Baptism Is Not a “Good Work”

Q: Isn’t baptism a good work, and since Catholics claim that one normatively needs baptism for salvation that Catholics teach salvation by works?

A: There are several issues here that ought to be touched on. First, baptism is a normative necessity–not an absolute necessity–for salvation. An absolute necessity is one which admits of no exceptions. Baptism is not that kind of necessity, for God can and does save people who do not know that they should be baptized but would be if they knew it and people who have no opportunity for baptism. God does not hold against a person what they are unable to obtain or what they innocently don’t know they need to obtain.

Second, the Catholic Church is very explicit about the fact one does not have to do good works to enter a state of salvation (or, for that matter, to stay in a state of salvation–all one has do to is avoid mortal sin to stay in a state of salvation). The Council of Trent forcefully declared: “[N]othing which precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For ‘if it is by faith, it is no more by works. Otherwise,’ as the Apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace'” (Trent, Decree on Justification 8, citing Romans 11:6).

The objection that baptism is somehow a good work which earns salvation is simply ridiculous. To illustrate how absurd the idea is that simply allowing oneself to get wet “earns” eternal life, I use an illustration based on my own experience:

Back when Renee, my wife, died, I was a starving philosophy grad student in Arkansas. I had no money to pay for the treatment she received (which, I discovered after her death, ran into the tens of thousands of dollars for just a week of chemo treatment). She died because she had a very aggressive case of colon cancer which had started and spread widely before she began to manifest any symptoms.

Now let us suppose that during those dark days, a physician came to us and said, “Renee, there are a lot of malignant tumors, and they will kill you if we don’t do something about them. I have found a treatment which will take them all away. It is a very, very costly treatment, and I know you don’t have the ability to pay, so I will pay the fees for you out of my own pocket. All you have to do is let us lower you into a tank of medicinal fluid and all of those tumors will melt away, and you will live.”

Would we say that Renee had earned her healing merely by allowing herself to be bathed in healing waters? She hadn’t paid the doctor one red cent. In fact, he paid all the fees out of his own pocket! Renee merely submitted to the treatment. The whole idea that she had earned her healing would be absurd.

How much more absurd is it to say that baptism earns salvation when Jesus, the Great Physician, comes to us and says, “Friend, you have multiple sins clinging to your soul, and they will cause you to be lost if we do not do something about them. I have a treatment which will take them all away. It is a very, very costly treatment, and I know that you do not have the ability to pay. So I–Jesus–will pay the entire price myself. All you have to do is allow yourself to be lowered into a tank of water and all those sins will melt away, and you will live forever.”

Simply getting wet does not in any way pay for or earn eternal life. Eternal life is a gift–a gift which Christ has chosen to bestow on us through baptism. Allowing ourselves to be baptized is a passive act; one does not baptize oneself, after all, symbolizing that eternal life is something given to you from outside, not something you reach out and take. It is simply the way we submit to Christ and receive his gift. Baptism earns nothing, and the idea it does is patently absurd. The very structure of baptism is set up to heighten the sense of humility and submission to God and his gift. Only a person with a big, BIG doctrinal ax to grind could possibly twist it into some kind of self-righteous attempt to “earn” salvation by the force of our works.

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