Baptism Part I: Was Bill Really Saved as a Baby?
I visited with a man the other day (I’ll call him “Bill”) who told me a story that was intended to shake my confidence in the saving efficacy of baptism. Bill knows I’m a Lutheran and he himself grew up in the Lutheran Church and was baptized as a baby. But he was eager to tell me that he wasn’t really saved until he was a teenager when a godly man asked him point blank, “Bill, are you saved?” Bill didn’t know what to say. He went to church regularly and believed the doctrines he had been taught, but he hadn’t been living for the Lord. Seeing that Bill was uncertain of his salvation, the godly man encouraged him to pray to receive Christ as his personal savior and to live for Him as Lord. Bill prayed right then and there. He received the Lord Jesus by faith and submitted his life to Him. Bill told me, “That was the day I was saved. And I’ve never been the same since.”
By telling me this story, Bill wanted me to see that he wasn’t saved at his infant baptism, but only when he accepted Christ as a teenager. I bet I’ve heard variations of this testimony from at least ten people throughout my life. How are Lutherans supposed to respond? Unfortunately, Bill and I didn’t have time that day to discuss these matters in depth. But I hope we continue the conversation soon. In the meantime, I’m going to write a series of articles on baptism in order to clarify my own thoughts on the issue.
First of all, we need to praise the Lord with Bill and others when they joyfully tell us about receiving the Lord or about coming to assurance of salvation through faith in Christ. This is truly wonderful news.
Second, we should acknowledge the necessity of true and living faith in Christ in order to be saved. It’s true that many have been baptized as children but no longer walk with the Lord. If these people wish to be saved, they must repent and believe in the gospel. (Contrary to what you may have heard at certain ELCA funerals, this is the historic, confessional Lutheran position. See articles XII-XIII of the Augsburg Confession.)
Third, we should consider what may have happened after Bill and others like him were baptized as babies. In Matthew 28 Jesus commands us to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them. If someone is baptized but not taught the Word, that person will likely fall away from the faith. Jesus said, “The love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12b-13).
At this point, the conversation may turn to the doctrines of preservation and apostasy. Some believe that once a person truly accepts Christ they can never lose their salvation. They base this teaching primarily on John 10:27-29. This passage is pure gospel and is a wonderful comfort to all who trust in Christ. However, there are also passages of law which warn the saints about the possibility of falling away, such as Matthew 24:13; Hebrews 3:12-14; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; Galatians 1:6; Romans 11:17-22; & 1 Cor. 10:6-12. There are also many exhortations to hold fast to the gospel that do not make sense if it is not possible for true believers not to hold fast to the gospel. For instance: 1 Cor. 15:1-2; Gal. 5:1; Heb. 3:6; 3:14; 4:14; 10:23; & Rev. 2:25. Finally, it’s clear from the parable of the sower that some do indeed believe for a while but fall away later. Compare Luke 8:13 with 8:15.
The Bible warns us about the possibility of falling away, yes, even from a true and living faith in Jesus. This may have happened to Bill in his youth or adolescence. If he did fall away, then he was restored to faith as a teenager. Through this renewed faith he became, once again, the beneficiary of all the saving promises God made him in his baptism.
However, after hearing Bill’s story, I’m not convinced he fell away from Christ after his baptism. He may have. But he may not have. Obviously a change took place that day the man asked him, “Are you saved?” Bill needed to repent of sin in his life. He needed assurance of salvation through faith in Christ. But needing to repent and not having assurance does not necessarily mean that he didn’t have faith at all. He told me that his parents took him to church and that he believed the doctrines he’d been taught. From this I assume that he actually believed in the Triune God, and that Jesus, God’s Son, took on flesh, suffered and died for our sins, was buried, and on the third day rose again. If Bill believed this, he was saved!
However, Bill also told me that he wasn’t really living for the Lord. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by this. I’d have to ask more questions. It certainly is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit through persistent, unrepentant sin. If we live in unrepentance the Holy Spirit will eventually leave us, and then, so does our faith. Maybe this was the case for Bill.
But it’s also possible that Bill, like many other Christians, struggled with persistent sin in his life. There’s an important difference between struggling against sin (failing often, but with remorse) and living comfortably with sin (not caring when you fail). The former describes a Christian the latter does not. Which one was Bill? Only God knows. It’s possible that he was struggling and often failing to live the Christian life as he ought to, but that nonetheless he still believed that Jesus died for his sins, and that his faith, ever so weak, was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:5, 24-25).
What Bill’s story illustrates is the need for continual repentance and faith. The ongoing significance of baptism is that we would daily die to sin and rise to walk in newness of life (See Rom. 6:4 and Pastor Alex’s article, Easter Every Day). When this rhythm of repentance and faith has been neglected for a while, it might be a very profound experience when it begins again.
I cannot say whether or not Bill had fallen away from the faith granted him in baptism. However, I can say that his testimony does not negate the saving efficacy of his baptism. Everything the Bible promises in connection with baptism was truly bestowed upon him, including forgiveness of sins and regeneration (Acts 2:38 & Titus 3:5). What’s necessary for the baptized is that they would continue to receive these promises by faith.
All this and I have not yet begun to teach how Lutherans view baptism according to Scripture. I will save that for my next post. I have a hunch that Bill and others might think that since I believe that baptism saves, I must not really believe that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. I will show in my next post how this is most certainly not true.