The Apostle Paul is clear that “works” cannot save us, and, yet, the New Testament seems to suggest that there are certain works (if that is, indeed, what we should call them) that we must perform if we are to be saved. How should we understand the role of these actions in the salvation process? Are they merely boxes that we have to check off on a soteriological scorecard, or do they have a deeper significance?
We are going to concentrate our attention on three issues: baptism, the Lord’s supper, and benevolent care for fellow believers. In each case, we will see that there are good reasons for investigating their relationship to the question of salvation, but we will also see that these concrete actions are not as alien to a “grace alone” soteriology as one might suspect.
The texts we will consider often make traditional American Protestants nervous, and for good reason. Nevertheless, it is my contention that they do not fundamentally alter the basic orientation of biblical soteriology (at least not as we have described it over the past several weeks). Rather, they deepen and enrich it.
The first issue that we should address is baptism. Matthew’s version of the Great Commission (28:16-20) constructs the mission of the church in terms of baptism. More importantly, Peter lists baptism as one of the two things that his hearers must do in response to his first sermon (Acts 2:37-38), and 1 Peter 3:19-22 seems to make baptism the mechanism by which salvation takes place.
Clearly, baptism plays some role in this process, and it appears to be an important role. The questions is, how important? There are a number of contextual and exegetical details that we could engage, but I think that we would do better to remember what baptism is and what it does.
Baptism is, at its heart, a ritual. Ritual has gotten a bad name in contemporary American culture, especially among low-church Protestants. Nevertheless, rituals exert a powerful influence on our lives, and they can be a productive part of a healthy social system.
Rituals are “performative” (to borrow a term used by J. L. Austin to describe language). This means that rituals do not simply communicate information; they actually make things happen within a social unit. In this case, the ritual of baptism symbolically changes something about the nature of reality for the one being baptized.
More specifically, baptism is an initiation ritual. It symbolically incorporates the individual into the social group (in this case, into the people of God). That is how it was used in Second Temple Judaism, and that is clearly how the early church understood it. Moreover, baptism was understood by both Jews and Christians as a renunciation of a former identity—one that was characterized by sin and (possibly) idolatry. In other words, it was the enactment of an individual’s repentance.
Understood in this way, baptism can easily be incorporated into our soteriological schema without threatening to overturn the Reformation’s emphases on grace and faith. Baptism is not a “work” that must be added to one’s repentance and faith in order for a person to be saved. Rather, baptism is the enactment of that person’s repentance and the proclamation of her or his membership in the family of God.
The Lord’s Supper
A second issue is raised by the so-called bread of life discourse (John 6:25-59). There, Jesus claims that only those who consume his flesh and imbibe his blood will have eternal life (cf. especially vv. 53-56). Is Jesus here saying that only those who regularly participate in the Lord’s supper (also known as the Eucharist or Communion) can obtain salvation?
It isn’t a bad question. The language that Jesus uses cannot help but remind one of that ritual, and Jesus certainly does say that “feeding on” (NIV) him is necessary for salvation. Still, there are a couple of things that I think are worth noting. First, although the writer of the Fourth Gospel (and its original readers/hearers) would have certainly been aware of this foundational Christian ritual, Jesus’ original hearers certainly would not have been aware of it. Of course, the obvious response might well be to deny the historicity of John 6 and to suggest that it is mostly or entirely the creation of the gospel’s author/redactor, but I don’t think that is what is going on here. If Jesus actually said these words to a group of people at a synagogue in Capernaum before his death, then we have to consider how he intended that group of people to understand him.
And that leads us rather naturally to our second observation. The discourse itself gives us the key for interpreting Jesus’ words. Jesus is not here instituting a new ritual called the Eucharist or the Lord’s supper; indeed, he nowhere explicitly institutes such a ritual in John. Rather, he is using the metaphor of eating and drinking to illustrate the level of sustained alignment with and participation in him that is required of those who want to be saved. Food and drink are necessary for biological life. In the same way, Jesus is necessary for spiritual life. The Lord’s supper reminds us of this reality and gives us a mechanism for enacting it in our lives.
A third issue is raised in the course of the apocalyptic teaching of Matthew 24-25. The discourse closes with a picture of the judgement. People are separated into two groups based on how they reacted to the misfortunes of those who follow Christ. The group that responded to these needs with benevolent action (the sheep) receive God’s blessing and eternal life. Those who did not respond with benevolent action receive divine judgement. Once again, we are confronted with the question, is this a work that we must add to our faith in order to be saved?
As we have seen when we looked at baptism and the Lord’s supper, the picture with respect to benevolent action is a little more complex than it might appear. Here, we are not dealing with a symbolic enactment of a transformed reality (i.e, a ritual). We are dealing with a practical enactment of a transformed reality. The specific nature of the reality that is being enacted is two-fold. First, care for the needs of fellow believers enacts our alignment with Jesus. This is the part of the reality that Jesus himself alludes to when he says that doing good to one of his ἀδελφῶν is the metaphorical equivalent of doing it to him. Second, caring for the needs of fellow believers enacts the love of neighbor that, along with love for God, summarizes the message of the Old Testament and constitutes the primary responsibility of those who want to be saved.
Hence, the benevolent actions proscribed in Matthew 25 are not “works” to be added to one’s love, faith, and repentance. Rather, they are the litmus test that will be used to determine whether one’s love, faith, and repentance are genuine. As with baptism and the Lord’s supper, the real point is the spiritual reality that is being enacted, not the enactment itself. Nevertheless, the act of caring for those who are in need demonstrates that we really do love our neighbor. Moreover, it is the visible manifestation of what we confess at our conversion—Jesus is Lord.
There is one other thing that ties these three manifestations of salvation to the soteriological schema that we have been constructing over the past several weeks—obedience. Because baptism, the Lord’s supper, and benevolent action on behalf of others are matters of obedience, we know that God will empower His children by His Spirit to do these things. We also know that God will not penalize us if we are prevented by circumstances from carrying out these tasks. The young man who places his faith in Christ at church camp does not have to worry about whether he will be saved if he dies in an accident on the way home (before he can be baptized). The elderly woman who can no longer take the Lord’s supper for health reasons will not for that reason lose her salvation. That isn’t how this works. Rather, it is the person who has the opportunity to be baptized, to participate in the church’s celebration of Christ’s death, and to do good things for those in need but chooses not to that ought to be afraid.
Why does Scripture put so much of a premium on obedience? We have already said that it is because obedience is a marker of genuine faith, love, and repentance, but their may be another reason. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that salvation does, indeed, come to the individual through faith, but he also argues that faith cannot be sufficiently understood and exercised without obedience. It is the hard work of doing what Christ commands us to do that leads us to recognize how much we need him, and as our understanding of our need for him grows, so does our faith.
A practical example of this can be seen in the practice of my own tradition (Southern Baptist). We have, for a long time, asked people to come down in front of the church if they want to be saved. Does the Bible require this as a prerequisite for salvation? No, it does not. Is there anything magical about walking down a church aisle? No. But it is a practice that helps people understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In that public and, for some people, embarrassing process of walking down a church aisle, they learn just a little bit of what it means to trust Jesus. They learn to put aside their fears and their preferences in order to proclaim their loyalty to Christ and to his people. In other words, taking a step down the aisle is (for those who are sincere) a first, small step on the road of discipleship.