The Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that Baptism and the Lord's Supper produce salutary effects 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. That mere act is said to bring them God's favor or make God gracious to them. They teach the same regarding the Mass and the Lord's Supper, viz., that grace is obtained by the mere act of attending these rites. This impious and abominable teaching contradicts point blank the Word of God, in particular, the Gospel, which teaches that a person is justified before God and saved by grace alone, and that he cannot perform any good work until he has been thus justified.
In Rom. 3,28 Paul writes: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. 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. In Rom. 14,23 we read: Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. How, then, can a person who uses Baptism and the Lord's Supper without faith become acceptable to God by that act or obtain God's grace by it, since he is committing a sin by doing something that does not proceed from faith?
False teachers admit that preaching, unless it is received by faith, does not benefit the hearers, but rather increases their responsibility. However, they claim, the situation is different as regards Baptism and the Lord's Supper, since these have, they say, this great advantage over the preached Word, that God operates with His grace through them whenever men merely use them. That is an impious doctrine, because Baptism and the Lord's Supper are nothing else than the Word of God attached to a symbol. Augustine beautifully calls them the visible Word. As the Word does not benefit a person who does not believe, even so Baptism and the Lord's Supper help only those who embrace them by faith.
This is our doctrine: There is a certain promise of God attached to Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which is to be embraced without doubting. That can be done only by men who have become poor sinners. Any teaching that is set up contrary to the doctrine that man is not saved by his works, his running, or any effort of his own, but by grace alone, is an error that subverts the foundation of the Christian doctrine. Our Father in heaven offers men forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life, and salvation. But of what benefit is a present that is not accepted? Accepting a present is not a work by which I earn the present, but it signifies laying hold of what is being offered. When I extend my hand, with a gift in it, to a beggar, I am not certain whether he is going to accept the gift, though I am in full earnest in offering it to him. If he lets my gift fall to the ground, he naturally gets nothing.
In Mark 16,16 the Lord says: "He that BELIEVETH AND IS BAPTIZED shall be saved." He does not say: "He that is baptized and believeth," but the reverse. Faith is the primary necessity; Baptism is something to which faith holds. Moreover, the Lord continues: "But he that believeth not shall be damned." This shows that even if a person could not have Baptism administered to himself, he would be saved, as long as he believed.
In Acts 8,36.37 we read: "And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water; and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, IF THOU BELIEVEST WITH ALL THINE HEART, THOU MAYEST And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." The only thing that Philip required was faith, as if he had said to the eunuch: "If you do not believe, being baptized will not benefit you at all." At our baptism it is not we that are performing a work, but God.
In Gal. 3,26.27 Paul writes: For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. This text shows that Christ is put on in Baptism only if a person believes. The current interpretation is that any one that is baptized has put on Christ; however, that is not what the apostle says, but: "As many of you," namely, of you who are "the children of God by faith." Such people, indeed, put on Christ in Baptism. An unbeliever who receives Baptism does not put on Christ, but keeps on the spotted garment of his sinful flesh.
At the institution of the Holy Supper the Lord says: "Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. Take and drink ye all of it; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins." The Lord does not merely say "This is My body," but He adds: "which is given for you"; He does not merely say: "This is My blood," but He adds: "Which is shed for you, for the remission of sins." It is plain that He means to say: "The point of chief importance is that you believe that this body was given for you and that this blood was shed for the remission of your sins. That is what you must believe if you wish to derive the real blessing from this heavenly feast." By the additional remarks: "Do this in remembrance of Me," Christ means to say: "Do it in faith." Surely, He does not mean to say: "Think of Me, do not forget Me altogether!" Whoever thinks that Christ merely admonished His disciples not to consign Him to oblivion does not know the Savior. The true remembrance of Christ consists in the believing reflection of the communicant:"This body was given for me; this blood was shed for the remission of my sins. That gives me confidence to approach the altar. To this truth I shall cling by faith and esteem my Savior's pledge very highly." For when God adds a visible pledge to His Word, who is there that dares to doubt that His Word is truth and His promise will certainly be fulfilled? Remember this for the good of your own soul and conscience. As often as you go to Communion, have these words shine before your eyes: "Given for you"; "Shed for you for the remission of sins." If you fail to do this; if you imagine that by going to Communion you have once more done your duty and that God will reward your performance, your going to Communion Is a damnable act, that will land you in eternal perdition.
In Rom. 4,11 we read: He [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised. Here we are told that Abraham believed before he was circumcised. Circumcision was intended to be merely a seal to him of the righteousness which he had by faith. It is an act of great kindness on the part of God, knowing how slow we are to believe even after we have become believers, to add external signs to His Word and to attach His promise to them; for Baptism and the Lord's Supper are connected with, and comprehended in, God's Word. The lustrous star that shines from out of the Sacraments is the Word.
The Lutheran Church holds to the word of the Lord: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." That is the reason why it condemns all false teachers which say that Baptism is merely a ceremony by which a person is received into the Church. However, at no time has the Lutheran Church asserted that men are saved by the mere external use of the Sacraments. That is a teaching against which it has always raised its voice, which it has always combated and condemned.
In the Small Catechism of Luther we read: "How can water do such great things? Answer: It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water." The mere mechanical action of being baptized, if It is not accompanied by faith, will earn for man nothing but perdition.
Thus we teach that in the use of the Sacraments faith ought
to be added, which should believe these promises and receive the promised
things there offered in the Sacrament. The promise is useless unless
it is received by faith.
This essay was condensed from
a lecture delivered
on September 11, 1885, by C.F.W. Walther, first
President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.