Since many of those who hear the good news of salvation by grace through faith are not familiar with Biblical terminology, they fail to understand what is being said. In fact, they are not even sure what “grace” or faith is. Therefore, let me begin by pointing out that the Bible explains what “grace” is by telling us in one place that we are saved by “grace,” and in another that we are saved by God’s “mercy” (Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5). In other words, the grace by which we are saved consists of mercy! Other passages reveal God’s grace to be an expression of His kindness, love, pity, compassion, and forgiveness. In short, God’s grace is an expression of His undeserved favor. [Ephesians 2:7, Ephesians 1:7, Isaiah 63:9, Matthew 18:33, John 3:16, Psalm 13:5, Luke 1:77.]
If you are wondering why you need God’s grace, the Bible also answers that question by telling us that we have all transgressed God’s law, and, therefore, deserve his wrath and punishment (Romans 3:10-23). There are no exceptions (1John 1:8). If you have trouble seeing your sins, that is only because the heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). You may look at all of the rules you keep, and all of the temptations you resist, but God sees the many times you desired to break those rules, and the yearning of your flesh for that which is evil. In fact, that is why there is nothing that we can ever do to earn God’s grace (Romans 11:6). Our puny efforts at righteousness fall so far short of what God requires that those efforts are as repulsive as filthy rags in the sight of God [like used toilet paper] (Isaiah 64:6).
The Good News is that even though we were all condemned by the law to spend eternity in hell, Christ took our punishment upon Himself and died in our place, so that we might have forgiveness (1Peter 3:18, Colossians 2:13-15). In other words, He made the sacrifice necessary to secure our pardon, and all who trust in that sacrifice have access to God’s mercy and forgiveness [i.e. grace] (Romans 5:2 and 6:23). Furthermore, because we have access to God’s grace through personal faith in Christ, our own efforts at keeping the law play no part in our salvation. That is why the Bible says, “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In understanding faith, the important thing to keep in mind is that Christ is the object of our faith. Our faith consists of relying on the fact that He took our sins upon Himself and died in our place to get us into heaven. However, because we would not even know that we have forgiveness in Christ if the Bible did not say so, our faith also consists of believing the promises of forgiveness in Christ that God has given us in His Word (Galatians 3:6-22). In fact, those promises are the means by which God brings us to faith, and, thus, the means by which He gives us His grace (Romans 10:22).
I might also add, that because those promises were given to point us to Christ, they are only effective if they are understood in such a way that believing them is believing in Christ. For example: In the third chapter of Galatians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that Abraham believed God’s promise “and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). He then specifically points out that that promise was referring Christ (Galatians 3:16). In other words, if Abraham had not known that that promise was referring to Christ, his faith in that promise would not have been counted as righteousness, for it is faith in Christ, not faith in and of itself, which saves (Romans 3:28, John 3:16).
Likewise, because the words, “Whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” promise us forgiveness in Christ, all who believe those words are trusting in Christ (John 3:16). At the same time, they are only trusting in Christ if they believe that those words are referring to Christ. The same holds true for all other promises of forgiveness in Christ, such as, “We have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
[Note: As we compare what the Bible says in one place with what it says elsewhere, we learn that our faith in Christ is our trust (2Corinthians 3:4), confidence (Psalm 118:8-9), and reliance upon Him (compare 2Chronicles 16:8 with 2Samuel 22:31 and Psalm 18:30).]
As I pointed out earlier, we would not even know that we have forgiveness in Christ if the Bible did not say so. Therefore, just as the grace of God does not come to us without faith, faith does not come to us apart from God’s promises. In fact, those promises are the “power of God unto salvation,” because God uses them to assure us of forgiveness in Christ, thus bringing us to faith (Romans 1:16). On the other hand, without those promises our heart is so dark that “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord” (1Corinthians 12:3, Romans 10:17).
That is why the preaching of God’s Word is so important. God uses preaching, just as He uses baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to give us His promise of forgiveness in Christ. Furthermore, even though the Bible makes several references to forgiveness in connection with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, whenever those statements are interpreted to contradict what the Bible says about faith in Christ, the truth of the gospel is obscured. Therefore, it is important to understand that it is the promise of forgiveness in Christ connected with the rite, not the rite itself, that brings forgiveness. Moreover, because any offer of forgiveness connected with baptism or the Lord’s Supper is a promise of forgiveness in Christ, it is only through personal faith in Christ that we receive what is promised (Romans 5:2, Galatians 3:22). Therefore, “Properly speaking, there is but one means of grace, namely, the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16 ff.). (Lutheran Cyclopedia, Page 424)
Those who fail to understand the relationship of God’s promises to faith in Christ, either assume that the ceremony is too mechanical to convey forgiveness, or assume that the ceremony (of baptism or the Lord’s Supper) conveys forgiveness automatically. In both cases, what they fail to understand is that while the ceremony gives us the promise of forgiveness in Christ, only those who actually believe that they have forgiveness in Christ receive what is promised. Or, as Martin Luther put it, “By allowing the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received baptism in a way that benefits you at all… the heart must believe it” (Large Catechism, IV, 36)
Luther also said, “The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says: ‘He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.’ This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever man has added to it. For on it all our salvation depends… The second part of baptism is the sign… signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify” (From "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church".)
Because the promises connected with baptism or the Lord’s Supper are promises of forgiveness in Christ, believing them is no different than believing any of the promises of forgiveness in Christ that are given to us through the preaching of God’s Word. Attaching the promise to a ceremony does not change the promise! “Just as Scripture does not teach (as the simplest Christian knows) that the mere outward act of hearing the Word saves any one, just as little does it teach that the Sacraments save thus. The mere symbol, placed before men’s eyes, does not produce the salutary effect, but indicates what the Word proclaims. (C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, page 357).
Therefore, when Christ said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” He was not telling Nicodemus that baptism would save him simply by performing the act [ex opere operato] (John 3:5). Instead, He was telling him that he needed to be born again through repentance and faith. The word “water” is a reference to repentance (the baptism of repentance), and the word “Spirit” is a reference to faith (which is a gift of the Holy Spirit). [Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38, Ephesians 2:8-9, 1Corinthians 12:3.]
Likewise, when Peter said “baptism doth also now save us,” he was not saying that baptism saves simply by performing the act (1Peter 3:21). On the contrary, because the Bible defines Baptism as a “baptism of repentance,” Peter’s definition of baptism was broad enough to include both repentance and faith in Christ (Acts 2:38). Therefore, Peter was not referring to “the performance of the ritual itself,” but to conversion, of which baptism is only the outward evidence.
The same holds true for the words, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). Because the Bible defines Baptism as a “baptism of repentance,” if the word “washing” is a reference to baptism, it is also a reference to repentance. Likewise, because faith is a gift of the Holy Ghost (and because we are renewed through faith in Christ) the reference to the “renewing of the Holy Ghost” is a reference to faith in Christ. Therefore, just as with John 3:5, when this passage is interpreted in the light of what the Bible says elsewhere, we can see that it is saying that we are saved through repentance and faith in Christ.
That being the case, the relationship of baptism to repentance and faith in Christ is just this. When someone comes to baptism believing that there is forgiveness in Christ, he departs believing that when he came to Christ his sins were forgiven, and that God now accepts him for Christ’s sake. That is the role that God intended for Baptism to play, and that is why Dr. Walter A. Maier said:
While our faith is in itself a gift of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit does not impart that faith to us directly, but instead works through His Word, both to bring us to faith and to keep us in faith. Therefore, you might say that the promises of the gospel are our spiritual food, for each time we are reminded of our sins and take comfort anew in God’s promise of mercy in Christ Jesus, our faith is strengthened and refreshed.