Someone writes: “I believe that salvation is totally God’s gift of grace, and that we do not merit or earn any of it. However, I think we may truly say that baptism is the condition on which a person receives salvation as a free gift.”
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If Christ accomplished salvation rather than merely made it a possibility, does that mean that every human being without exception will finally be saved. No, for Scripture and experience alike reveal that some individuals reject God’s gift of salvation, although it is freely and genuinely offered to all. It is possible to love darkness rather than light — and to choose condemnation (John 3:17-19). Some who hear God’s word repudiate it, and thereby judge themselves (Acts 13:46). Sadly, one may disbelieve the gospel and be condemned (Mark 16:16). God does not make anyone say “No” to salvation, and he is not responsible for any person who does. Every “Yes,” on the other hand, is itself evidence of God’s grace — and he is due all the credit for making it possible (2 Cor. 4:6).
We receive God’s salvation, as Luther put it, with “the empty hands of faith.” Yet our faith does not make salvation any more real than it was before. Our faith is no part of the work which accomplished salvation. Faith enjoys the salvation which Jesus had perfected — and nothing other than faith — because faith means acknowledging the reality which as yet remains invisible, the reality that in Jesus the Father has atoned for sin and has conquered death. Faith does not create that reality, or contribute anything to it. We do not exchange God our faith for his gift of salvation. Strictly speaking, faith is not a “condition” of salvation although it is the means for experiencing its joys. No one enjoys God’s gift of salvation now apart from faith, for the faithless person denies its reality and refuses to enjoy the benefits it includes.
Jesus also commanded that those who believe the gospel should express their faith in baptism (Matt. 28:18-19; Mark 16:15-16). In baptism, we remember, reenact and express faith in the saving deeds of Jesus Christ on our behalf (Acts 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:4-6; 1 Pet. 3:21-22). However, our believing the good news does not make it a reality, and neither does our responding to it in baptism. God accomplished the saving work through Jesus Christ long before the news about it ever reached our ears. What God did in Jesus Christ, and that alone, must be the only subject of our boasting and the only ground of our hope (1 Cor. 1:30-31).