But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25-27)
If you’re looking for a book of the Bible to blow apart works righteousness and justification by adherence to the Law, Galatians is the book for you. I love Galatians. In the first three chapters, the Apostle Paul destroys any notion that obedience to the Law adds anything to your standing before God and it gives you no assurance of salvation.
Paul talks at length about how being circumcised is not a basis for confidence in justification or sanctification. This God instituted ceremony does nothing to save or sanctify anyone. He doesn’t say circumcision is bad or wrong, and it’s not. But if it’s put in a place it doesn’t belong, it becomes a deadly false assurance. Paul rejects not only the idea that some work or ceremony gets you started in a right relationship with God, but he also lays to waste any activity of your own getting you anything at all.
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Romans 3:3)
With these words, Paul takes both justification and sanctification by works off of the table, calling it “foolishness.”
Sadly, this hasn’t stopped us from setting up our own forms of “circumcision” in the modern church: Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, etc… All good things that most Christians would never say save you, but certainly they are things many Christians would point to, and at the very least imply, as safe places to find assurance.
Are you reading the Scriptures? Are you praying? Are you going to church? If you answered yes, then you can probably rest easy. You must be a Christian. But then the questions start rolling in… How much do you read? How often and how long do you pray? How often do you attend? Just on Sunday morning, or Sunday and Wednesday nights as well?
Like circumcision, none of these good things (as helpful as they may be) are where Paul tells the Galatians (and us) to find assurance. Paul wants his readers to have every ounce of their security rooted in Christ. He beats the drum of “faith alone” relentlessly. When it comes to assurance, no works are safe. No obedience is safe. Nothing but faith in Christ… and Baptism… Wait—what??
You read that right. Paul takes an unexpected right turn into the water. After using the strongest language possible to drive any notion that circumcision or any works of the Law contribute to salvation, or are means of assurance—Paul points to our Baptisms. Read it again:
“…in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
How can he do that? Did he just undermine his entire argument? Did Paul just spill a bunch of ink pulling the Galatians away from their work, only to throw them onto a different work? Well… yes and no. It all depends on whose “work” Baptism is.
You may be surprised to learn this modern idea “Baptism is a good work we do for God” is completely absent from Paul’s theology. And the opinion that “Baptism is our first act of obedience” is not something Paul teaches. He is primarily concerned not only with the Galatians theology, but also with their consciences. As a defender of the Christian conscience, he points them away from what they are doing or not doing, and towards what Christ has already done for them: His virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, glorious resurrection, and the gift of His Baptism.
Being pulled away from your own sin riddled “good” works and obedience, and thrown onto the perfect works and flawless obedience of Another, is a very “good” thing. Being “baptized” into the Doer of those good things is even better. Baptism is yours—but it’s not your work. It’s not something you do, but rather it’s something God does TO YOU. It’s something you receive. Baptism is a gift. There in ordinary water combined with the triune name of God, sin is washed away and promises are applied (Matthew 28:19).
If “baptized” was our work, Paul could not bring it up here. Thankfully it isn’t. Paul wants the Christian conscience to be at peace. And this is why he tells both the Galatians and us, to cast our eyes away from works of the Law and fix them on Christ and His work (which includes Baptism). This is no more our work than the cross is our work, and yet in Baptism, His cross is our cross. His death is our death (Romans 6:3).
Friends, please don’t look to anything you are doing for assurance or peace. There is none to be found there. Look to what has been done FOR YOU. For the Christian to be pointed to the waters of Baptism, is to have his or her conscience pointed to the work of Christ.
And there is no safer place to be…
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Daniel is the Director of Christ Hold Fast, an author, church and conference speaker and co-host of the podcasts 40 Minutes in the Old Testament and 30 Minutes in the New Testament. He has served as a church planter, pastor and worship leader and currently lives in Bentonville Arkansas with his wife Jessica and daughter Anna.