A LUTHERAN POSITION ON BAPTISM
From Original Sources
“The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says: ‘He that believes and is baptized shall be saved’… The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water from this also it derives its name. For the Greek baptizo means ‘I immerse,’ and baptisma means ‘immersion.’” (From “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” by Martin Luther, 1520.)
“The act or rite [of baptism] consists in being placed into the water, which flows over us, and being drawn from it again. These two things, the placing in the water and emerging from it signify the power and efficacy of baptism; which is simply the mortifying of the old Adam in us and the resurrection of the new man, both of which operations continue in us as long as we live on the earth.” (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, 1529, Dr. J. N. Lenker’s translation, pages 168-169.)
NOTE: The following statements are taken from the 1521 edition of the book, “LOCI COMMUNES” [i.e. Common Topics] by Philip Melanchthon. Luther had only the highest praise for that book. However, it is sometimes wrongly confused with a book by the same name that Melanchthon published two decades later – which contained certain controversial and divisive statements.
“I have said that the gospel is the promise of grace. Moreover next to promises is the place of signs. For in the Scripture signs are added to the promises for a mark. These signs remind us of the promises and are sure testimonies of the divine will toward us. They also bear witness that of a certainty we will receive what God has promised unto us. Gross errors are made in the use of signs. For when the schools dispute about the difference between the sacraments of the Old and the New Testaments they deny that the sacraments of the Old Testament had any power to justify. They attribute to the New Testament sacraments (though by a manifest error) the power to justify. For faith alone justifies.”
“Moreover, what is the nature of signs can be most easily understood from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. In the fourth chapter the following discussion of circumcision is contained. According to Paul, Abraham was not, justified by circumcision, but before it and without its merit. He did however later receive circumcision as a sign, by which God would witness that Abraham was just, and by which Abraham himself would be conscious of the fact that he was just in the sight of God, lest fluctuating in a doubtful conscience he might give himself over to despair. If you understand this function, what can come about more joyfully than signs? It is not enough for signs to remind one of the promises; it is a matter’ of great importance though that ‘they are a sure testimony of the divine will toward us.
“Thus Moses (Gen. 14:11) calls circumcision a sign: ‘That it may be unto you for a sign of the covenant between me and you.’ Because circumcision is a sign it reminds Abraham of the divine promise, and not, only him alone but all who were circumcised. Because circumcision is a sign of the covenant, that is, because it signifies that the covenant will be ratified, it confirms the conscience of Abraham. Hence it results that he doubts nothing but that it will come to pass just what has been promised. Doubting nothing, I say, but that God will fulfill just what he has promised. But what did God promise to Abraham? Was it not that he would be a God to Abraham, that is, did he not promise to embrace Abraham, to save and justify him? So Abraham doubted not but that these things were sure, having been confirmed by circumcision as it were a mark.
“Run through the whole of
Scripture if you will and seek out the nature of signs from the sacred
histories, but not from the impious Sophists. The Lord extends
because of Isaiah’s prayer. Now that the king may know for a certainty
this promise will be kept, God confirms it by the addition of a sign:
shadow of the horologe should be turned back ten degrees (II Kings 20).
Gideon should doubt that
“Signs do not justify, as Paul says in I Corinthians 7:19: ‘Circumcision is nothing,’ and so baptism and participation in the Lord’s table are nothing but witnesses of the divine will toward you. And your conscience, if at all in doubt, is rendered certain by them of the grace and benevolence of God toward it. As Hezekiah could not doubt the fact that he would recover when he had both heard the promise and had seen. it confirmed by a sign; as Gideon could not doubt the fact that he would be a victor, when he was confirmed by so many signs; just so, ought you not doubt the fact that you have attained mercy, when you have heard the gospel preached and received its baptism, and the body and blood of the Lord. But if you will, Hezekiah could have been restored to his health even without a sign had he been willing only to believe the bare promise. Likewise Gideon would have been victorious without a sign, if he had believed. So you can be justified without a sign provided you believe.
“Indeed signs do not justify, but the faith of Hezekiah and that of Gideon likewise had to be supported, strengthened, and confirmed by such signs. In such manner is our weakness strengthened by signs lest amid so many insults of sin, it may despair of God’s mercy. Just as you would consider it a sign of divine favor were God to talk face to face with you, or show you some peculiar pledge of mercy such as a miracle, so in like manner it behooves you to perceive concerning these signs that you believe that God has commiserated you when you receive baptism or participate in the Lord’s table just as certainly as you would seem to believe, if God talked face to face with you or showed you some other miracle that pertains particularly to yourself. For signs were instituted for the purpose of — exciting faith. Now however, both faith and the use of signs have been extinguished, by those who extract gain, from them. The knowledge of signs is most salubrious, and I by no means know anything else that so consoles the conscience and more efficaciously confirms it than the use of signs.
“Some call them sacraments; but
I call them signs, or If you so will, sacramental signs. For Paul calls
himself a sacrament. (
“In the gospel moreover, Christ has instituted two signs, to wit, baptism and the Table of the Lord. For I judge sacramental signs to be those that have been divinely given as tokens of God’s grace. For we men cannot institute a sign of the divine will toward us, nor refer those signs as signifying the divine will, which Scripture has referred to another. I wonder the more, what has entered the minds of the Sophists, especially since they would attribute our justification to signs, to cause them to reckon among signs those things of which the Scripture does not mention even one word. For whence has the priestly order been invented? And too, God never instituted marriage to be a proper sign of grace. The rite of unction is older than the sign of grace. Luther has copiously treated this matter in his ‘Babylonian Captivity.’ From it you may seek a more exact discussion of this subject. But this is the sum of the matter: grace is not signified with certainty and indeed properly, except by those signs which have been divinely transmitted. Thus only those which have been added to the divine promises can be rightly called sacramental signs. The ancients were accustomed to say here that sacraments consist of things and words. The thing is the sign, the words the promise of grace.” [The quotes from, “Loci Communes” end here.]
NOTE: The following quotations from the Tappert edition of the, “BOOK OF CONCORD,” or from Lenker’s translation of the “LARGE CATECHISM”.
“Paul teaches that we are justified not by
the law but
by the promise, which is received by faith only. … Therefore we must
hold of the promise by faith, that for Christ’s sake the Father is
and forgiving.” (Book of
“If we define the
rites ‘which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace
definition, from Loci 1521) … When we are
baptized, when we
eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly
that God really forgives us for Christ’s sake.” (Book of
“The Word and the rite have the same effect,
Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament ‘the visible Word,’
rite is received by the eyes and is sort of a picture of the Word,
the same thing as the Word.” (Book of
“It is sheer Judaism to believe that we are
by a ceremony without a good disposition in our heart, that is, without
[in Christ]. … A promise is useless unless faith accepts it. The
signs of the promises. When they are used, therefore, there must be
“Here we are talking about personal faith,
accepts the promise as a present reality and believes that the
forgiveness of sins
is actually being offered, not about a faith which believes in a
that God exists. … Words cannot describe the abuses which this
notion, about the sacraments ex opere operato without a good disposition in the one
has spawned in the church. (Book of
“Faith [in Christ] alone makes one worthy to profitably receive this saving, divine water” // Without faith baptism avails nothing” (Large Catechism, Tappert, page 440, Lenker, page 129)
are not only signs among men,
but signs of God’s will toward us; so it is correct to define the New
sacraments as signs of grace. There are two parts to a sacrament, the
the Word. In the New Testament, the Word is the added promise of grace.
promise of the New Testament is the promise of the forgiveness of sins,
text says, ‘this is my body, which is given for you’; ‘this is the cup
of the new testament with my blood, which
is poured out for many
for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Luke 22:19, Matt. 26:28) Therefore the
offers forgiveness of sins, while the ceremony is a sort of picture or
as Paul calls it (Rom. ),
showing forth the promise. As the promise is useless unless faith
so the ceremony is useless without the faith which really believes that
forgiveness of sins is being offered here. Such a faith encourages the
mind. As the Word was given to arouse this faith, so the sacrament was
instituted to move the heart to believe through what it presents to the
eyes. For the Holy Spirit works through the Word
and the sacraments”.
(From the Apology of The Augsburg Confession, Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 262, paragraphs 69 and 70.)
With respect to
adults, Scripture expressly points out that only such should be
baptized as believe in, and
confess, Christ, Acts 2:4, 8:36-38. ["CHRISTIAN DOGMATICS", by John
Theodore Mueller, page 497.]
Scripture expressly points out that only such adults are to be baptized as have previously come to faith in Christ. Of those baptized on the First Pentecost we read: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts ); and when the eunuch, having been instructed by Philip, desired Baptism, his wish was granted after he had confessed his faith in Christ (Acts -38). [“CHRISTIAN DOGMATICS”, by Francis Pieper, Volume 3, page 277.]
Although Martin Luther was convinced that infant baptism had come from the Apostles, he “freely admitted that infant baptism is neither explicitly commanded or explicitly mentioned in Scripture”. (“The Theology of Martin Luther,” by Paul Althaus, page 361)
“Luther once remarked that he, too, would omit infant baptism if he felt constrained to hold that children could not themselves believe” (St. L. XI:490). Nevertheless, he did not believe that lack of faith made baptism invalid but instead held that, “When faith comes, baptism is complete”. (‘LUTHERAN QUARTERLY’ Volume XIII, 1999.)
Faith in Christ is Indispensable
“The Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.
“The grave error which is scored by this thesis is held by the papists, who teach men that they will derive some benefit by merely submitting to the act of being baptized, despite the fact that they are still unbelievers, provided they are not actually living in mortal sins… The truth is that Baptism and Holy Communion place any person under condemnation who does not approach them with faith in his heart. They are means of grace only for the reason that a divine promise has been attached to an external symbol…. It is of paramount importance that I believe, that I regard, not the water in Baptism, but the promise which Christ has attached to the water. It is this promise [of forgiveness in Christ] that requires the water… Grace does not operate in a chemical or in a mechanical manner, but only by the Word, by virtue of God’s saying continually: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” To this word I must cling by faith. If I do that, I can confidently meet God on the Last Day.” (LAW AND GOSPEL, by C.F.W. Walther, pages 345-347.)
Rightly understood, Lutheran teaching holds Baptism is a visible sign to which God has attached His promise of forgiveness in Christ. Just as the faith of Abraham, “was accounted to him for righteousness,” when he believed God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ, so likewise our faith is accounted to us as righteousness when we believe God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Galatians 3:6, Romans 3:28). Baptism is just one way in which God gives us that promise.
Properly speaking, there is but one means of grace, namely, the Gospel of Christ (Rom. ff.)… The Sacraments have the same effect as the spoken or written Word, because they are nothing else than the visible Word or the Gospel, applied in sacred action in connection with the visible signs. (Lutheran Cyclopedia, Edited by Erwin L. Luker, Page 424, 425)
Gary Ray Branscome