Volume 34 - Issue 2

Sola Fide Compromised? Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Baptism

By D. Patrick Ramsey


The name of Martin Luther is perpetually linked to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Indeed, the mere mention of this great Reformer’s name conjures up thoughts of sola fide. For the leading service he bequeathed to the Church “was the entire destruction of the doctrine of human merit, and the thorough establishment of the great scriptural truth of a purely gratuitous justification, through faith alone.”

The name of Martin Luther is perpetually linked to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Indeed, the mere mention of this great Reformer’s name conjures up thoughts of sola fide. For the leading service he bequeathed to the Church “was the entire destruction of the doctrine of human merit, and the thorough establishment of the great scriptural truth of a purely gratuitous justification, through faith alone.”1 In addition to uncovering this hidden gem, Luther exposed its value in teaching that it is the article upon which the church stands or falls.2

These great contributions, notwithstanding, it is arguable that Luther’s own doctrine of justification by faith alone is compromised by or at least in tension with his doctrine of baptism, particularly his understanding of baptismal regeneration. In addition to Luther’s contemporary Anabaptist opponents, others like Karl Barth and James Atkinson have called attention to this problem.3 While not addressing Luther in particular, a number of Reformed theologians with a robust doctrine of the sacraments have viewed sola fide and baptismal regeneration as incompatible. For example, James Bannerman readily admits to his Baptist opponent that “if Sacraments are regarded as the causes or the means of justification, they are utterly inconsistent with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.”4 Furthermore, he asserts that it is legalistic to make the sacraments “instruments of justification and the source of faith.”5

Martin Luther, however, is not without his defenders. One of the main burdens of Jonathan Trigg’s recent book on Luther’s theology of baptism, which is based upon his doctoral dissertation, is to demonstrate that “the doctrine of justification by faith is intimately related to—indeed predicated upon—Luther’s understanding of the abiding covenant of baptism.”6 Although it may appear that there are tensions in his thought, “Luther’s baptismal doctrine, properly understood, is one of his sharpest expressions of justification by faith.”7 Similarly, Paul Althaus maintains that Luther’s “doctrine of baptism is basically nothing else than his doctrine of justification in concrete form.”8

Further support comes from Anthony Lane. In his discussion of baptism, one of the key issues involved in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue, Lane faults R. C. Sproul for interpreting the sola fide formula as directed against baptism. After noting that sola fide, as understood by Luther and the other Reformers, was directed against works but not word or sacrament, Lane bids us to remember that “Lutherans believing in baptismal regeneration are some of the most ardent proponents of justification by faith alone.”9 Justification and baptismal efficacy are two separate issues and therefore belief in baptismal regeneration need not conflict with one’s doctrine of sola fide.10

While thankful for Luther’s great contributions to the Church and recognizing that there is no scholarly consensus on this issue, this paper will argue that Luther’s doctrine of baptism is inconsistent with his doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is not to say, however, that Luther himself thought that the two could not be harmonized. Indeed, he vigorously argued that these two doctrines fit nicely together. Nor will this paper argue that Luther’s baptismal doctrine is identical to that of Medieval Christianity or Roman Catholicism as defined by the Council of Trent. Luther made significant advancements concerning baptism. The problem is that he did not go far enough, thereby creating tension with his affirmation of the article upon which the church stands or falls.

In light of this narrow focus, only those writings on baptism after Luther’s reformation breakthrough will be consulted. Pinpointing a date for this event is a notorious problem in Luther studies.11 Scholars have suggested dates ranging from 1513 to 1520. Since Luther was unquestionably an evangelical in 1520, this paper will limit itself to his writings from that time onwards. It should also be noted that although there is a fundamental continuity in Luther’s baptismal thought over the years, there are some changes.12 Therefore, particular attention will be paid to Luther’s catechisms since they express his mature and systematic thought on the subject.13

1. The Efficacy of Baptism: Luther’s Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration

When discussing Luther and the sacraments, one tends to gravitate towards his views on the Lord’s Supper, and with good reason. It was disagreement over this sacrament, and not baptism, that led to a division among the Protestant Reformers. Nonetheless, it is arguable that baptism held the preeminence in Luther’s thought and affection. With glowing praise, the German Reformer depicts baptism as excellent, glorious, exalted, precious, of greatest importance, and an inexpressible treasure.14 In fact, “no greater jewel . . . can adorn our body and soul than baptism.”15 Luther’s esteem for baptism was more than words. He meant what he said as evidenced by his practice. In times of temptation and anxiety, Luther clung to the fact that he had been baptized. Karl Barth recounts the following story:

It is related of Luther that he had hours during which he was confused about everything—about the Reformation, about his faith, even about the work of Jesus Christ Himself—hours when he knew of nothing else to help him (and help him it did) save the writing in chalk on his table of the two words: Baptizatus sum!16

This admiration for and use of baptism stemmed from Luther’s understanding of its efficacy as he himself tells us.17 And it is not hard to see why this is the case. For as we look at Luther’s teaching on baptism in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Concerning Rebaptism, The Small Catechism, The Baptismal Booklet, and The Large Catechism, we will see that baptism accomplishes a substantial amount and so naturally becomes the brightest jewel adorning the Christian.

1.1. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Having been excommunicated by the Pope, Martin Luther wrote three tracts in response in 1520, including The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, also known as The Pagan Servitude of the Church. A significant section of this tract is a discourse on baptism, and it is clearly written against the current medieval understanding of this sacrament. In continuity with the medieval Church, Luther affirms that God saves through baptism and that “grace” is “infused” in baptism.18 Yet, Luther differs with the medieval Church in how this is accomplished, which will be discussed in the next section, and what grace is given in baptism.

The medieval Church taught that justification began in baptism and continued by the sacrament of penance.19 Original sin was removed by the water of baptism while actual sin by penance. Jerome’s description of penitence as a second plank after shipwreck was employed to convey this concept. Those who fall into sin do not return again to baptism, the first plank of the ship, but to penitence for the forgiveness of sins.20 By contrast, Luther says that justification begins and ends in baptism. As the sacrament of justification, baptism signifies “death and resurrection, i.e., the fulfilling and completion of justification.”21 In baptism, one truly dies and rises from the dead. Hence, Luther believes that it is reductionistic to view baptism as merely washing away sin.22

Though in one sense justification is complete in baptism, in another sense it is not. It is complete by virtue of God’s promise, yet incomplete in that the justified believer waits in hope for the consummation of his righteousness.23 This accounts for Luther’s assertion that the efficacy of baptism lasts a lifetime and that the Christian life is baptismal in character. Luther writes,

Although you only receive the sacrament of baptism once, you are continually baptized anew by faith, always dying and yet ever living. When you were baptized, your whole body was submerged and then came forth again out of the water. Similarly, the essence of the rite was that grace permeated your whole life, in both body and soul; and that it will bring you forth, at the last day, clothed in the white robe of immortality. It follows that we never lose the sign of baptism nor its force; indeed we are continually being rebaptized, until we attain to the completion of the sign at the last day.24

Consequently, the confessional or any other means of grace does not replace the first plank of baptism. Baptism is for life. The Christian must continually return to the power that baptism exercises.25 “All the sanctification of the Christian is thus nothing else than a completion of baptism.”26

Luther further differs with the medieval Church in that baptism is able to overcome unbelief and resistance to grace. The medieval Church had taught that baptism was always efficacious except in cases where an obstacle is placed by the one being baptized. Luther, however, says that baptism is so powerful it is able to change the hearts of the ungodly, infants and adults alike. In combination with the prayers and faith of the church, all sacraments are “efficacious in giving grace, not only those who offer no resistance, but even to those who resist most obstinately.”27

Thus, according to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther believed that the medieval Church denigrated the sacrament of baptism by teaching that it did too little: it covered only original sin and was ineffective in certain persons. Contradistinctively, Luther asserted that baptism provided full and complete justification that was to be embraced throughout one’s life and could convert even the most hardened sinner. James Atkinson is therefore correct to point out that with respect to baptism Luther “was more of a sacramentalist than the Romanists themselves.”28

1.2. Concerning Rebaptism

After the Peasants’ War, Martin Luther fired his theological arrows in another direction, viz., the Anabaptists, a growing radical movement that threatened the unity and stability of the Protestant Reformation. In reply to an inquiry from two pastors, Luther wrote a treatise on the subject of rebaptism in December 1527 and January 1528. Not surprisingly, he highlights the efficacy of baptism in this work.

A key component of his defense of infant baptism is the power of baptism to create faith in the infant. Where Christ speaks, there he can call forth spirit and faith. In baptism, Christ not only speaks, he baptizes, and therefore he can certainly call forth spirit and faith in the child. Luther writes,

We can hardly deny that the same Christ is present at baptism and in baptism, in fact is himself the baptizer, who in those days came in his mother’s womb to John. In baptism he can speak as well through the mouth of the priest, as when he spoke through his mother. Since then he is present, speaks, and baptizes, why should not his Word and baptism call forth spirit and faith in the child as then it produced faith in John? He is the same one who speaks and acts then and now.29

According to Luther, infant baptism is “the most certain form of baptism.” Adults can be hypocrites, feigning fidelity to Christ. A little child, however, is incapable of deception. Infant baptism is, therefore, efficacious, which is a primary reason they are brought to the font. Luther writes,

The most certain form of baptism is child baptism. For an adult might deceive and come to Christ as a Judas and have himself baptized. But a child cannot deceive. He comes to Christ in baptism, as John came to him, and as the children were brought to him, that his word and work might be effective in them, move them, and make them holy, because his Word and work cannot be without fruit. Yet it has this effect alone in the child. Were it to fail here it would fail everywhere and be in vain, which is impossible.30

In light of the power of baptism to save infants, Luther argues that it is better to administer baptism to infants, even if it was true that the church throughout the centuries had been mistaken on this issue. In other words, it is better to be safe than sorry. For if it is true that baptism saves yet it is not administered, then the church would be “responsible for all the children who were lost because they were unbaptized—a cruel and terrible thing.”31 But if infant baptism is not right then the church would only “be guilty of no greater sin than the Word of God had been spoken and his sign given in vain.”32

1.3. The Small Catechism and Baptismal Booklet

Based upon his sermons and motivated by pastoral need, Luther wrote his small catechism either at the end of 1528 or early 1529. In the section on the sacrament of baptism, Luther lists the gifts or benefits that baptism grants, namely, forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and the devil, and eternal salvation.33

Appended to The Small Catechism is The Baptismal Booklet. This booklet was originally published in 1523 and based on medieval baptismal rites. It was revised in 1526 and subsequently included in the second edition of The Small Catechism in 1529.34 Luther’s liturgy indicates that the infant prior to baptism is possessed by the devil and a child of sin and wrath, while baptism delivers him from the devil, making him a child of God. Before the sacrament is administered the baptizer commands the unclean spirit to depart to make room for the Holy Spirit. He then asks God to bless the infant with true faith in the Holy Spirit, to give the child spiritual rebirth and the promised kingdom. After the rite, the priest proclaims, “The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given birth to you for a second time through water and the Holy Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with his grace to eternal life.”35

1.4. The Large Catechism

Also known as The German Catechism, this catechism, like its smaller counterpart, was published in 1529. Concerning what benefits, gifts, and effects baptism brings, Luther bases his answer upon Mark 16:16 and says,

This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, ‘to be saved.’ To be saved, as everyone knows, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever.36

Elsewhere, Luther notes that baptism promises and brings “victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”37 The power and effect of baptism, as best signified by the mode of immersion, “is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long.”38

1.5. Summary

The sacrament of baptism is no mean thing in the eyes of Luther. Salvation in its entirety is given at the font.39 In baptism, one is made a Christian; reborn; raised from the dead; brought into the Kingdom; given faith; adorned with holiness, righteousness, and wisdom; united to Christ; forgiven; justified; sanctified; and redeemed from sin, death, and the devil.40 Baptism is the place where the “joyful exchange” between Christ and the sinner transpires.41

With such a view of what baptism accomplishes, it is easy to understand why this sacrament receives encomiums from Luther. Yet, how does he avoid, at least to his own satisfaction and that of others, the charge of contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone? Indeed, how can it be argued that Luther’s baptismal doctrine is one of his sharpest expressions of justification by faith? Appeals are made to other elements of Luther’s teaching on baptism, which we will now address.

2. Elements of Luther’s Baptismal Doctrine That Are Consistent with Sola Fide

In treating it “in a systematic way,”42 Luther divides the baptismal section of his Large Catechism into three sub-sections, along with an excursus on infant baptism. The second section expounds the efficacy of baptism. The other two sections pertain to the nature and condition of baptism, both of which appear to make Luther’s doctrine of baptismal regeneration compatible with sola fide.

2.1. The Nature of Baptism

Basing his comments on Matt 28:19 and Mark 16:16, Luther emphasizes first of all that baptism is of divine origin. It is not something that man invented. Rather, it is commanded and instituted by God. Thus, baptism may not be despised or regarded as something of no use.

Secondly, Luther notes that baptism is a work of God because we are baptized into God’s name. Although baptism is performed by a man, “it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”43 Outwardly, the sacrament of baptism may not look like much, but it is of far greater value than any work by the greatest saint by virtue of the fact that God, who works in baptism, is far nobler and better. The value of baptism must not be derived from the act itself but from the value of the one who performs it.44

Thirdly, baptism is water and the word joined together. The addition of the word to the water is what makes baptism a sacrament. Without the word, the water “is not different from the water that the maid uses for cooking.”45 But with the word, the water becomes “divine, holy, heavenly, holy and blessed.”46 In answering his own question of what baptism is, Luther writes in The Large Catechism, “Namely, that it is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them. It is nothing else than God’s water, not that the water itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it.”47 Similarly, he writes in The Small Catechism, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water enclosed in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.”48

The word that is added to the water in baptism is variously described by Luther, in both catechisms, as command, word, and ordinance. This is somewhat different from his discussion in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he underscores the word “promise.”49 The use of “command” as opposed to “promise” should not be construed as excluding the notion of promise or gospel. Luther stresses the command and divine ordinance of baptism in his catechisms because he is addressing primarily the errors of the Anabaptists whom he believed denigrated the sign.50 Though “command” and “promise” are not identical in meaning, the two are inseparable so that the word, which is added to the water, includes both concepts.51

The presence of the word inseparably joined to the water is what makes baptism, according to Luther, efficacious. Both catechisms assert that water does not grant salvation. After stating, in The Large Catechism, what baptism accomplishes, Luther writes,

Here again you see how baptism is to be regarded as precious and important, for in it we obtain such an inexpressible treasure. This indicates that it cannot be simple, ordinary water, for ordinary water could not have such an effect. But the Word does it, and this shows also, as we said above, that God’s name is in it. And where God’s name is, there must also be life and salvation. Thus it is well described as a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water, for it is through the Word that it receives the power to become the “washing of regeneration,” as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3[:5].52

Defining baptism as God’s work wherein he saves by means of his word or promise is a crucial aspect of Luther’s baptismal doctrine because he thereby avoids the error of Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans, “who forget the Word (God’s institution) and say that God has placed a spiritual power in the water which, through the water, washes away sin.”53 This ex opere operato understanding of baptism nullifies the roles of promise and faith, perverting the sacrament into a work. Luther writes,

Therefore it cannot be true that there resides in the sacraments a power capable of giving justification, or that they are the “signs” of efficacious grace. All such things are said to the detriment of faith, and in ignorance of the divine promises. . . . In this way, the Romanists have put precepts in place of the sacraments, and works in place of faith. Now, if a sacrament were to give me grace just because I receive that sacrament, then surely I should obtain the grace, not by faith, but by my works. I should not gain the promise in the sacrament, but only the sign instituted and commanded by God.54

Furthermore, by highlighting the divine promise in baptism, Luther is able to stress the necessity of faith. Wherever a divine promise is found, there faith is required.55 Hence, New Testament signs are “accompanied by a word of promise demanding faith.”56 Baptism is God’s work; and “God’s works are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith.”57 Thus, by defining baptism as the word added to the water, Luther avoids, at least from one perspective, turning the sacrament into a work, and so does not contradict the article upon which the Church stands or falls.

2.2. The Condition of Baptism

The third sub-section in the section on baptism in The Large Catechism discusses who receives the gifts and benefits of baptism. Luther’s unequivocal answer is that only the one who believes receives what is offered and promised in baptism. Indeed, “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the saving, divine water profitably.”58

The need for faith is a note that is heard throughout Luther’s evangelical writings, but perhaps it is loudest in his 1520 treatise The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, as is to be expected considering his audience. Repeatedly and in various ways, Luther stresses the necessity of faith. Devoid of faith, the sacrament is without personal benefit, and it becomes “a stumbling-block not only at the moment we receive baptism but for all our life thereafter.”59 In fact, baptism was instituted to feed faith.60 Therefore, “if you desire to be saved, you must start from faith in the sacraments—anterior to any works.”61 Although he appears to temper his language after the appearance of the Anabaptists, Luther is so adamant about stressing the requirement of faith alone that he is willing to say that the virtue of baptism “lies not so much in the faith or practice of the administrator, as in that of the recipient,” and that the whole effectiveness of New Testaments signs “lies in faith, and not in anything that is done.”62 Moreover, faith is so necessary that it can save even apart from the sacrament.63 Baptism, therefore, justifies only in so far as what is promised is received by faith alone. It is a sacrament of justification simply because it is a sacrament of “a justificatory faith, and not of works.”64 “Thus, baptism justifies nobody, and gives advantage to nobody; rather, faith in the word of the promise to which baptism was conjoined, is what justifies, and so completes, that which the baptism signified.”65

The obvious objection to Luther’s insistence on faith is that it is an argument against infant baptism. Infants cannot exercise faith and therefore either faith is not a necessary condition or baptism does not save them. Luther faces this objection head on from the very beginning, though he does alter his answer over the years.66 Wanting to maintain sola fide and the saving/justifying nature of infant baptism, Luther eventually comes to the settled conclusion that infants receive the Holy Spirit at baptism and believe with their own faith.67

At this stage, it becomes clear why it is sometimes asserted that Luther’s baptismal doctrine is his doctrine of justification by faith. The gospel promise is offered and received by faith alone in baptism. Baptism is not our work, but God’s work; it is not Law but Gospel. Nevertheless, as we continue to explore Luther’s baptismal doctrine the tension with sola fide will heighten.

3. Problems with Luther’s Baptismal Doctrine

Although Luther rejected the Thomistic ex opere operato understanding of baptism, David Scaer notes that for Luther “baptism possesses such an objective reality, that it seems to take on an ex opere operato character.”68 This is certainly the case, at least with respect to “the most certain form of baptism,” viz., infant baptism.69 As we have seen, baptism saves. The word and therefore God’s name is in the water. “And where God’s name is, there must also be life and salvation.”70 Consequently, the water of baptism is salvific. Specifically, the infant is regenerated and given faith, enabling him to be justified.

Karl Barth finds Luther’s position to be problematic.71 As Trigg puts it, “How can Luther’s demand for a conscious, individual fides explicita be reconciled with the statement that the infant ‘becomes a saint in the hands of the priest?’”72 We have seen that Luther’s definitive answer to this problem is that the infant himself has faith. Barth, however, is not convinced, taking issue with the idea of infant faith.73 But even if we grant the notion of infant faith it is still hard to see how Luther avoids the same charge he lays against the Thomists. Baptism is efficacious apart from faith.74 To be sure, one is not technically justified apart from faith as it is given in baptism. Nevertheless, saving grace that necessarily results in justification is automatically given in the sacrament apart from faith. How then does performing the rite of baptism in obedience to God’s command not become a work that God rewards with justification? Undoubtedly, Luther himself would answer that God, and not man, is the one who acts or works in baptism, thereby even preventing faith, which is given in baptism, from becoming a work. Therefore, baptism cannot be characterized as a work we do and that God rewards. Indeed, Jonathan Trigg vigorously argues this point on Luther’s behalf:

To some it has appeared that the tensions surrounding baptism in Luther’s theology are unsustainable. His recognition of baptismal regeneration is seen to be on a collision course with the central discoveries of his reformation breakthrough, above all with his doctrine of justification by faith. Yet Luther’s baptismal doctrine, properly understood, is one of his sharpest expressions of justification by faith. The utter objectivity of baptism as divine word and work prevents the faith which grasps it becoming a self-conscious work of human piety.75

It is still the case, however, that God commands us to baptize and requires us to submit to baptism. Consequently, it is a rite performed and submitted to by man in obedience to God. Thus, it does not seem that Luther can fully evade the charge he lays at the feet of the Thomists.

A related problem is that Luther’s view of the efficacy of baptism is in tension with his belief that baptism signifies and accomplishes full and complete justification. This tension is created by the fact that baptized people apostatize. Since people apostatize then either baptism does not save infants or complete justification is not given in baptism. Though both options are unacceptable to Luther, the fact that the work of baptism is not completed until death lends itself to the latter. Interestingly, in order to resolve this tension, later Lutheranism taught that what is given in baptism can be lost.76

The central problem, however, with Luther’s doctrine of baptism is that, while it is not absolutely necessary, it is ordinarily necessary for salvation. Writing in 1520 against the medieval tradition, Luther willingly acknowledges that one can be saved apart from the sacrament, though not apart from faith.77 He maintains this belief even through his debates with the Anabaptists where he emphasizes the power and necessity of baptism. Noting that the word can exist without the sacrament, but not vice versa, Luther says that “in case of necessity, a man can be saved without the sacrament, but not without the word; this is true of those who desire baptism but die before they can receive it.”78 Similarly, he says in his lectures on Genesis that God is able to save without baptism.79 Examples of salvation apart from baptism include children who die before being baptized; believing adults who are unable to be baptized before death; and persons who believe they were baptized as infants but in reality had not been.80

Apart from these qualifications, Luther unequivocally stressed the importance of baptism for justification. Baptism is the place where God is to be found and so where man is to believe in order to be justified. This is not to say that there is anything inherent in water that makes it efficacious. Just the opposite is true. There is nothing in or about the water that is appealing. However, God has chosen, in accordance with potentia ordinata (ordained power), to save man through the external sign of water.81 In other words, “baptism is a trysting place appointed for the encounter between God and man.”82

Justification, therefore, does not take place prior to but in baptism. This is a point that Luther underscores against the Anabaptists who saw the sacrament as subsequent to conversion.83 Since God works through the sacrament to save the one being baptized, “salvation does not occur in an experience of subjective ecstasy; it happens at the moment the baptized is washed with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”84 Baptism is the place “where the Triune God in all his power makes himself concretely present and brings the person being baptized into his kingdom.”85 While acknowledging that Abraham was justified before he received the sacrament, Luther says that his circumcision, like Christ’s baptism, was exceptional. All those who follow after Abraham and Christ are “made righteous by believing the promise and making use of the sacrament in faith.”86 Hence, Tranvik correctly observes that for Luther “baptism is the earthly means by which the believer participates in justification.”87

As the place God has ordained to justify his people, baptism is therefore ordinarily necessary for justification: “God is able to save without Baptism. . . . But in the church we must judge and teach, in accordance with God’s ordered power, that without that outward Baptism no one is saved.”88 Also, against the Anabaptists, Luther accentuates this point. He marshals two main arguments in his Large Catechism. First, baptism needs to be not only observed, but cherished because God commanded and instituted it.89 Second, contrary to the “new spirits” who claim that faith alone saves apart from external things, baptism is necessary for this reason:

Faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be baptism, in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. When I believe this, what is it but believing in God as the one who has bestowed and implanted his Word in baptism and has offered us this external thing within which we can grasp this treasure.90

Since justification does not occur apart from the reception of the sacrament of baptism, the doctrine of justification is compromised because we are not justified by faith alone but by faith and baptism. One must believe and be baptized. Luther’s qualifications notwithstanding, his view inevitably turns baptism into a work. This is most clearly seen in the case of an adult. Since forgiveness is ordinarily only given in baptism, when an adult hears and believes the gospel he must remain in an unjustified state until he obeys the command to be baptized. Consequently, faith alone in the promise is not enough for justification. Obedience must be added to faith.

Once again, we can hear Luther and his defenders protesting that baptism is not a work. The only thing man does in baptism is believe, which itself is a gift of God. Baptism is simply the earthly means by which God has chosen to impart salvation. In response, it must be stressed that submission to baptism is an act of obedience to God that is done in addition to believing the gospel. Justification, therefore, is by faith in the gospel plus obedience to God’s command to be baptized. This is contrary to the Scriptures and akin to the Galatian heresy. John 5:24 states that he who hears the word and believes in Jesus has passed from death into life. One is justified at the moment one believes, and not later at baptism. The Galatians had their sins pardoned and received the Holy Spirit when they believed the gospel and not after they had obeyed the law of God (Gal 3:1–9; Acts 13:48, 52; 14:1). In Gal 3:2 (niv) Paul rhetorically asks the Galatians, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Paul does not say “by believing and being baptized.” In a passage where Paul is vigorously defending the biblical way of salvation, one would expect Paul to mention baptism. But he does not because the Galatians received the Spirit when they believed what they heard, in contrast to any further work of obedience. James R. White comments,

The reception of the Spirit was a sign, in Paul’s theology, of the redeemed (Ephesians 1:13–14). Therefore, since the presence of the Spirit in a person’s life was evidence of his justification and redemption, Paul asks a logical question: How did the Galatians receive the Spirit, by works of righteousness or by hearing of faith? And since the answer to this question was all too obvious, the only logical conclusion was that any teaching that said righteousness came about only after certain rites or rituals must be false on its face. So it remains today—anyone who adds “requirements” to the gospel such as sacraments, baptism, various forms of obedience, etc., falls into the same error that Paul here attacks.91

Later Lutheranism, and perhaps Luther himself,92 teaches that baptism achieves something different in adults than in children. This “strange position,” as Karl Barth describes it,93 states that baptism works regeneration and faith in infants. But in adults, since they must believe before baptism, it only seals and confirms the grace of God, thereby, oddly enough, approximating the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments.94 Limiting baptismal regeneration to infants, however, does not fully resolve the problem. If infants can truly believe then why is it still necessary for them to receive baptism? Luther himself admits that Christ’s word was able to evoke faith in John while he was in the womb.95 Thus, an infant’s faith in Jesus by means of the spoken gospel should be sufficient for his justification. Adding a further requirement for justification such as obeying the command to baptize, therefore, compromises sola fide.

The final problem to note concerning Luther’s doctrine of baptism is that it fails to escape the sacerdotalism of the medieval Church.96 Since only those called to the priesthood are to administer the sacraments97 and baptism is necessary for justification, the people remain enslaved to the church.98 Alister McGrath’s summary and analysis of the medieval system equally applies to Luther:

In conclusion, it may be stated that the medieval period saw the justification of the sinner firmly linked to the sacramental life of the church, a sound theological link having been established between justification and the sacraments. This linking of justification to the sacramental system of the church has profound theological and pastoral consequences, of which the most important is the tendency to assert iustificatio extra ecclesiam non est [there is no justification outside the church]. Although the theologians of the medieval period were aware that God was not bound by the sacraments, the tendency to emphasise the reliability of the established order of salvation, of which the sacramental system is part, can only have served to convey the impression that the sinner who wishes to be reconciled to God must, de facto, seek the assistance of a priest.99

4. Conclusion

There is no question as to the significant service that Martin Luther rendered to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. His recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, along with his doctrine of Scripture, stands at the fore of his many accomplishments. All true believers owe a tremendous debt to this great Reformer. Yet, no one this side of eternity is fully sound or completely consistent in doctrine or practice. Indeed, it is possible to be inconsistent with those doctrines we regard to be of the greatest importance. Martin Luther, so we have argued, is a case in point. Although he made noted advancements concerning the doctrine of baptism, especially with his discussion on promise and faith, Luther failed to undo every rope that the medieval sacramental system had used to bind the Christian. By maintaining that baptism is the ordinarily necessary occasion of justification and by holding to an essentially ex opere operato understanding, Martin Luther unwittingly compromised his cherished doctrine of justification by faith alone. Stressing the objectivity of baptism as God’s saving word and work, as does Trigg, is not enough to vindicate Luther. For when baptism becomes the means of justification, responding to the gospel in faith is no longer sufficient. One must believe and be baptized.

The necessity of baptism for justification is by no means a belief of a bygone era or merely a unique tenet of contemporary Lutheranism. It is advocated today, sometimes quite strenuously, by various sections of Protestantism. Those with the loudest voice belong to what is sometimes called “The Restoration Movement,” and are associated with the Christian Church and the Church of Christ. Some teach the absolute necessity of baptism for justification while others like Luther allow for exceptions. An example of the latter is Jack Cottrell, professor of theological studies at Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary.100 It is not surprising then that he paints Luther in a very favorable light.101

From another direction, a controversy has arisen recently among Reformed churches in America over this issue of baptism and justification due to proposals by the so-called Federal Visionists. Some have affirmed a form of baptismal regeneration, viewing baptism as a converting ordinance and/or as ordinarily necessary for entrance into the church and consequently for salvation, including justification.102 Most striking in this regard are the views of Rich Lusk, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. According to Lusk, baptism is God’s instrument of justification and the means by which the Spirit unites a person to Christ.103 Forgiveness is not granted when one believes the gospel, but later at baptism. Hearing the gospel, faith, repentance, and baptism are a package-deal. Hence, Lusk tentatively suggests that the Apostle Paul was not forgiven on the road to Damascus, but a few days later when he was baptized by Ananias.104

By viewing baptism as the ordinarily necessary instrument and occasion for justification, Restorationists and Federal Visionists fall into the same error as Martin Luther and either contradict (Restorationists) or undermine (Federal Visionists) the doctrine of justification by faith alone. As we have previously noted, God justifies the sinner the moment he believes and thus before baptism. Some attempt to evade this argument by distinguishing between title and possession. The believing sinner has the right to justification before baptism while he possesses it at baptism. But as Robert Dabney points out in his discussion of Alexander Campbell’s doctrine of baptism, this still does not comport with what the Apostle John says, namely, the believing sinner has passed from death to life.105 It is for this reason baptism does not justify, even though it may convey saving grace. William Cunningham writes,

It is a fundamental principle of scriptural doctrine, that justification and regeneration are necessarily and invariably connected with faith, and that they are cotemporaneous with it, whatever may be the precise relation subsisting among them in the order of nature. Whoever has been enabled to believe in Jesus Christ has been justified and regenerated; he has passed through that great ordeal on which salvation depends, and which can occur but once in the history of a soul. And if these principles are well founded, then the spiritual blessings which the sacraments may be instrumental in conveying, can be those only which men still stand in need of, with a view to their salvation, after they have been justified and regenerated by faith.106

As we construct our own view of baptism it is important that we learn from the past. We should learn from our spiritual forefathers, both from their triumphs and their mistakes. One important lesson that we glean from the writings of the great Reformer Martin Luther is that in our worthy quest to highlight the importance of baptism and to seriously wrestle with the biblical passages that connect conversion with baptism, we must be careful not to impinge upon the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.

ol class=”footnotes”>

  • ^ William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (1862; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 101.
  • ^ See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (2d ed.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 180n3, 448.
  • ^ James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), 192; Karl Barth, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism (trans. Ernest A. Payne; London: SCM, 1963), 22–29; Church Dogmatics IV/4 (trans. G. W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 169. See also Jonathan D. Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 4; David P. Scaer, “Luther, Baptism, and the Church today,” CTQ 62 (1998): 251; R. Scott Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace” The Confessional Presbyterian 2 (2006): 7.
  • ^ James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (2 vols.; 1869; repr., Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival, 1991), 2:25. See also A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1879; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 628; R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 75; Joel Beeke, “The Relation of Faith to Justification,” in Justification by Faith Alone (ed. Don Kistler; Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 89–91.
  • ^ Ibid, 2:40.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 2.
  • ^ Ibid., 226. See also 151.
  • ^ Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (trans. Robert C. Schultz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 356.
  • ^ Anthony N. S. Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 187.
  • ^ Ibid.
  • ^ See Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology (trans. Roy A. Harrisville; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 85–95.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 10–11, 146–148. See also Althaus, Luther, 364, 369.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 62–66.
  • ^ The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 457, 458.
  • ^ Ibid., 462.
  • ^ Barth, Baptism, 61–62. Thomas Manton: “Luther saith of himself, that when the devil tempted him to despair, or to any doubts and fears about the love of God or his mercy to sinners, he would always answer, Ecce, ego baptizatus sum, et credo in Christum crucifixum: ‘Behold, I am baptized, and believe in Christ crucified’” (“How Ought We to Improve Our Baptism,” in Puritan Sermons 1659–1689 [6 vols.; 1845; repr., Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981], 2:99).
  • ^ “No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire” (Book of Concord, 462; emphasis mine; see also 459).
  • ^ Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (ed. John Dillenberger; New York: Doubleday, 1961), 299, 303.
  • ^ McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 91. See also Mark Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” LQ 13 (1999): 76.
  • ^ See Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 292.
  • ^ Ibid., 301. See also Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 79; Althaus, Luther, 356.
  • ^ Ibid., 302.
  • ^ McGrath writes, “Luther does not make the distinction between justification and sanctification associated with later Protestantism, treating justification as a process of becoming: fieri est iustificatio. Justification is thus a ‘sort of beginning of God’s creation,’ initium aliquod creaturae eius, by which the Christian waits in hope for the consummation of his righteousness” (Iustitia Dei, 200). See also Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 107.
  • ^ Ibid., 303.
  • ^ Ibid. Cf. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 87.
  • ^ Althaus, Luther, 355.
  • ^ Ibid., 308.
  • ^ Atkinson, Martin Luther, 191.
  • ^ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; 55 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955–76), 40:242–43. See also 40:245–46.
  • ^ Ibid., 40:244.
  • ^ Ibid., 40:254.
  • ^ Ibid.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 359.
  • ^ Ibid., 371n147.
  • ^ Ibid., 375.
  • ^ Ibid., 459.
  • ^ Ibid., 461.
  • ^ Ibid., 465.
  • ^ Althaus, Luther, 353; Trigg, Baptism, 39.
  • ^ See Trigg, Baptism, 75–77.
  • ^ Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart; New York: Doubleday, 1989), 227; Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 79.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 457.
  • ^ Ibid. See also 460–61; Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 297; Luther’s Works, 40:239.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 458.
  • ^ Ibid., 459.
  • ^ Ibid., 458.
  • ^ Ibid.
  • ^ Ibid., 359.
  • ^ Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 293.
  • ^ See Book of Concord, 457, 458, 460, where Luther refers to “new spirits” who believe that external things are useless. Cf. Trigg, Baptism, 75.
  • ^ See Trigg, Baptism, 69.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 459–60.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 320.
  • ^ Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 300–301. See also Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 76–77.
  • ^ Ibid., 301.
  • ^ Ibid., 299.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 461.
  • ^ Ibid., 460.
  • ^ Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 293.
  • ^ Ibid., 295.
  • ^ Ibid., 296.
  • ^ Ibid., 298, 299.
  • ^ Ibid., 301.
  • ^ Ibid., 299.
  • ^ Ibid., 300.
  • ^ See Althaus, Luther, 364; John W. Riggs, Baptism in the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 28–29.
  • ^ Ibid., 364–69.
  • ^ Scaer, “Luther, Baptism, and the Church today,” 265. See also Trigg, Baptism, 77.
  • ^ Luther’s Works, 40:244.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 460.
  • ^ Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4, 169.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 4.
  • ^ Barth, Baptism, 46–47; idem, Church Dogmatics IV/4, 187.
  • ^ J. D. C. Fisher writes, “Thus in order not to contradict his assertion that the sacraments could not confer grace unless there were faith in the recipients, Luther was forced to contend that in some sense infants could have faith. But his argument is not wholly convincing, and seems to attribute to the baptism of an infant an objective efficaciousness inconsistent with what he said elsewhere about the necessity of personal faith,” Christian Initiation: the Reformation Period (Chicago: Hillenbrand, 2007), 5. See also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4, 172.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 226. See also Althaus, Luther, 354–56.
  • ^ Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ,” 7.
  • ^ Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 301.
  • ^ Cited by Althaus, Luther, 349n19.
  • ^ See Luther’s Works, 3:274.
  • ^ Trigg, Baptism, 41, 44; Luther’s Works, 40:258; 3:274.
  • ^ Ibid., 26–27.
  • ^ Ibid., 30.
  • ^ Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 82.
  • ^ Ibid.
  • ^ Ibid., 83.
  • ^ Luther’s Works, 3:87. On the same page Luther writes: “Thus circumcision was enjoined upon Abraham in order that for his descendents it might be a sacrament through which they would be made righteous if they believed the promise which the Lord had attached to it.” Cf. Trigg, Baptism, 41.
  • ^ Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 87.
  • ^ Luther’s Works, 3:274.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 457.
  • ^ Ibid., 460.
  • ^ James R. White, The God Who Justifies (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), 297–98.
  • ^ See Book of Concord, 322–23.
  • ^ Barth, Baptism, 46.
  • ^ See Cunningham, The Reformers, 263–64; Henry Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1905), 335.
  • ^ Luther’s Works, 40:242–43.
  • ^ See B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (repr., Avinger, TX: Simpson, 1989), 62–63.
  • ^ Book of Concord, 46.
  • ^ See Beeke, “The Relation of Faith to Justification,” 90.
  • ^ McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 99.
  • ^ See his Baptism: A Biblical Study (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1989).
  • ^ Jack Cottrell, “The History of Baptism, Part One: From Paul to Luther,” Christian Standard (2004): 7–9.
  • ^ Douglas Wilson finds support for his view of baptismal regeneration in the Westminster Standards. See his Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2002), 103–7; E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004). For an opposing view of the Westminster Standards, see D. Patrick Ramsey, “Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession of Faith,” The Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2008): 183–93.
  • ^ See his internet essays, “Faith, Baptism, and Justification,”, accessed May 6, 2009; “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”, accessed May 6, 2009.
  • ^ See his internet essay, “Some Thoughts on the Means of Grace: A Few Proposals”, accessed May 6, 2009.
  • ^ Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 1:347–48.
  • ^ Cunningham, Reformers, 273.

D. Patrick Ramsey

Patrick Ramsey is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church (OPC) in London, Kentucky.

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