This is the second post in a series on my conversion to Lutheranism. Check out part 1 here.
When I got baptized in the Assemblies of God I specifically remember thinking to myself “It’s just water. This doesn’t do anything to you.” I had always been taught that Baptism was nothing more than an outward sign of an inward change. I would have heartily agreed with Rick Warren’s statement about baptism: “Baptism is like a wedding ring – it´s the outward symbol of the commitment you make in your heart.” I thought pretty much all Christians everywhere believed just that — except maybe the Catholics. So imagine my surprise when I found out that the man who started the Reformation believed that Baptism actually saves you! It was absolutely scandalous!
My first question when I found out was “How could water do something like that?” How could water forgive sins? Or bury us with Christ? Well Luther, in his Small Catechism, writes “Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” He goes on to say that it is not the water that forgives sins or saves us, “but the word of God that is in and with the water…” In other words, a Baptism is a Baptism because it is God who is doing the Baptizing. It was not a Baptism because my pastor immersed me in water, but because God, speaking through my pastor’s words “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” clothed me in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27).
Well that’s all well and good, Luther, but the Bible doesn’t actually teach that Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, does it? Actually, the first time Baptism is talked about by someone other than Jesus, that’s exactly what it’s for: Peter, on the day of Pentecost, says to those in whom the Spirit stirs up the desire for salvation “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Now, some people read this and immediately focus on “Repent!” They say, “See? It’s repentance, not baptism, that grants the forgiveness of sins.” Which is all well and good, but Peter didn’t only say “Repent.” He said “Repent and be baptized.” So you can’t tie the forgiveness of sins to the repentance but not to the baptism. Now, I will gladly affirm that forgiveness of sins is granted to the repentant. Think of the thief on the cross, here. But it is also a promise attached to Baptism, and to deny that is just silly.
Now, this is probably a good place to point out that some people are going to accuse me of believing in Baptismal Regeneration, and those people are %100 correct. I do indeed believe that God regenerates people in water baptism. Why? Well, because that’s what the Bible teaches. Only the regenerate are able to receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is one of the promises attached to Baptism in Peter’s Pentecost speech. Paul also says that we were saved by the “washing of regeneration and renewal with the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The word translated as “washing” here means “a bath, washing, [or] baptism” according to Strongs. The other place it’s used in the New Testament is to say that Christ has cleansed His Church by the “washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:25-26). Now that sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it? What Paul calls in Ephesians the washing of water with the word, he also calls in Titus our saving and regenerating bath. In the context of the New Testament what other washing of water is there?
Now I know what you’re thinking: I thought Luther thought we were made right with God by faith alone! This sure sounds like works righteousness! I want to encourage you to read my previous post about Law and Gospel if you haven’t already. This was one of my biggest stumbling blocks to understanding Baptism, and it was not until I understood the distinction of Law and Gospel that I understood, and joyfully embraced, the Lutheran doctrine of Baptism. When we talk about Baptism we are talking about a matter of Gospel, not Law; a matter of “this is done for you,” not “do this for me.” Remember how I said that Baptism is God’s word in the water? Baptism is not our work, it’s God’s work, which is why it does work. Lutheran theologians and pastors sometimes call it “visible Gospel” and that’s exactly what it is. The water of Baptism is the physical element to which God has attached His saving promises. It is not a Law to keep but a gift to be received. That’s why in his famous Pentecost sermon Peter says “be baptized,” not “baptize yourselves.” We are recipients and recipients only of Baptism’s cleansing waters.
Let me put it another way: Can you forgive your own sins? I can’t. So if the promise of the forgiveness of sins is attached to Baptism it must be the result of God’s work. Can you bury yourself with Christ? I sure can’t. If baptism buries us with Christ — which is what Romans 6 actually says; none of this “symbolic” language is found there — then it must be the work of God, not of ourselves. In fact, the very passage that calls Baptism a washing of regeneration says this: “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, emph. mine). So this Holy Bath is directly opposed to works-righteousness. If anyone were to pervert Baptism into a work we must do to be saved, you would find Lutherans at the front of the pack opposing them in their error. Baptism is what Lutherans call a Means of Grace, or a Sacrament — God’s word and promise of forgiveness attached to a physical element.
I think the best illustration of a Sacrament I ever heard was the story of Moses and the Bronze Serpent. In Numbers 21 we hear how the people of Israel grumbled against the LORD and against Moses. God responds by sending venomous snakes among the people and many of them die. When they repent, and ask Moses to intercede for them, the LORD responds, saying “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (vs. 8). So Moses does just that, and those who look at the bronze serpent live. See then how there is God’s word and promise of forgiveness attached to the serpent. All who are bitten have but to look at the serpent lifted up and they will live. Their sins are effectively forgiven through this physical element. In the same way, God attaches His Holy Name to the water of Baptism and effectively forgives the sins of those He baptizes.
But isn’t this basically Diet Catholicism? Well… No. First of all, the word “catholic” simply means universal. And since the effective nature of Baptism, especially as taught in the texts here presented, is a teaching that the universal church has held fast to since the time of the Apostles, there is nothing Diet about our Catholicism. Ultimately, the Lutheran Reformers considered themselves to be the Catholic church the way it ought to be. Chris Rosebrough of Fighting for the Faith has an excellent document with a collection of quotes from Early Church Fathers talking about the texts I quoted above and more — and I do mean early: Some of the men quoted studied under the Apostles themselves, long before the Roman Catholic Church came into being. But if by “catholic” you mean those congregations who follow the Usurper of Rome, then still no. I may do a post delineating differences later, but for now just remember that even if it was identical, simply because Rome believes it doesn’t mean it’s an exclusively Roman doctrine. That is, just because the Romans believe or practice something is not good grounds for not believing or practicing something. Cling to what the Scriptures teach about Baptism.
I should also point out that we believe in Infant Baptism in the Lutheran Church. Peter, on Pentecost, says that this promise of forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit granted in Baptism was “for you and your children.” When Jesus says “make disciples of all people” in His words of institution, we recognize that “all people” includes children. After all, children are “conceived in sin” (Psalm 51:5) and therefore need the forgiveness of sins offered in Baptism. Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller has an interesting paper listing instances of infant faith in Scripture that has been reproduced here. Seeing that infants can have faith, which is properly what regeneration is — God granting the gift of faith to someone — really helped me understand Infant Baptism. I’m sure that this topic is a blog post in and of itself, however, and I’ll leave the rest of the discussion to then.
It was at this point in my reading and questioning that my understanding of Baptism flipped upside down. Whereas I had once believed that Baptism was my act of obedience toward God, I now began to understand the much deeper, Biblical truth that Baptism was God’s act of mercy toward me. I still had a lot of questions about Baptism, as I’m sure you do, but I knew that I could take great comfort in the knowledge that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had put His Holy Name on me in the waters of my Baptism, forgiving all of my sins, washing me with clean water and giving me a new heart and His Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Thus my view of Baptism changed from “I was Baptized” to “I am Baptized,” that is, I am currently living in the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit that God worked in me at my Baptism.
Like I said, I’m sure you have plenty of questions about Baptism. I hope you reach out with them, either in the comments below or by contacting me directly. I definitely had lots of questions, and it took a long time and a lot of dialogue with faithful Lutheran pastors and laity, before I was sure and certain in my Baptism. But I’m grateful that they patiently taught me about this topic, because the doctrine of Baptism is one of great comfort and assurance. So feel free to tell me what you think in the comments, and keep an eye out for the next post in this series: The Lord’s Supper. God bless!