Reformation 500: What I Like about Lutheran Baptism

What I Like about Lutheran Baptism

I had the privilege of baptizing two little girls this morning, and it reminded me that one of the stumbling blocks I had to get over as a post-evangelical was the issue of baptism. For most of my pastoral career I was a credo-baptist, that is, I practiced “believer’s baptism,” holding that the only candidates suitable for baptism were those who were able to verbally confess their faith in Jesus and be baptized as a sign of their commitment to Christ. The churches I served all practiced believer’s baptism — we baptized those who professed faith by means of immersion. Baptism was a public testimony of faith in Christ; a sign, a visual demonstration of dying to the old life, and rising to walk in newness of life. Some of the churches theoretically accepted the idea of infant baptism as well, but in the years I was there never performed the rite in public worship. I myself was open to the idea of infant baptism, particularly as it was explained in the Reformed tradition.

When we joined the Lutheran church, we didn’t spend much time discussing the subject of baptism, considering it a lesser issue than some of the other ecclesiological matters that drew us there. However, as I have taken part in the congregation and have read and thought about this subject, I have become more and more impressed with the Lutheran understanding.

First, let’s define what Lutherans believe. Here is Luther’s Smaller Catechism on holy baptism…

What is Baptism?
Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.

Which is that word of God?
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew: Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

What does Baptism give or profit?
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Which are such words and promises of God?
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

How can water do such great things?
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. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.

What does such baptizing with water signify?
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

I like the Lutheran view because it understands baptism as God’s act, not a human act. It’s primarily about grace, not faith. It is done to us in God’s name (that is, as an act of God performed by his representative), we do not do it to ourselves. It is not the sign of my response to God, it is the sign and seal of what God has done for me.

I like the Lutheran view because it emphasizes the Word of God. When God’s Word of promise and salvation is spoken at baptism, ordinary water becomes a means of grace to sinners. Lutherans do not emphasize the water apart from the Word, nor do they worry so much about how much water is used, or by what method the water is applied. The key is that the simple, ordinary element of water is combined with the all-important Word of salvation.

I like the Lutheran view because it appropriately broadens our understanding of the Great Commission. Many who argue against baptizing infants appeal to the Book of Acts, where believer’s baptism is the common practice. However, they forget that Acts describes mainly first-generation believers. Lutherans have no problem with baptizing believers who have received the Gospel (nor does any Christian denomination that practices baptism). What the N.T. does not exemplify so clearly is what should happen with second-generation believers. When does the child of Christian parents start becoming a disciple of Christ? That process begins when the child is born, and therefore it is appropriate to baptize the child and begin teaching him/her to obey what Christ has commanded from the beginning of life.

I like the Lutheran view because it enlightens us about the true nature of faith. In evangelicalism, faith is usually described as my decision, my willful choice to follow Christ. Lutherans understand that faith is more mysterious and often less conscious than that. Infants exemplify this broader understanding. Does an infant choose to be conceived or born? Does an infant decide to bond in trustful repose upon its mother’s breast? Does the infant intelligently weigh its options and determine to choose life and love? No, the infant’s new life begins solely by the will of others, when they come together in an act of love. Then the incomprehensible life force one day moves the baby to enter the world, breathe, and respond to those who love her. Even so, God, through Word and Sacrament, works faith and spiritual life into those who receive his promise.

I like the Lutheran view because it emphasizes the ongoing significance of baptism. Since evangelicalism views baptism as a one-time initiatory act that communicates a singular message about conversion, those who practice believer’s baptism don’t bring up the subject again in the course of the Christian life. However, Lutherans (following Luther himself) see baptism as an ongoing object lesson of the Christian life that we must remember and reenact every day. We practice our baptism daily by repenting (dying to the old life) and rising to walk in new life.

So hear ye all, and well perceive
What God doth call baptism,
And what a Christian should believe
Who error shuns and schism:
That we should water use, the Lord
Declareth it his pleasure;
Not simple water, but the Word
And Spirit without measure;
He is the true Baptizer.

• Hymn XXXIV from “The Hymns of Martin Luther”

6 thoughts on “Reformation 500: What I Like about Lutheran Baptism

  1. “Many who argue against baptizing infants appeal to the Book of Acts, where believer’s baptism is the common practice.”

    Even apart from the first- and second-generation issue you mention, it is not at all clear that the premise is true. Acts describes several instances where entire households were baptized. It takes some enthusiastic special pleading to argue that in each and every case the household included no persons too young to satisfy a 21st century credo-baptist.


  2. I agree with you about the legitimacy of either practice of baptism. I believe that we come into the world already redeemed by Christ; so to my understanding, the baptism of either infants or adults is legitimate and meaningful, in different ways, as a sign of the salvation given freely in and by Jesus Christ, who himself is the sacrament of God, and of the intent to follow in the way of repentance and self-denial given in his life, death and resurrection.


  3. I’m close behind.

    Thank you CM for all the articles you have written re the Reformation.
    It has been enlightening.



  4. Mike,

    I have heard the arguments of both paedo- and credo-Baptists, and attended churches of each view. I have switched views many times. I have come to believe in water baptism, and am not against either the baptism of infants or of confessing “adults.” Neither are mandated nor prohibited by Scripture.


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