One of the great debates of Christianity is whether baptism is necessary for salvation, or are you saved by faith alone and baptism is not needed? I know I am not going to solve this debate with one post, but I think it will be helpful to look at the question from a different angle: What is the purpose of faith? Why do we have to believe? What does faith do?
I think it is safe for me to say that everyone agrees we have to have faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11.6). But why can we not please God without faith?
Hebrews 11.1-2 Can help us understand what faith is for: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and being certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.” The ancients were commended for their faith, but what was special about their faith? Look at what is written about Abraham, his example is very important: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. he who had received the promises was about to to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ 19 Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb 11.17-19).
The account of Abraham offering his son recorded in Genesis 22: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, Abraham!’
‘Here I am,’ he replied.2 Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about’ ”(Gen.22.1-2). Just as Abraham was about to kill his son God stopped him and said “ ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son’ ”(Gen 22.12).
Keep what we just read in mind and read Romans 4.1-3 “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ “ The event Paul refers to is in Gen. 15.6, God told Abraham that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens. God commanded Abraham to offer his son in chapter 22. If Abraham believed in God, and faith is all he needed why did God say “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen.22.12). If something more than faith is needed, what is faith for?
Go back to Hebrews 11. Notice that in each case their faith enabled them to do something: Abel offered a better sacrifice, Noah built an ark, Abraham offered his son. Faith gave them the ability to be obedient. If Abel hadn't believed he would have offered a sacrifice like Cain did, Noah would not have built the ark, and Abraham would not have offered his son. They did what they did because they believed. The reason God told Abraham “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen.22.12) is because Abraham’s faith was expressed in action, not just a feeling.
Read the conversion of Saul in Acts 22.4-11. We are not told that Saul believed, but I have no doubt that he did, when Jesus told him to go to Damascus he went. Why wasn't Saul forgive of his sins until he was baptized? The belief needed to be tied to action. “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him?” (James 2.14).
Paul explained how he was forgiven of his sins in Acts 22.12-16: “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. 14 Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Why did Saul need to be baptized? “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 4.17).
Everything we have covered up to now is familiar to anyone who has studied the question of faith and baptism. Now I want to look a passage that is not often considered. In John 1.10-13 “ He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Read verse 12 again. To those who receive Jesus, who believe in the name of Jesus; those people are given the right, or authority to become the children of God. The word for “right” is the same word as in Mat. 28.18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Think of what happened to Saul is view of verse 12. He believed in Jesus, so he was given the right to be baptized. Could he have refused it? Yes, that’s the thing about rights; you can refuse to exercise a right. You have the right to get a drivers license but some people never get one. What does faith do? It gives us the right or the authority to choose to become the children of God. I am aware that this is a very different way of looking at salvation, but this is what John 1.12 teaches.
Look at the word “become” in verse 12. Is it active or passive? It is neither, it is middle. We don’t have the middle in English but in Greek they do. It is an action that we do to ourselves, or an action that we do with someone else. Examples are washing ourselves or a conversation with someone, or worshiping God. In verse 12 the word “become” is in the middle. This shows that we are are actively working with God to become his child.
Many people view salvation as a passive process. John 1.12 teaches us that we have a role in becoming a child of God. We choose to receive Jesus, we choose to believe in Jesus, and because of these choices we are granted the right to choose to become children of God. Being a Christian is more than believing, it is being a believer. Without faith it is impossible to please God, because faith gives us the ability to be obedient to him. Is salvation something we earn? No, we are saved by grace, this is the gift from God to everyone who believes in his son and obeys him.
I welcome your questions and comments.