It is virtually undisputed truth that man is saved by divine grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). However, some have concluded from this fact that there is nothing that man can or must do for his salvation. It is frequently argued that "water baptism can't possibly be necessary for salvation because it is a work of man. Man is not saved by works." Such an objection however, betrays a misunderstanding of the meaning of justification by works. In recent articles, we have defined the doctrine of justification by works from the Scriptures. We have also noted that saving faith is completed by obedience (James 2:22).
The difficulty for those who reject water baptism as essential for salvation is the multitude of passages describing its purpose and consequences. These passages clearly indicate the necessity of water baptism for salvation.
For example, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles taught that water baptism is "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). There are some who would try to argue that the preposition "for" in this expression means "because of," a view which fits neither the normal meaning of the preposition nor harmonizes with other passages on the purpose of water baptism. The same expression "for the remission of sins" is found in Matthew 26:28; "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." I have yet to meet anyone who argues that Jesus shed His blood "because of" the remission of sins, i.e., because sins were already remitted.
"Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). It is amazing the apostles didn't tell these believing Jews they were already saved! Those who embrace the "saved by faith only" doctrine would have told them that. The apostles didn't pray the "sinner's prayer" with them, accepting Jesus into their lives as their personal Savior. Why can't those who claim to believe the Bible simply tell the believer today exactly what the apostles told believers on that Pentecost: "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins"?
Baptism is obviously symbolic. Is it then just a "reenactment" of the believer's salvation? Although some favor this view of water baptism, such is not what the apostle Paul wrote about baptism. We are baptized "into His (Christ's) death" (Romans 6:3), "buried with Him through baptism into death" (Romans 6:4). Paul did not suggest that baptism is symbolic of the believer's salvation; he compared the believer's baptism to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism the sinner is "buried" with Christ, but the comparison doesn't stop there. Paul wrote, "... just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (vs. 4). Jesus was raised from the dead and came out of the tomb; so also the buried sinner is raised spiritually as he comes out of the water of baptism. "Newness" has reference to quality rather than time. The person who once was dead in sin has now been made alive by the working of God (Colossians 2:12).
Paul observed that the Galatians had baptized "into" Christ (Galatians 3:27). Can anyone be saved "apart from" Christ? In the same text, he noted those who were baptized into Christ, had put on Christ. Can we be saved without "putting on" Christ?
Saving faith is completed by obedience. Water baptism doesn't "earn" salvation any more than any other individual act of obedience causes the doer to merit salvation. In fact, the person baptized for the remission of sins is seeking the favor of God in the form of forgiveness -- hardly the action of one seeking to be justified by his own works! Water baptism, however, does serve to complete the faith of the believer (James 2:14-16).