by Paul Masters
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. – Matthew 28:18-20
Immersion being a key aspect of the Christian salvation message, one is compelled to ask (or is faced by people asking) whether immersion is a work. It’s a valid question – because if it is a work, we have a serious problem trying to reconcile the statement that salvation is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8-9) and the call to be immersed for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38).
Firstly, if immersion is a work (ie, an act of obedience to a command of God), then we need to establish that it is indeed a command, and to whom the command was given.
The passage quoted above (Matthew 28:18-20) contains the answers to both questions.
Here we find Christ,
directly before his ascension, commanding the disciples to go out
teaching and baptizing (immersing). “Go ye therefore, and teach all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost” is a clear order, a command to those who
stood listening to him.
We can hereby ascertain that yes, it is a command, and that the command is given to the disciples of Christ.
These are orders given to the servants of the Messiah, men who were ready and able to carry out their master’s will. This is important, because the King does not issue orders to those who are not serving him. It is pointless to give orders to people who are not in one’s service. One can call, force, or compel people outside one’s service, but orders of obedience are issued to to those from whom one expects a positive response.
Later, on the Day of Pentecost, crowds of Israelites stood listening to Peter explain to them their culpability in slaying the Lord’s Anointed, Jesus the Messiah. Terrified to learn that the blood of the Son of God was on their hands, the people asked, “What shall we do?” To which Peter responded as follows:
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. – Acts 2:38-39
Here one might call this a command to be immersed, but a careful reading reveals otherwise.
First, the people ask what to do – what to do to escape the inevitable and doubtless terrible judgment they deserve for their guilt. Peter replies, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Immediately following, Peter adds, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off.”
Notice Peter’s statement and pay close attention to what he is saying.
To illustrate: If my child has done something wrong, and asks what he can do to escape punishment, I might tell him, “Go rake the yard, and I will spare you your due punishment.” In this case, I am not issuing a command, but rather making a promise – if he meets my conditions, I will keep my promise.
God’s promise in Acts 2:38-39 is, “If you repent, and submit to immersion in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is not a command to those who are still dead in their trespasses and sins. It is instead a promise.
But, one might argue, that makes salvation merited!
Not at all. We merit, or earn, nothing from God. That’s the point of Ephesians 2:8. God lays forth conditions, but when we enter into the promise by those conditions that still doesn’t mean we’ve earned or merited anything. My child hasn’t earned a respite from punishment by raking the yard, but he has met my conditions for mercy. Likewise, repentance and immersion in water do nothing by themselves to obligate God to grant the convert salvation, but it meets the conditions God lays forth for his mercy.
Christ spoke of this promise of mercy previously in Mark 16:16 –
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Faith in the promise, repentance from our sin, and immersion in water are conditions, not works of merit. In fact, these things by themselves are gifts from God, in that he allows our ears to hear, our eyes to see, and our hearts to turn. He grants us the doorway of immersion into Christ (Romans 6:3).
If we buck at the conditions and insist that God should grant us salvation for simply believing, then we spurn the promise. If we reject immersion as having anything to do with our salvation, we spurn the promise. Who are we to balk at the conditions, when we should be infinitely grateful that we are offered mercy at all? Salvation is indeed a free gift – because we certainly can in no way earn it as a laborer earns his wages. It is offered as a promise. When we meet his conditions, we are graciously allowed to take part in that promise.
Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are lists of blessings for Israel when she obeys and curses when she strays. Does Israel earn the blessings when she is faithful? Hardly. As wretched sinners deserving of nothing more than death, it is impossible to earn anything from God. Even when obedient we are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). No, God bestows blessings according to his promise, through his grace and kindness, not because he owes us a debt. That the conditions exist at all is indicative of his mercy.
This is why, through the finished work of Jesus Christ, baptism (immersion) does indeed save (I Peter 3:21). This is why, although he believed and had repented, Saul (soon Paul) after three days of fasting and praying in blindness was still directed to “rise and be immersed, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). It is by grace that we are saved through faith, that a promise has been made and conditions laid forth – and that not of ourselves. The promise spelled out by Peter (repent, and be immersed in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost) is a gift of God – not of works (obedience to the Law, or any invention of man), lest anyone should boast.
This is but one way to reconcile immersion for salvation with salvation by grace and faith. The two work together in beautiful harmony.