Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

A few days ago, I had a startling realization about St. Paul.

I’ve always been frustrated by Paul’s lack of emphasis on Baptism. If Baptism is what saves us (1 Peter 3:21), why does Paul so seldom mention it in conjunction with salvation? Reformed Protestants are quick to point out that according to Paul, we are saved “by grace through faith … not because of works” (Ephesians 2:8–10) — and Baptism, according to them, is a “work”; and they stand on this to the exclusion of all other Scripture, even the words of Jesus Himself, demonstrating the necessity of Baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). Many times I’ve had niggling doubts: What if the Protestants are right about Paul — about “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide)? What if the critics are right about Paul, that he teaches a different message than Jesus?

But then the other day, it hit me like a Roman chariot:

Paul takes for granted that all of his readers have already been baptized.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Of course! Just as Jesus exhorted us to believe and be baptized, believing and being baptized formed two inseparable halves of the same thought and action for the earliest Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism immediately followed a believer coming to faith in Christ in every single case of conversion, as I showed yesterday. Believing and being baptized were so inextricably connected in the apostolic mind that one even came to imply the other. The idea that a believer could come to believe in Christ and not be baptized was unthinkable.

Each of Paul’s letters presume a Christian audience. They are not evangelistic in nature, but written rather to existing Christian communities to counsel, instruct, and correct. Therefore Paul assumes that all of his recipients are baptized Christians:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25–27)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

For St. Paul, just as for St. Luke in the Book of Acts, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected. Just as being baptized implied that one had come to believe, believing entailed that one had been baptized.

And so it is only with this crucial context that Paul’s declarations regarding salvation by faith can be properly understood:

We ourselves … who know a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:15–16)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. … God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

The essential response to having faith in Christ is being baptized. Paul understood that his recipients had already come to faith in Christ and been baptized. The two are inextricably connected — and so a crucial component of being justified by faith, the operative component, is Baptism.

8 thoughts on “Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

  1. Agree totally, good post. I might also add that in the last two scripture you use, Paul is talking specifically about works of The Law. Many protestant denominations fail to notice this. When they talk about baptism as “works based salvation”, they have a “works according to man” kind of outlook on it. For one, when Paul referred to works he was specifically talking about what the Law of Moses required, not what is required of us now. Second, how can baptism be a work of man if God has commanded that we do it? Just as God raised Jesus from the grave, he also raises us from the watery grave of baptism (Rom. 6:3,4). It is God working in baptism, not us.

    • Yes, absolutely he is referring only to the works of the Law — or “the works of Torah” is perhaps a better translation. I wholeheartedly agree. I have heard Protestants charge that by trusting in Baptism, a “work,” we are trusting in something other than Jesus — but how is that so, if we are trusting in Jesus to do what He promised, through what he commanded us to do?

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  3. Nice post – thanks for sharing.

    St. Paul speaks of true faith in God (not the watered down sugar pill faith that is so popular today). Such faith requires action, so the absence of works may cause one to question the faith of another, and reasonably so. James paints a clear picture of this, specifically in book 2, where he ties it to Abraham’s “faith plus works”.

    BTW, babies know about as much as Isaac did when his father Abraham, acting on faith, and took him to the place of sacrifice – or better yet, as much as he did before that on the day of his circumcision. When you read Genesis 17 and look at the New Covenant in light of the Old (which included the infants), it is interesting to note that the parents acted on behalf of their children just as we do today in the Catholic Church.

    • Yes! I’m looking forward to discussing infant baptism further, and the “knowledge of babes” is something I’ll definitely be considering. And as my friend above pointed out, the idea that Baptism is a “work” at all is a strictly Protestant notion — no one before had ever considered it thus. It’s not a work of man at all, but a work of grace by the Holy Spirit, commanded and carried out by Christ Himself.

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