Updated: Jan 1, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters will point to Ephesians 2:8-9 to say that baptism does not save. The text says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest any man should boast." They will say that the Ephesian community was brought into the family of God by faith, meaning a mental belief, and not actions. Baptism is an action, so baptism cannot save. Otherwise, we would boast.
The first error is thinking that "faith" only refers to a mental assent to truths, and not to faithful living to those truths as well. For the Greek word that Paul uses for "faith" is "pistis," which can be translated either as "faith" or as "faithfulness," according to Internationally-known Biblical scholar N.T. Wright and Strong's Concordance.
Catholics agree with St. Paul that we are brought into the Faith by mentally believing it, but that is only the first step. For that faith then lives itself out. Faith does not stay interior, but makes itself exterior. This is why the Catholic Church calls baptism the "Sacrament of Faith" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1253).
Somebody once said to Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, that baptism was a work and could not save us. Luther recognized the folly in such a statement, and declared that baptism was not a work of man, but a work of God. I agree. Baptism is a passive action, where God acts through the priest in pouring water over the individual. The person does not baptize himself. Rather, it is God who, to use an analogy, writes with the pen (the priest).
Finally, we have to remember that the Ephesians were saved without any works BEFORE they received the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18). The Spirit came upon them when they believed Paul's Gospel message to them. They did not do any works to "get" that Gospel, and they did not do any works to "make" Jesus die on the cross for them. Thus, there was not room for boasting.
No matter how many times they fed the homeless or gave alms to those in need, salvation was completely unmerited. All they did was believe and get baptized (Eph. 4:5, 5:25-7). That was how they received the Holy Spirit and became Christians. And that was a gift that was completely unmerited.
So, Eph. 2 does not disprove the Church's teaching on baptism.