True, man is saved by divine grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). However, some have concluded from this fact that there is nothing that man must do in order to obtain salvation. Some contend that water baptism can’t possibly be necessary for salvation because it is a work of man. They say, “Man is not saved by works.” Such an objection however, betrays a misunderstanding of the meaning of justification by works.
The difficulty for those who reject water baptism as essential for salvation is the multitude of passages describing its purpose and consequences. These passages clearly indicate the necessity of water baptism for salvation. For example, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles taught that water baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). There are some who would try to argue that the preposition “for” in this expression means “because of,” a view which fits neither the normal meaning of the preposition nor harmonizes with other passages on the purpose of water baptism. The same expression “for the remission of sins” is found in Matthew 26:28; “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” I have yet to meet anyone who argues that Jesus shed His blood “because of” the remission of sins, i.e., because sins were already remitted.
“Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). It is amazing the apostles didn’t tell these believing Jews they were already saved. The apostles didn’t pray the “sinner’s prayer” with them, accepting Jesus into their lives as their personal Savior.
Baptism is obviously symbolic. Is it then just a “reenactment” of the believer’s salvation? We are baptized “into His (Christ’s) death” (Romans 6:3), “buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). Paul did not suggest that baptism is symbolic of the believer’s salvation; he compared the believer’s baptism to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (vs. 4). Jesus was raised from the dead and came out of the tomb; so also the buried sinner is raised spiritually as he comes out of the water of baptism. The person who once was dead in sin has now been made alive by the working of God (Col 2:12).
Paul observed that the Galatians had baptized “into” Christ (Gal 3:27). Can anyone be saved “apart from” Christ? In the same text, he noted those who were baptized into Christ, had put on Christ. Can we be saved without “putting on” Christ?
Saving faith is completed by obedience. Water baptism doesn’t “earn” salvation any more than any other individual act of obedience causes the doer to merit salvation. In fact, the person baptized for the remission of sins is seeking the favor of God in the form of forgiveness. This is hardly the action of one seeking to be justified by his own works, but rather by the works of God. Just read the next verse after Ephesians 2:8,9 and you will find what kind of work merits salvation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them: (Eph 2:10).
Water baptism completes the faith of the believer (James 2:14-16). Faith without works is dead (Jam 2:20). James concluded the whole matter when he said, “You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Jam 2:24). This is not the works of man but of God. Both faith and baptism are works of God. Those who seek to believe Jesus, need only to obey the words of Jesus. He said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believes not shall be condemned” (Mk 16:16). ‘Faith only’ condemns. ‘Baptism only’ condemns. It takes confessed faith that Jesus is the Christ, and repentance of sins washed away by baptism in order to be saved (Rom 10:9,10 f; Acts 2:38).