The Works of the Law
As much as the devil delights in anything, he delights in deception. We have it on excellent authority that he is both a liar and the father of them. Indeed, the fruits of his deceitfulness are evident everywhere around us; indeed, even in our own lives. Sin is never good for us, yet he presents it as always good for us. He holds forth good as evil and evil as good. Perhaps most cruelly, he loves to convince unsaved people that they, in fact, have been saved.
In particular, he seeks to persuade people that baptism is unnecessary for salvation, despite abundant Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Here, his preferred strategy is pitting the word against itself. He points to the many passages that say that we are saved by faith, not works, claims that baptism is a work, and demands that we reject the baptism passages in favor of the faith passages.
This argument should make us suspicious, especially when we realize that Paul, one of the great New Testament defenders of the importance of baptism, also insisted that we are saved by faith apart from works. This leaves us with two alternatives. Either Paul is divided against himself, or there is something wrong with the proposition that baptism is a work!
It is, of course, the latter that is true, and nowhere is this more obvious than in his discussion of the spiritual problems in the Antiochene church in Galatians 2. Some men who belonged to “the party of the circumcision” came to Antioch and pressured the Jewish Christians there into shunning their Gentile brethren. The goal of this division was to compel the Gentiles to live like Jews by adopting the regulations of the Law of Moses.
In Galatians 2:16, Paul points out the crucial problem with this behavior. Jewish Christians had become Christians in the first place because they knew they could not justify themselves by observing the works of the Law. Rather than being justified by those Mosaic works, they sought justification through faith in Christ. If those dead works didn’t help the Jews, then why in the world would the Jews want to bind them on the Gentiles?
Every time in Scripture that Paul contrasts faith versus works, this is what he is talking about: justification by faith in Jesus versus justification through works by perfectly keeping the Law of Moses. Every time! He’s not talking about Johann Tetzel and the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church; still less is he talking about baptism. Whenever we stop using “works” in the Pauline sense and define it in a non-Biblical way instead, we’re opening a door for the devil.
In real life, there is no contradiction between baptism and salvation by grace through faith. Baptism doesn’t earn salvation. It’s an expression of faith in Jesus and the Bible’s promise that He will save us when we are baptized. When we do what He has asked, He will keep His pledge every time. When we don’t because we have been deceived into believing that we don’t have to, the devil rejoices.