Though it seems baptism is becoming more widely accepted as part of God’s plan of salvation for mankind, there are still those who remain insistent on the idea that baptism is simply something that Christians do once they’ve been saved (if they even need to do it at all). I remember one person even telling me that baptism is “eternally important” but not a requirement for Christians. And why not? Because – as many of us have heard over and over and over – it’s a “work.” And we’re not saved by works. It’s amazing how many people use this as their number one refutation of baptism for remission of sins.

Naturally, those of us who are for baptism for remission of sins want to refute the idea of baptism being a work, but it’s crucial that we take care in how we answer this particular objection. The wrong answer could create an even deeper misunderstanding between us and those with whom we debate this issue.

Unfortunately, I’ve used such an argument, and I’ve seen it used by others fairly frequently as well. When someone says “baptism is a work,” we often flip to James 2:17 and point out that faith without works is dead. While James 2:17 is an inspired scripture that gives us a wonderfully applicable teaching, it’s not one that should be used when discussing baptism as a work.

It takes James 2:17 out of context.

James 2:17 is in the context of a discussion of how our faith (once we’ve already become Christians) will affect our actions. If we have faith we’ll act on it in the ways God wants and if we don’t act on it we don’t really have faith. For that reason, James is not a discussion of the process of justification from sins or the plan of salvation.

It misunderstands the word “work.”

Unlike James 2:17, in Romans 3:28 we’re told that we cannot be justified from our sins by works of law. Paul (in Romans) was talking about what are known as meritorious works, works that people do to try to earn their salvation before God. It’s these meritorious works that people are referring to when they try to make the case that baptism is a work.

We have to understand this distinction if we’re going to properly answer the objection. Also, if we make the mistake of interpreting the word “works” the same in both contexts, then we’re making the Bible contradict itself between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. So, when somebody says baptism isn’t part of the plan of salvation because it is a work, we have to realize they’re meaning it as a meritorious work done to earn salvation – which it is not. And we have to realize that James 2 isn’t part of that discussion, because it’s not talking about the same thing that those objectors are.

It complicates our path to winning people over.

Think about what happens when we respond to the accusation that baptism is a work by going to James 2 and saying “yes, but faith without works is dead.” We haven’t refuted that it’s a work but we’ve instead accepted the false premise that it is one, just one that we think is useful. The last thing we ever want to do is give people the impression that we believe we’re saved by works, but that’s exactly what they’ll hear if we use “faith without works is dead” to defend our understanding of the path to salvation.

So how do we answer when someone tells us that baptism is a work? We tell them that baptism is absolutely not a work, no more than repentance, confession, or belief are works, because although God has required all of them, none of them can be done to earn our salvation.

By Jack Wilkie