Is water baptism a work?
I have always been amazed at the dread shown by people toward the word "work." You would think that it was a dreaded disease or something equivalent to sin.
The word "work" by itself is neither good nor bad. It simply refers to something that takes effort.
Faith is a work. "Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent"" (John 6:27-28). Faith is not necessarily automatic or naturally ingrained. Faith is something that we are commanded to have. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). This is why James tells us, "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:17-18). And Paul speaks of the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). Faith and works are not two disjoint topics, but two subjects that are closely intermeshed.
God's intention is that man accomplish the work God has set out for him. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). In fact, it was Solomon who noted that it was for this reason man was placed on the earth. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Like faith, baptism is also called a work of God. "In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Colossians 2:11-12).
When Paul told us, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) he was not referring to works of man's choosing, but those works laid out for man by God Almighty. There are those who claim to reject all works, claiming that they will be saved by faith alone. Yet, how much faith do they have in God when they will not obey His commands? Perhaps you believe that if a man truly believes, of course he will do the will of God. So, I must ask, if a person claims faith, but does not do the will of God, will he be saved? James tells us, "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24).
And if God says something saves but man claims it is unnecessary, does that man truly believe God? God said through Peter, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Was Peter right that man must repent and be baptize to be forgiven or was he wrong? Or when Peter said, "baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21), was he right or wrong? Those who claim that salvation comes without works appear to lack the very faith that is necessary to save them from their sins.
Martin Luther coined the phrase, "salvation by faith only," yet even he understood the role of baptism. In his Small Catechism in answer to the question "What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow?", Luther responded, "It effects the forgiveness of sins." Concerning the sinner, Luther wrote, "Through Baptism he is bathed in the blood of Christ and is cleansed from sins." He also wrote, "To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save." In response to those who would call this a salvation by works, Martin Luther wrote, "Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God's."
Now Martin Luther is just a man, but if the man who touted "faith only" understood that baptism was not a work that earns salvation, then it causes me to wonder why so many others do not understand.