WHAT TYNDALE BELIEVED ABOUT BAPTISM

AND THE LORD’S SUPPER

 

By

Gary Ray Branscome

 

 

William Tyndale began his work of translating the Bible in 1519. However, opposition by those who did not want the Bible translated into English was so fierce that he was forced to flee to Germany. Arriving in Germany he made his way to Wittenburg where he met with Martin Luther, and enrolled at the University of Wittenburg in order to spend an academic year learning from Luther and his colleague Melanchthon. Although he differed from Luther in temperament and emphasis, he agreed with the doctrine being taught and from then on was known as a Lutheran.

Therefore, even though he wrote little about baptism — and some of the things he did publish may have been written by others who withheld their names for fear of persecution — when it comes to baptism and the Lord’s supper, we know his views were essentially what was being taught at the University of Wittenburg.

 

Concerning Baptism

 

By the time William Tyndale arrived in Wittenburg, Luther had rejected the idea that infants could be saved through the faith of their parents, and stressed personal faith in Christ. A faith “which accepts the promise as a present reality and believes that the forgiveness of sins is actually being offered” (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, article 13).  

As to what was being taught at Wittenburg. In 1520 Martin Luther had published a book entitled, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and baptism was one of the topics dealt with in that book. One year later (1521) Luther’s colleague Melanchthon published a longer work entitled, “Loci Communes” (Common Topics). Unlike the somewhat controversial and divisive book that Melanchthon published about 20 years later, this book was highly regarded by Luther.

 

Both of those books would have been available to Tyndale, and both of them view baptism as consisting of two parts: 1- the promise of God’s grace in Christ, and 2- the outward sign (ceremony) which God has connected with that promise. Or, as Luther himself put it, “The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise… The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water from which also it derives its name.… For, as has been said, signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify.” [From Luther’s, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.]

             

            After Abraham was justified through faith in God’s promise, the Bible tells us that circumcision was instituted as a token or sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and the righteousness he had through faith. (Compare Genesis 15:6 and 17:11-12 with Romans 4:11.) Therefore, since baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign or seal of the righteousness of faith, Luther and Melanchthon regarded the outward ceremony of baptism, like circumcision, as a sign. At the same time, because the Apostle Paul tells us that God’s grace does not come through what we do, but through faith in God’s promise, it is not the outward ceremony that brings us God’s grace, but our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:6-22). The outward ceremony simply testifies to that fact. Or as Phillip Melanchthon put it, “Signs do not justify, as Paul says in 1Corinthians 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.” (Loci Communes)

 

            Luther and Melanchthon saw similar signs given throughout scripture. For example: The rainbow was given as a sign (or token) of God’s promise to never again destroy the world with water (Genesis 9:12-17). The blood of the Passover lamb on the doorpost was to be a sign of God’s promise of deliverance (Exodus 12:13). And the shadow went backwards on the sundial as a sign of God’s promise to heal Hezekiah (2Kings 20:8-11). (See Loci Communes.)

 

Now, even though Luther regarded the outward ceremony of baptism as a sign, he disagreed strongly with those who said that baptism is only a sign and nothing more. Because God instituted baptism as a way of confirming His promise of forgiveness in Christ, those who explain away the promise of grace connected with baptism cast doubt on God’s promise (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38). And, by casting doubt on God’s promise they hinder the work of salvation by making that promise of “no effect” (Mark 7:13).

Having said this, I want to make it clear that baptism is not the only way we can receive God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ. God gives us that same promise through preaching, having the gospel explained to us, reading his Word, and through the Lord’s Supper. However, it is important to understand that baptism is not a work that God requires, but a way of assuring us that when we came to Christ our sins were washed away.

Without personal faith in Christ baptism is incomplete. It is faith in Christ that brings us the true baptism, the inner baptism, the baptism of the Spirit — which consists of having our sins washed away by the blood of Christ (1John 1:7). Without faith in Christ, we remain stiff-necked and unbaptized at heart, no matter how many times we have been baptized with water. That is why Luther said, “Without faith baptism avails nothing” (Large Catechism).

 

Tyndale And Infant Baptism

 

Since Tyndale (like Luther) believed that baptism had replaced circumcision as a divine testimony that we have been justified by faith, he saw God’s command to circumcise infants as evidence of His approval of infant baptism. However, he was not willing to go as far as Luther went, or use some of the arguments that Luther used, in defense of infant baptism. Likewise, he did not assume that those who were baptized automatically received God’s gift of faith. Instead, he believed that, just as many who had been circumcised as infants remained stiff-necked and uncircumcised at heart, many who have been baptized as infants remain stiff-necked and unbaptized at heart. (Romans 2:28-29, Jeremiah 9:26, Acts 7:51) Or, as he put it,  As the circumcised in the flesh, and not in heart, have no part in God’s good promises; even so they that are baptized in the flesh, and not in the heart, have no part in Christ’s blood”. [Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, p. 351.]

 

Concerning The Lord’s Supper

 

            Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper consists of two parts. First, the promise of forgiveness in Christ, which is set forth in His words, “My body… is given for you,” and “My blood… is shed for you for the remission of sins.” And second, the outward ceremony, which was instituted as a divine testimony to that promise of forgiveness.

 

            Now, it is important to realize that Christ’s words, “My body… is given for you,” and “My blood… is shed for you” are just another way of saying, “I died for your sins”. Both statements are referring to His death on the cross, and both statements mean the same thing. To believe that Christ’s body and blood were “given” and “shed” for you is to believe that He died for your sins. There is no difference.

            Therefore, when you partake of the Lord’s Supper believing that Christ’s body and blood were “given” and “shed” for you, you are by faith accepting His sacrifice [i.e. His body and blood] as the atonement for your sins. And, all who accept His sacrifice as the atonement for their sins truly receive His body and blood, not as physical food, but as the atonement for their sins.

 

Now, even though Luther regarded the outward ceremony of the Lord’s Supper as a sign, he firmly believed that Christ’s body and blood are being given to those who partake of the Lord’s Supper. However, he did not believe that Christ’s body and blood are physically present. Lutheran theology has historically rejected that idea. (Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 483, 15.) Nevertheless, he strongly disagreed with those who deny that we actually receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. The problem with those who deny that we receive Christ’s body and blood, is that they undermine faith in God’s promise, thus making that promise of “no effect” (Mark 7:13). In the Lord’s Supper we truly do receive Christ’s body and blood as the atonement for our sin. But it comes to us through faith in the promise given to us in the ceremony, not through the outward act of going through the ceremony.

Here is what Luther said: “Now this treasure is conveyed and communicated to us in no other way than through the words “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In these [words] you receive the double assurance that it is Christ's body and blood, and that it is yours as your treasure and gift… And inasmuch as He offers and promises forgiveness of sins, there is no other way of receiving it than by faith… that which is given in and with the sacrament cannot be grasped nor appropriated by our body. This is done by faith in the heart, which discerns this treasure and desires it.” (Large Catechism)

 

According to this view, Christ gives His body and blood to all who come to the Lord’s Supper, but only those who believe that He died for their sins receive it. However, Luther also spoke of Christ’s body and blood being present in the sacrament in a way that even unbelievers receive it — and there is where Tyndale differed from Luther. The “Formula of Concord” speaks of this when it says, “There is therefore a twofold eating of the flesh of Christ” (Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 580, 61.) The first way is the way that I have described above. The second way, is a way in which even unbelievers receive Christ’s body and blood. When the “Formula of Concord” was drafted it specifically rejected the idea that “unbelieving and impenitent Christians do not receive the body and blood, but only bread and wine”. [Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 485-486.] That may be the one real doctrinal difference between the theology of William Tyndale and that of  “Confessional Lutherans”.

 

Who is Worthy

 

            The fact that the Apostle Paul warns us of the danger of partaking of the Lord’s Supper to our own condemnation tells us that the Lord’s Supper is not for everyone (1Corinthians 11:27-31). Moreover, the fact that it is faith in Christ, not works, that makes us righteous in the sight of God tells us that “There is only one kind of unworthy guest [at the Lord’s Supper], namely, those who do not believe.” (Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 484.)

            For that reason, it should be obvious that the Lord’s Supper should never be offered to unbelievers. Nor is it for children, or those who are mentally unable to examine themselves. Furthermore, the fact that anyone who remains unrepentant after being dealt with according to the steps of Matthew 18:15-17 is to be treated like a “heathen man,” tells us that the Lord’s Supper is not to be offered to those under church discipline.

The fact that we are to exclude those who are sexually immoral, yet unrepentant (1Corinthians 5:1-5), tells us that such people are deceiving themselves if they think God accepts them (1John 1:6 and 2:4). And, that includes all homosexuals (1Corinthians 6:9-11). We are not showing love to such people if we do not warn them of God’s condemnation and their need to repent.

 

Conclusion

 

“One would indeed think it to be utterly impossible for a Christian minister to teach that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato; still, that is what happens again and again. // If I am justified, if I obtain grace by my act of submitting to baptizing or by my act of going to Communion, I am justified by works, and that, altogether paltry works, scarcely worth mentioning. For that is what Baptism and Holy Communion are when viewed as works that we perform. It is a horrible doctrine, wholly contradicting the Bible, that divine grace is obtained if a person at least makes external use of the Sacraments. The truth is that Baptism and Holy Communion place any person under condemnation who does not approach them with faith in his heart.” (C. F. W. Walther, Law and Gospel, pages 351 and 346)