by Matthew W. Bassford
At the end of Romans 3 and the beginning of Romans 4, we encounter the most famous of Paul’s teachings: justification by faith in Jesus. Throughout the context, he contrasts it with justification by works. Abraham was not justified by works, nor was David, nor can we be.
From this magnificent spiritual truth, a host of false doctrines have sprung. In particular, many have argued that justification by works means doing anything, but justification by faith means doing nothing. Thus, the argument continues, baptism cannot save us because it’s a work. Instead, we should seek salvation by praying to Jesus and acknowledging our need to Him.
There are several Scriptural problems with this claim, but one of the most prominent is its misunderstanding of works in the context of Romans. Paul doesn’t use “works” to mean doing anything right. He uses it to mean doing everything right.
This, indeed, is the point of the first three chapters of Romans. The Gentiles can’t justify themselves by works because they are sinners. The Jews, even though they have the Law and seek to follow it, are sinners too. They can’t justify themselves by works either. Thus, Paul concludes in Romans 3:20 that no one can be justified in God’s sight by the works of the Law.
In all of human history, there only has been one man who was baptized as part of justifying himself by works. That one was Jesus. In Matthew 3:13-15, John at first refuses to baptize Jesus because he recognizes that the Holy One is more righteous than he is. Jesus replies, however, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” God’s prophet commanded baptism, so Jesus obeyed the command even though He had no need of forgiveness.
Jesus was justified by His obedience, but this only happened because He lived a life of unbroken obedience. Should anyone have the temerity to call Him to account, He could assert His right to spend eternity with God because of His moral perfection. That’s justification by works.
However, none of the rest of us seek baptism because we are fulfilling all righteousness. We seek it because we haven’t fulfilled all righteousness. We aren’t spiritual successes like Jesus. We are failures, and we know it. Our only hope lies in His power to cleanse and redeem, and through baptism, we call on His name, appealing to Him to wash away our sins.
Our baptism isn’t part of justification by works. It’s not asking for what we deserve. God forbid that I should ever get what I deserve! Instead, we seek justification by faith apart from works through baptism.
Baptism actually does what sinner’s-prayer advocates think the sinner’s prayer does. In baptism, we don’t proudly stand before God and present our spiritual credentials. Instead, we humble ourselves before Him and plead for His mercy, the mercy that we so desperately need and that our loving God is so eager to extend.