having gone, therefore, make disciples of all nations
by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and
by teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

Mark 16:15-16 -- He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."

John 3:5-6 -- Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit

Acts 2:38-39 -- Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call."

Acts 22:16 -- And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.

Romans 6:3-8 -- Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

1 Corinthians 6:11 -- And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13 -- The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Galatians 3:26-28 -- You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 5:25-27 -- Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
 

Colossians 2:11-12 -- 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.

Titus 3:5-7 -- he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Hebrews 10:22 -- let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
 

1 Peter 3:20b-21-- In it [Noah's ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ [see Romans 6:3-4].

According to these verses, baptism:

  • makes disciples (Mt. 28:19)
  • saves (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21)
  • brings forgiveness/washes away sin/cleanses/takes away guilt (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22)
  • causes us to be born again (John 3:5; Titus 3:5)
  • crucifies the old man, buries him, and causes the baptized one to be raised up as a new creation of God (Romans 6:3-6; Colossians 2:11-12)
  • makes us members of Christ's body (1 Corinthians 12:13)
  • gives us the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:5-6)
  • clothes us with Christ (puts on His righteousness!) (Galatians 3:27)

On the basis of these strong words of Scripture, we Lutherans have become convinced that baptism is God's powerful work by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes salvation in us. How sad, then, when baptism is turned into a pitiful work of obedience that we do for God, a work that does nothing but only symbolizes what has already taken place. How sadder still, when baptism is completely thrown aside and "dedication," which is nothing but man-made piety, is substituted. It is certainly true that often adults are converted by faith in the Gospel before they are baptized. But there is also no getting around this Scriptural evidence, that baptism is a powerful means of grace in which God (not us) works wonders. In baptism, God is the giver and we are to be the receiver (through faith).