Baptism Part II: Baptism: No Enemy of Saving Faith.
I’ve noticed that the major point of tension when talking about baptism with non-Lutheran evangelicals is that they assume that when I say, “baptism saves,” it must mean that I am trusting in my work of baptism in addition to, or instead of, the death of Jesus Christ. They assume that I do not believe a person is justified by faith alone, but by faith plus the work of baptism.
I find this common misunderstanding to be frustrating. My modest goal in this article is not to persuade anyone to become a Lutheran, but for people to recognize that when Lutherans confess that baptism saves it does not contradict the chief article of the Christian Church, which is this:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4). (Augsburg Confession, Article IV)
That’s the heart of Lutheran theology. Nothing else we believe can or should contradict it. In fact, everything else flows from it. So how can we say that baptism saves? I’m going to attempt to answer that question the best way I know how.
Would you agree with me on these three statements?
1) The cross saves.
2) The gospel saves.
3) Faith saves.
I hope that Christians of all denominations would agree. We understand that these statements don’t contradict each other. First, the cross, or the death of Jesus, saves. Through his blood he made atonement for our sins. By his death, the Holy Lamb of God took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). And yet, although this was accomplished at the cross two thousand years ago, how does it come to benefit us today? It must be preached. This is point two: the gospel saves. The death of Jesus would not benefit us unless the gospel was proclaimed to us, that Christ died for our sins, that God’s wrath has been appeased, and that all who believe in Christ receive forgiveness of their sins. And now I’ve already come to the third point: faith saves. Even if the gospel is preached, it does not benefit us unless we believe it, that is, receive it by faith.
And so there is no contradiction in the three statements above, so long as we understand how each statement describes a different, complementary aspect of the doctrine of salvation. Here’s another way to understand it:
1) Salvation was won at the cross.
2) Salvation is proclaimed and delivered through the gospel.
3) Salvation is received by faith.
So where does Baptism fit in? Look back at the first three statements. Lutherans don’t add a fourth statement to assert that baptism saves. Instead, we understand baptism as a subset contained within the second statement: the gospel saves. We see baptism as a particular expression of the gospel. Read how Luther wrote about the gospel in The Smalcald Articles:
We will now return to the Gospel, which does not give us counsel and aid against sin in only one way. God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world [Luke 24:45-47]. This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, “Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20) and other such verses [especially Romans 1:12].
Luther teaches us that in the gospel God gives us his grace in more than one way. Then he lists the different forms the gospel takes. Here they are again:
1) The spoken Word
3) The holy Sacrament of the Altar (communion)
4) The Power of the Keys (confession & absolution)
5) The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren
You may have noticed that he didn’t mention the written Word, Holy Scripture. This is most likely because Luther knew that most people still didn’t have access to the Bible or couldn’t read it themselves. But Luther certainly taught that the written Word was also a form of the gospel. Taking this into account, Dr. Robert Kolb often talks about the gospel coming to us in “oral, written, and sacramental forms” (For instance, in Speaking the Gospel Today: A Theology for Evangelism; Concordia Publishing House, 1995).
The point is, for Lutherans, baptism is a subset of the gospel. It’s not plain water, but water connected with God’s Word. Let’s return to my original three statements and make this point explicit:
1) The cross saves.
2) The gospel (of which baptism is an expression) saves.
3) Faith saves.
Now you can see that baptism in no way competes with the finished work of Christ on the cross, nor does it compete with the fact that salvation must be received by faith. Baptism is a means by which the salvation Jesus won on the cross is delivered to sinful humans. To benefit from baptism we must receive its promise by faith. I hope this resolves the contradiction in the minds of many when they hear that Lutherans believe that “baptism saves.”
This is how Lutherans regard baptism. It’s one of the forms that the gospel takes. It delivers the goods. What’s left for you is to consider whether or not this is the right way to view baptism according to Scripture. The best way to do that is to read the Bible passages about baptism and ask yourself, “According to this passage, is baptism law or gospel?” Put another way, ask, “Does this passage regard baptism as a work that people should do to show their devotion and commitment to God? Or does this passage regard baptism as a work that God does to bring forgiveness of sins and salvation to us?” Put still another way, “According to Scripture, is baptism man’s work or God’s work?”
I can’t help but offer a few starting verses with comments...
Matt. 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Luther comments: “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is still truly God’s own work. From this fact everyone may readily conclude that Baptism is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work can we do that is greater than God’s work?” (Large Catechism, Part 4, Baptism, paragraph 10).
Acts 2:38-39: And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Acts 22:16: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
In both of these passages baptism is connected to the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, it is the means by which the forgiveness of sins is delivered to us. God alone can forgive sins. He chooses to give this gift to us through baptism, which is an expression of the gospel.
This New Testament promise is similar to the promise God made to Naaman the leper in the Old Testament. God promised Naaman: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” (2 Kings 5:10). Naaman initially turned up his nose at this promise, hoping for something a bit more spectacular. But Naaman’s servant explained that it was truly a great thing that he received a promise to “Wash and be clean” (2 Kings 5:13). Naaman submitted to this washing and received what God promised. In a similar way, in the New Testament, God promises to wash away our sins through baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God has done a great thing for us by attaching His gospel promise to water in baptism.
But still, how or why does baptism bring forgiveness of sins? Perhaps the next two passages will help us understand.
Rom. 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Gal. 3:27: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Our sins are forgiven through baptism only because it connects us to the cross, to the death of Jesus, whereby he made full atonement for our sins. Baptism brings the benefits of the cross to us. It actually brings Judgment Day to our sinful selves, crucifying our flesh, and then, by the same power of God that raised Jesus, we too are raised up to walk in newness of life. (This walking in newness of life is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, who is given in baptism, as we read in 1 Cor. 12:13 and Titus 3:5.)
1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”
Being baptized is not simply having dirt removed from our bodies with water. It’s an appeal to God for a good conscience, where we, in a sense, pray, “God, forgive me my sins! Give me a good conscience and a pure heart before you!” And God responds by washing our sins away, by saving us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Eph. 5:25-26: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word”
This is one of my favorite verses about baptism because it defines it as “the washing of the water with the word.” That’s what baptism is. And through this washing, Christ sanctifies the church. This is Christ’s saving work applied to us.
I will stop there. It seems to me that the passages about baptism show that it is gospel, not law. It is God’s work to wash and sanctify us by uniting us to Jesus Christ. I will close with one more quotation from Luther:
We must think this way about Baptism and make it profitable for ourselves. So when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say, “Nevertheless, I am baptized. And if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (Large Catechism, Part 4, Baptism, paragraph 44).
Such a statement, I’m sure, brings offense to many evangelical Christians. But after reading this article, I hope that you’re able to see that when Luther wrote this, he did not mean to take away from the sufficiency of the cross or to negate the necessity of faith. Rather, he understood that baptism is part of the gospel which our faith is supposed to take hold of.
Read Baptism Part I here.
Stay tuned for Baptism Part III.