I know you’ve talked about baptism in your videos and blog and also justification by faith alone. However, I am confused on the Anglican position of baptism being required for salvation. I can understand on one side that Baptism is the way we receive grace, but on the other side it seems that Baptism is still a “work” or activity that a person is doing in order to be saved. A common response that I hear about baptism not saving a person is the thief on the cross next to Jesus. This leads me to other questions about infant baptism, but I’ll keep it to one question for now.
Thank you for your time. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog and watching the videos. It is helping a lot; I am considering attending an Anglican church after growing up fundamental Baptist.
This is a question that comes up a lot in conversations about infant Baptism, and the answer in this case is inherent in the question itself. It seems like Baptism is a work. It seems like Baptism is something that we do to impress or appease God, to try to earn our salvation. But in fact, everything about Baptism, including the very act of presenting a child to be baptized, is the work of God.
Baptism and Election
The classical Anglican view of Baptism is that it regenerates us, giving us the grace of the cross through which we come to faith and ultimately to salvation. I can understand how it might seem from the outside like the classical Anglican view is simply a form of works righteousness. After all, if Baptism does all of this for us, than clearly we must be performing our own salvation by seeking Baptism for ourselves or for our children. What is missing from this equation, however, is an understanding of the doctrine of election, the teaching that God chose those who would be saved “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). The act of baptizing either adults or infants is not a way for us to usurp God’s action in the world. On the contrary, it is the fulfillment of His promise.
Baptism and Preaching as Physical Means of Grace
The active party in Baptism is not the person being baptized, nor (in the case of infant Baptism) the parent bringing forward his or her child, nor even the priest who is administering the sacrament. All of these people are intimately involved in what is going on, of course, but the one who is actually acting is God Himself. Or, to be more specific, the one who is acting is the Holy Spirit who is binding the baptized to God through the instrument of God’s Word. This is no different than what happens when the priest preaches. The priest speaks the Word of God from the pulpit, the people hear it, and the Holy Spirit uses this Word to inspire faith in them, through which they are justified by the work of Christ on the cross. In both cases, God is using something physical to bring about spiritual renewal. In Baptism, that physical thing is the water. In preaching, it is the actual voice of the preacher and the vibrating of your inner ear as you hear that Word. Either way, the action is entirely God’s. In God’s absence, preaching is just noise and Baptism is just a bath.
The Good Thief
These physical means are given by God for our spiritual sustenance. According to Scripture, they are the only means through which we can know that God is acting to give us His grace and make us whole, and thus without them we have no assurance of salvation. Baptists sometimes protest that the example of the Good Thief disproves this assertion, but in fact it does the opposite. Let us recall the story of the Good Thief, which takes place as Our Lord is hanging on the cross dying:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
What we have in this moment is a man coming into direct contact with the Word of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus Himself. This man, in the presence of the crucifixion, is drawn by the Spirit to recognize the Word. God speaks a Word to this man, and the speaking of that Word, which he hears physically in his ears, makes manifest the promise of the cross in this man’s life. He receives the gift of eternity directly from his Lord. And that is exactly what happens to us in Baptism.
The only way that this passage becomes proof that we do not need Baptism is if we believe this is a story about the thief’s actions, rather than about God’s actions. The thief on the cross realized that this was his chance to get himself a get-out-of-hell free card and he took it. If that is the case, than faith itself is simply a work done by the believer in order to save himself. There is no such thing as justification by faith alone, because faith is just another form of human work. However, if this is a passage about God and His direct action to save us through His Word, than this moment is itself baptismal. It is a foretaste of what would be given to all Christians through Baptism. God Himself speaks the Word that saves the thief and God Himself speaks the Word that saves us. In Baptism, God says to us, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And to reject that reality would make us just as foolish as if we were saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Baptism and Faith are Either Free Gifts or New Laws
If Baptism does not actually do anything but symbolize a commitment that you have already made to God in your heart, than Baptism also has to be a work. In fact, it’s worse than that. Baptism actually has to become a new kind of law, because it is something that God asks us to do for no other reason than to make Him happy. It is a pointless gesture that we are nevertheless compelled to act out. But if it is truly God choosing us and making us one with Him through His cross, then it becomes the source of not only the greatest grace but also the greatest hope, because we can look at our Baptism and know for sure that God has chosen us to receive salvation. Baptism is a promise that immediately delivers the thing that it promises. It is a sign that gives us what it signifies. It is Christ Himself covering us with His most precious blood.