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Works Salvation

by Tim O'Hearn

Those groups that, following the scriptures, insist that baptism (either immersion or some other form that is not properly called baptism) are often accused of advocating “works salvation.” Many who oppose immersion as a requirement for, or the point at which one receives, salvation do so because they interpret being saved by grace as exclusive of any action on man’s part. It might, therefore, be instructive to see what the Bible says about salvation by grace or works. It might also be of value to see whether the people who advocate “grace salvation” in opposition to “works salvation” really follow what they claim to believe.

What is grace?

Some people define grace as “unmerited favor.” While that seems to be a good definition it has the problem of defining a word by that word. A dictionary would not define a red rose as a rose that is red. Rather it would define it as a flower of a specific genus that is of a color whose hue resembles that of blood or of the ruby or is that of the long-wave extreme of the visible spectrum. In the case of grace, to define it as unmerited favor is to define it by itself, since the word that is sometimes translated grace is also translated favor. So what does the Bible mean by grace?

One of the first things to understand is that grace is the act of God’s looking favorably on a person. It is that which brings joy or peace, and in a spiritual sense that isSalvation is a free gift, but invariably they tell people that they must pray to receive the gift. because of God’s favorable view of a person. If one is viewed without sin, then one can have joy and peace; if viewed as sinful, those attributes are unattainable.

The next thing to understand is that grace is not necessarily free. The Law is full of references to those who would buy grace.

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. (Deut 16:18-19)

Even today we know of instances where grace is bestowed by men, based solely on what the recipient can pay. In some places it is called baksheesh or a gratuity. In other circumstances it is called a bribe. Far be it from God to show partiality, but he never says that grace itself is free. Someone might now point out a passage that links grace and a free gift. What does Romans 5:15-17 say? Does it say grace is a free gift?

But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)

No, this passage does not say that grace is a free gift. The free gift comes as a result of grace. But the free gift is not grace. The free gift is righteousness. Now that might be splitting hairs, in a sense. After all, it is the salvation that is really at issue in the discussion. Is the salvation free? Definitely. Does it come from grace? Most certainly. Does that mean that man has no part in obtaining the free gift? Not necessarily.

Free trip to heaven. Inquire inside.

This was a sign posted outside a church building. It happens to be one where those who assemble there do not believe that immersion is essential to salvation. The implication is that the trip to heaven is free of any action on man’s part. And yet, when one looks at what one would be told when he “inquires within” that is not in fact the practice.

Countless web sites, tracts, flyers, and preachers teach that one can be saved before immersion because immersion is a work and one is saved without works. They say that salvation is a free gift from God and that man has no part in it. And yet, invariably, they end by telling the person who is “inquiring within” that all they need to do to receive this salvation or this grace is to pray a certain prayer. Sometimes they even give the specific words to pray. Sometimes it is called “the Sinner’s Prayer.” A few say that any prayer will do, as long as the person “asks Jesus to come into their heart.”

How does this differ from immersion, other than in the action itself? Is this not saying that one still has to perform an act in order to receive grace or salvation? In fact, it is more positively a work that is being required than immersion, because immersion is something that is done to the recipient rather than by the recipient. Prayer is an action by the one seeking salvation.

It would be unusual to see a tract or pamphlet that tells a person that there is truly nothing that they need do to receive salvation (which may or may not be equated to forgiveness of sins). Such a pamphlet would have to read something like this:

You are a sinner, but that is OK. You don’t have to worry about it because God has a totally free gift called salvation. You do not have to do anything to receive it. You do not have to be baptized. You don’t even have to pray. If God is going to give you this gift he will give it to you, regardless of what you do or don’t do. By the way, though, maybe you should worry, because since you don’t have to do anything to receive this gift, you may never know until you die whether you have it or not. In fact, if you pray for it, you can’t have it because then you will have worked for it. So go on with your life however you want to live it, and hope that God gives you this gift.

It is not unusual to see a sign like the “free trip to heaven” sign. They ask you to “inquire inside” or open the envelope. A travel agency that offers a free gift of a trip to the Bahamas always has a catch. The trip may be free, but they still put conditions on who receives it. You may have to put your name on a list (and get mail from them for the rest of your natural life). You may have to listen to some talk about the joys of time shares. It is a free trip, but not available to just everyone.

There is no free gift without conditions in this life. People receive Christmas presents or birthday presents, beautifully wrapped. It is truly a free gift. But to take advantage of it (or even find out what it is) requires an action on the part of the recipient. He or she must open the package. Nobody leaves the wrapped package on a shelf and admires it. Few would even dare to tell the giver that in order for it to be a gift the giver has to open it and hand it to the recipient (who would still have to put out his hand to receive it). No, even a free gift is not free of action on the part of the recipient.

Works Salvation

The principal objection to immersion is that it would lead to salvation by works. As previously seen, even salvation by faith involves action (works?) on the part of the recipient. But is immersion a work?

Works, in the sense usually used, would be legalistic works of law, generally of the Law of Moses. That is how Paul uses the word in his letter to the Galatians. Paul speaks of those who believe they have earned their salvation because of the mitzvot they have done. Works, in this sense, would include anything by which a person thinks he has earned salvation. For some people that may include immersion; for others it may include prayer, or faith, or doing or being good.

Doing something in order to receive salvation is not always a work, in that sense. Praying for God’s spirit in one’s life may not be a work, if one doesn’t believe that God owes them his spirit just because they prayed. Immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins may not be a work, in the legalistic sense, if one has it done to him because God commanded it, and one wants to obey the commands of God because he is God. If it is something toA trip from a travel agency may be free, but you may have to put your name on a list to get mail from them for the rest of your natural life. check off on a list of things to earn salvation it is a work. If it is, as Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21, the response of a good conscience toward God, then it is not a work.

Another difference between immersion and other works becomes crucial. Immersion is not something one does in order to be saved. It is not even something one does because he has been saved, as some would claim in opposition to the scriptures. It is not even something one does. Immersion is something that is done to a person. A dead body does not bury itself. A person who has died to sin and is about to rise to walk in a new life (Romans 6) does not immerse himself. He submits to immersion. If it is a work, it is a work of another person on the one wishing to be saved. In this way it is no different than God granting forgiveness of sins. If immersion (baptism) is a work, then so is God’s gracious forgiveness. If, then, we cannot be saved by immersion because it is a work, then we cannot be forgiven, because that is a work. What someone does to us is not our work. Immersion is not salvation by works, because in it we are being acted upon, not acting.