It’s two nights after Passover, and the Israelites flight from Egypt has run into a serious snag. At the Lord’s instruction, they encamped by Pi-hahiroth, trapped between wilderness and the Red Sea. And it was here, at this strategically vulnerable position, that the Egyptian army caught up to them.
They were trapped. Upon seeing the approaching Egyptians, the Israelites (in what would become something of a continuous theme) panicked, blamed Moses, and claimed that they never really wanted to do the whole “exodus” thing in the first place (Exodus 14:11-12):
Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Moses famously responds (Ex. 14:13-14):
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.
It’s the sort of response that inspires t-shirts. And particularly for a certain type of faith alone Christians, this is something of a rallying cry. For example, Jefferson Bethke (the “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy) offers this commentary:
But God’s answer through Moses to the Israelites that day is my favorite part. After they lament that they were even saved, he responds by saying: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
Does that last verse strike anyone as peculiar? God says He will fight for us, and the only thing we are required to do is be silent. He doesn’t say work harder. He doesn’t say pray harder. He doesn’t say try harder. He says be silent. Just sit in silence. Rest. Quietness. Trust.
The only problem with all of this is that it’s totally wrong. God isn’t speaking through Moses here. Moses is wrong, and God immediately corrects him (Exodus 14:15-16):
Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea.
In other words, Moses’ plan to not do anything, but to just stay still, is a bad plan. God’s plan isn’t for them to remain still in silence, but to go forward. He wants Moses and the Israelites to act in faith. To be sure, God could have saved the Israelites some other way, but He chose to make them active participants in their own salvation.
If Moses and the Israelites had instead decided to remain still and do nothing, you know what would have happened? The Egyptians would have massacred them.
Does all of this have anything to do with Baptism? You bet it does. “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2. Paul views this parting of the Red Sea, in which the minister (Moses) and the people are called to play a role in their own salvation, as a prefigurement of Baptism.
But let’s talk about another Old Testament watery death: Noah’s Ark. God warns Noah of the coming Deluge, and calls upon him to build an Ark to save his family and the various animals (Genesis 6:13-21), and “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). As a result, Noah and all those onboard the Ark are saved. If Noah had instead just listened to God, believed Him about the flood, and sat there in silence, he and the rest of the gang would be caput.
Does this prefigure Baptism? You bet it does. 1 Peter 3:18-23,
For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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 preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved 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 clear 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 subject to him.
So both Peter and Paul look at these accounts of (as Peter describes it) salvation through water, and say: this is about Baptism.
For many of the same Protestants who think Moses’ counsel in Exodus 14:14 is good advice, that’s a problem. According to their line of reasoning, any actions we have to do are something added to faith (as if from outside), and faith alone is what saves us. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Baptism can be nothing more than a symbol. The problem with this view is twofold. First, the Bible is clear that Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21) by washing away our sins (Acts 22:16). Second, the Bible is also clear that faithful acts are an important part of faith. Listen to how the Book of Hebrews describes Noah and the Parting of the Red Sea (Heb. 11:7, 29):
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. [….]
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.
So the authors of Scripture look at these examples, the prefigurements of Baptism, and say, “that’s what it looks like to live by faith.” It wasn’t enough for the Israelites to simply believe that God was God or that what He was saying was true: they then had to act upon that belief. Their “faith was completed by works” (James 2:22). That’s the fullness of faith, what St. Paul calls “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), which points to the centrality of love in resolving the justification debate.
So it isn’t the case that we have our relationship to Christ over here, and from some other place we get the grace to do good works or to somehow earn that relationship. Neither Baptism nor meritorious works are something that we add to that faith from outside. Rather they are integral to faith, and come from within. Christ’s example of the vine and branches in John 15 is telling: the branch must grow fruit, but it doesn’t do this apart from its relationship to the Vine (Jn. 15:5). But in saying this, we want to avoid the opposite error: the good works follow upon faith automatically, as it were. There are branches that are connected to the Vine that yet don’t bear fruit, and they’re cut off (Jn. 15:2).
Finally, I want to touch back on the passage that started off this post. I don’t want to give the wrong impression: there are times when we need to stop working, and sit at the feet of Christ, as Mary of Bethany did (Luke 10:41-42). In the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!” But there are other times when faithfulness to God requires getting up and doing something. How do we know which times are which? Short answer: prayerful discernment.
A sufficient account of the life of faith has to look at the role of prayer, Baptism, and good works, and Biblical exegesis that praises a sort of spiritual sloth in which we’re being still and not praying, working, or getting baptized just doesn’t cut it.