The Works That Are Not
By Larry White
June 2, 1985
In order to defend the gospel of Christ and maintain the grace of God, the apostle Paul had to constantly put forth an effort to advance the truth and keep it separate and distinct from all the error that was being taught in his day. Two of the distinctions he made very clear is that between Faith and Law and between Grace and Works. Paul does this in Romans 3 and 4, stressing the fact that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works of Law or by works of righteousness.
Works of law are those deeds that can be done while observing a law, specifically the Law of Moses. The irony here is that God gave the Jews a law to show them where they were going wrong and to make what they were doing illegal; a transgression. So, how could they possibly be justified by a law?
A work of righteousness is a deed done to be right, not just correct, but to be just, to be fair. It is a deed done as an expression of goodness, and loving kindness. It is actually what God in heaven requires of us. The problem is that none of us are righteous.
The best example of justification by works is the Pharisee in Luke 18 who boasted of his works, comparing himself with an abject sinner. To us it would be like saying "I give to the United Way and World Hunger Relief, I attend at my local Church, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't gamble, and I don't go out on my wife. Altogether I'm a pretty decent fellow. So God, we can settle the score right now and you can give me what I deserve." That would have been trying to do works of righteousness under a law to earn a place in heaven. Believe me, we do not want what we deserve. In our past life we have all sinned and therefore fall under the penalty of death. Paul says in Rom. 3:23 that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God"
Even if we had done righteous things, it isn't on the basis of what we have done right that God saves us ‑ salvation is a free gift that has already been given and it's incumbent upon man to accept this grace. There isn't anything or any amount of good you can do to get God into a position in which he is obligated to give you a home in Heaven. Once you're a sinner, you by yourself cannot remedy that. The only way we can have life is if God saves us himself and gives to us what we do not deserve.
Jesus died for the UNGODLY. Rom. 5:6‑9. The ungodly have no works.
We are justified by God's grace, which by definition is unmerited, (Rom. 3:24); we are justified through the blood of Christ, his loving sacrifice for us, (Rom. 5:9); and we are justified by faith, our trust in God and not ourselves, (Rom. 5:1). In other words, by faith we accept as our own, the blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross provided by the unmerited favor of God because of his love for us, and there isn't any way we can or need to earn that grace.
Now, the Baptists and many other denominations, armed with this understanding, have continually challenged the teaching of Jesus that a man must believe and be baptized, or immersed in water, to be saved; (Mt 28:19-20; Mk. 16:16, Jno. 3:5), because, they say, we are saved by faith not by works or human effort or merit, and baptism is a work. Therefore baptism is not necessary for salvation.
Of course, what they say is not true. Why?
First, because they are contradicting Jesus.
Second, because immersion in water is not a work; not a work of law, or a work of righteousness or a work of merit or anything other kind of work. By submitting to baptism one does not merit anything. Baptism is active faith in God's work, not a demand based upon our own work. We are passive in immersion. It is not what we do but what we are having done to us; that to which we are submitting. Peter commanded that we BE immersed.
Titus 3:4-7 says that God saved us, not by works of righteousness that we have done but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. The washing here is the one that regenerates or causes a second birth (regeneration) and that washing is obviously baptism. Stay with me while I explain. According to Paul in this verse then, the washing is not a work of righteousness.
The new birth has two aspects: viz. Being born of the water and the Spirit. (Jno.3:5)
In Titus 3:5, the washing of regeneration (or the bath of the new birth) fulfills the aspect of water.
The "renewing of the Holy Spirit" fulfills the aspect of a spiritual birth. Baptism is when we are reborn and the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us. (Acts. 2:38-39). We are reborn as sons and God sends forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father. In baptism we are, by his Spirit, raised with him to walk in newness of life. (Rom 6) This is all God's doing by his grace. "Newness" or that which is new in the scriptures, denotes something spiritual.
Therefore, these two things happen when we are immersed into Christ. We have our sins washed away by this very "washing of regeneration" and we are "quickened" (made alive by the Holy Spirit) having just had our sins forgiven. (Col. 2:12-13). Make sure you stop right now and look that verse up and read it. God is forgiving us our sins and making us alive in the spirit when we by faith in what he is doing, allow ourselves to be buried by baptism with Christ and raised with him by the power of God.
Who is actually working in baptism? Is it the penitent sinner, or is it God who is remitting his sins by washing them away and raising him up to a new spiritual life? There is something happening in baptism and there is a work or an operation occurring, but it is God who is doing all the work.
What God is doing in baptism, that is the focus of our faith when we are immersed. When you were baptized, if you did not believe that God was washing your sins away and that he was making you alive in the spirit, then you just got wet. In the Baptist Church you are not allowed to believe it.
If one would read Col. 2:12-13 and explain what the operation or the working of God is when we are baptized -- the operation in which Paul says that we are to have faith, then one would see the importance of belief and of baptism as Jesus commanded it. If a member of the Baptist denomination can read that passage honestly with a sincere love of the truth, they will not be a Baptist much longer. No one can tell you the truth unless you are willing to hear it.
Baptism is not a work; not of law; not of merit; not of righteousness. You might be able to get away with calling it a work of faith, but even then it's not something in which you can merit salvation.
Is there some work whereby if a man did it, God would owe him salvation? Absolutely not, (then grace is no more grace). But that's what the Baptists think that we in Christ's church are teaching when we tell them what Jesus said. They think we are teaching that God says to man, "Now I know you're a condemned sinner ‑ but if you do just this one work of righteousness, I'll be obligated to save you."
Of course that is misrepresenting the gospel of Christ. Does God owe us salvation if we are baptized? Can we stand there and demand payment? What little faith the heart has who can even ask that question or imagine that obeying God by being immersed in water for the remission of our sins as he commanded us, is a matter of trusting in our own deeds. That heart has not submitted to God and does not believe.
God doesn't owe any man salvation. Every man is a sinner and salvation has to be a merciful gift. Repentance and baptism are an admission of guilt and that we need to be cleansed. Can an admission of guilt be a work of righteousness? Of course not. So, can baptism be a work of merit? We come filthy to the water of baptism to have our sins washed away. (Acts 22:16) We leave the water with an appeal to God of a good conscience, as Peter says, because we have been saved. (1Pet. 3:21)
If God in his kindness and loving grace, commands us sinners to repent and be baptized to be saved (Mk.16:16; Acts.2:38) and we in faith obey God, that does not mean that we have done a work of righteousness to merit our salvation. We've simply accepted God's grace in faith and obedience to his word.
Is Faith a Work?
But to our Baptist friends, many of our brethren haven't given that answer. Instead they have swallowed their error and said, "OK, so baptism is a work! So what? Faith is also a work, so what's the big deal if baptism is?"
That's the wrong answer. Because baptism is not a work ‑ neither is faith. There are many brethren in the churches who fall into the trap of just saying unthinking words ‑ not knowing what they are saying.
But doesn't Jesus say that faith is a work in John chapter six? Let us look at that passage.
But first, remember the principles Paul set down. A man is justified by faith not by works. So how can faith be a work?
Look at Gal. 5:6 which says that faith works by love. If faith works by love, how can faith be a work?
James said that faith is made complete by works (Jam. 2:22). So how can faith be a work?
In John 6, Jesus had just fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. The men Jesus speaks to in verse 26 had witnessed the feeding but had not understood the point of the miracle. They had their bellies filled and wanted it to continue. They had carnal minds and appetites; hearts waxed gross, eyes closed, ears dull. Jesus speaks to them in an analogy, but the veil of 2Cor. 3 was yet upon their hearts and they couldn't understand what Jesus was saying.
The next day when they came to Jesus for more bread, he told them, "Work not for the food that perishes, but for that food which endures unto everlasting life..." (v.27).
They then asked, "What must we do to work the works of God?"
In other words, we want to do something. You tell us not to labor for physical bread, so what can we do to do the deeds that would be pleasing to God.
Jesus answers, "This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom he has sent." In other words, this is, in the main, what God requires that you do - believe on me.
So, they ask Jesus for a sign so that they might believe, and they point to the example of Moses who gave the Jews bread from heaven to eat. Again, to these men it all comes back to a meal. They want to believe only if God fills their belly like Jesus filled it yesterday. They will only believe if the signs keep coming.
Jesus tells them that the manna that Moses gave them was not the real bread from heaven but that he himself was the real or true bread. He said, "I am the bread of life." (v.35)
So here is the analogy: as Jesus is to bread, so is belief to work. As you must labor and work for your bread, even so must you believe to gain Christ the real bread. In this analogy, if belief was literally work then so is Jesus literally bread. The way to gain bread is to work, the way to gain Christ is to believe.
If we make faith to be a literal work of righteousness then we make a mistake comparable to these carnal Jews who also missed the analogy. The words that Jesus spoke were spirit and life. (v.63)
I think to an alien sinner we need to stress the grace of God and his response of faith, and the obedience of faith, like Paul did. Then after he is saved, we need to stress that he should maintain good works. (Eph. 2:8‑10; Tit. 3:5,8)
To our Baptist friends, we need to show them that baptism isn't a work by which you merit salvation, and that if they are not baptized for the remission of their sins, then they simply haven't believed what God has told them. (Acts 22:16)