In one of the most thrilling statements about salvation, Paul penned these words in his letter to the church at Ephesus.
For by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory (Eph. 2:8-9).
The passage is one of great beauty and power. How tragic that this text has been so abused by sincere people who are fixated upon a sectarian agenda, rather than interpreting the passage in the larger framework of biblical truth.
Carl Laney, professor of biblical literature at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, raised this question: “Did Peter teach that baptism was necessary for salvation?” (Acts 2:38). His response:
“The Bible teaches clearly that salvation and the forgiveness of sins is always through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8-9), not the result of baptism” (1997, 243).
Supposedly, therefore, the Ephesian text excludes baptism from the plan of salvation, even though this conclusion contradicts numerous New Testament passages.
Let’s carefully examine the Ephesian text.
Understanding the Words
There are important terms that need careful defining:
Grace is divine favor, bestowed in the redemptive gift of Christ, independent of any inherent righteous worth resident in rebellious humanity.
Grace has been defined as the “gratuitous lovingkindness of the Lord” (Moule 1977, 72).
Saved refers to divine pardon from the guilt of sin. Though we must still suffer certain consequences of sin (i.e. death, cf. Rom. 5:12), salvation frees one from sin’s wages (Rom. 6:23).
The verb “saved” is a perfect tense, suggesting the idea of a past act that results in a present state. Salvation from past sins occurs at the point of one’s conversion, and that state abides as long as the child of God walks “in the light” (1 Jn. 1:7). (See (new-window) The Tenses of Salvation.)
Through faith is a phrase that reveals how merciful grace is accessed by the sinner who needs and longs for salvation.
Faith is not a mere acknowledgment of historical facts, nor even the disposition to trust, though it embraces both of these. Faith also involves a response to whatever conditions may be divinely imposed (Thayer 1958, 511).
A careful study of the terms “faith,” “believe,” etc., establish this beyond dispute (cf. Jn. 3:36, ASV, ESV; Heb. 5:9). (For a more detailed study, see: Jackson 2005, 415ff.)
Salvation is “not of
ek yourselves." The preposition
ek (out of) emphasizes that salvation cannot possibly come “out of” any humanly contrived plan or course of action (cf. Titus 3:5; see Thayer on the verb
poieo, 526). Rather, salvation is described as a “gift” from God (Rom. 6:23).
However, a gift may be conditional without nullifying the gratuitousness of the benefactor. The ancient Israelites were “given” the city of Jericho (Josh. 6:2, 16) but they did not have possession of the community until they complied with the divinely required terms (vv. 3ff; Heb. 11:30; cf. also Acts 27:24, 31).
God “gave” his Son as a sacrifice for the whole “world” (John 3:16), but only those who “receive him” (Jn. 1:11-12) may partake of the benefits of his death.
The “Grace-only” Fallacy
It is one of the tragedies of “Christendom” that so many have isolated the Ephesian passage from the larger body of redemptive information. They emphatically declare that this text excludes water baptism as one of the constituents of the plan of salvation.
Does that logic also eliminate the requirement to repent of sins? (Acts 17:30).
The following arguments demonstrate conclusively that the inspired apostle did not intend to nullify the requirement of baptism by his affirmation in Ephesians 2:8-9:
Paul practiced consistency. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the same manner in which Paul was saved and that by which others were pardoned is that which he is discussing in this context? The Bible speaks of our common salvation (Jude 3; cf. Titus 1:4).
Here’s how Paul was saved. Ananias of Damascus instructed Saul to “be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
When the apostle taught others the gospel, did he omit the requirement to which he himself had been obligated?
Noted Baptist scholar H. B. Hackett, of the Newton Theological Institution, wrote that the phrase “wash away your sins” states “a result of the baptism” and it corresponds to “for the remission of sins” in Acts 2:38. In other words, one submits to baptism “in order to be forgiven” (1879, 276).
Does the same gospel both require and yet not require baptism?
The inspired apostle taught consistently. He did not teach conflicting conditions relative to the plan of redemption.
At Ephesus Paul immersed twelve men “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). This phrase, together with a similar one in Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), signifies that “those who are baptized become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear” (Danker et al. 2000, 713; cf. Thayer, 94).
Of course, Mark’s parallel text stresses “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16). In both his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul affirmed that the sinner is “baptized into Christ.” He further states that one is “raised to walk in newness of life” (see Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27). From what is the convert raised?
Later the apostle insists that the “in Christ” sphere is where salvation is to be found (2 Tim. 2:10).
On the basis of this parallel information, one could never conclude logically that Ephesians 2:8-9 excludes baptism.
Later in the epistle to the Ephesians Paul amplifies his meaning regarding the means of salvation, specifically including a reference to baptism. He declares that just as a husband is to love his wife, even so:
“Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:25-26).
The term “cleansed” is the equivalent of “saved” in Ephesians 2:8. To complete the parallelism, it is obvious that the grace-based faith that leads to salvation (Eph. 2:8) includes the “washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26).
The former text places the emphasis on divine favor coupled with faith-powered obedience. The latter passage specifies that the message of the word, combined with the washing of water, is the specific means by which the process is finalized.
It is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack in attempting to find a responsible scholar who does not identify the washing of water in Ephesians 5:26 with water baptism! Many attempt to explain away the connection between “cleansing” and the “washing of water,” but such efforts are the epitome of futility.
Made Alive—Raised up
One also should observe that Paul uses the “by grace have you been saved by faith” phrase in Ephesians 2:5. There he additionally explains that salvation occurs when one is made alive together with Christ as he is raised up with him (Eph. 2:5b-6a).
The raised-up action quite obviously occurs when one is resurrected from the burial in water in the act of baptism (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12). The grace-faith salvation process unquestionably includes baptism.
The Washing of Being Born Again
Elsewhere the apostle, in language quite similar to the Ephesian epistle, contends that one is not saved by works of his own righteousness. Rather, salvation is received by means of the “washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
This washing of regeneration (i.e. being born again) in Titus, parallels the washing of water in Ephesians 5:26.
Again, scholarly testimony identifies the washing of regeneration with baptism. This conclusion can hardly be disputed (cf. John 3:5; see also
loutron in Thayer, 382; Danker et al., 603; Kittel et al. 1985, 539; Spicq 1994, 412-413).
The apostle then summarizes this process of regeneration with those familiar words that indicate the convert has been “justified by his grace.” Justification by grace includes immersion! To exclude it, as so many do, is an assault against truth.
The Bible, as God’s word, must harmonize with itself. To force theological theories onto clear passages, thus making an inspired writer contradict himself or other sacred writers, is reprehensible.
Conscientious students of the Book are repelled by such tactics.