Beckett: The Doctrine of Baptism in the Large Catechism

For those who do not wish to read Luther’s entire Large Catechism, this article services as a TL;DR summary of what he writes. For Luther, Baptism is of utmost necessity for the Christian and it initiates a person “into the Christian community” (LC 4th Part, 2).

Baptism’s Necessity and Efficacy

First, Luther emphasises its necessity with the Lord’s command in Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16 so that, with Luther, we can confess, “As truly as I can say that the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer were not spun out of anyone’s imagination but are revealed and given by God himself, so I can boast that baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God himself… What God institutes and commands cannot be useless” (paras. 6, 8), especially since Baptism is performed in God’s name. Because we are baptised into God’s name and not a human name, we can also confidently say it is God’s own act and not a human act, even though human hands are used (para. 10).

Luther’s view on Baptism is entirely Christ-centred, finding its sole function in God and His Word. “What is baptism? 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” (para. 14).

What makes the water effective to cleanse the sinner of all his or her sins? Nothing but God and His efficacious Word alone. Anything that sets aside God’s Word in the role and function of Baptism, therefore, is to be considered “wickedness and devilish blasphemy” (para. 15); for by doing so, God’s grace is replaced with some meagre human effort. We call it a sacrament because, from Augustine, “‘when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament'” (para. 18). This is Luther’s first of three points.

His second point is that we “learn why and for what purpose it has been instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings” (para. 23). Strictly speaking, its purpose is for salvation, according to Christ’s own words, “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved” (Mark 16:16; see para. 24). To be saved means “nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever” (para. 25). This is what Baptism effectuates in the baptised individual.

Opponents of Luther’s day who still remain today will say, “All one needs to be saved is faith alone.” Yet as Luther says, “We answer: It is true, nothing that is in us does it but faith.” However, they fail to see that “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 [alone]… but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it” (paras. 28-29).

In other words, faith has an object. Faith always needs something to cling to and trust in. That is what God gives us in Baptism—He gives our faith an object to hold onto for absolute assurance of salvation rather than having faith in faith (fideism).

Luther’s third point is the “who” of Baptism. That is, who receives its gifts and benefits? Remaining ever consistent, he again points to Jesus’ words in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes.” In other words, “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the saving, divine water profitably” (para. 33). To put it another way: if you believe in Jesus Christ, you are fit for Baptism and its benefits and gifts God promises. Because the expression “whoever believes” means faith, “it excludes and drives out all works that we may do with the intention of gaining and meriting salvation through them” (papra. 34).

Good works do not make you fit for Baptism; only faith does. Baptism “is not a work that we do” but “a treasure that God gives us and faith grasps, just as the LORD Christ upon the cross is not a work but a treasure placed in the setting of the Word and offered to us in the Word and received by faith” (para. 37). God gives it; faith alone receives it.

Baptism is not only God’s command; it also effectuates God’s promises to the baptised, namely, “victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts” (para. 41). Thus, Luther calls it “medicine that swallows up death” (para. 43).

In any conversation of Baptism, the question of infant baptism inevitably comes up. If “whoever believes”—that is, faith—makes one fit for Baptism, can infants believe and, therefore, be baptised? As Luther addresses this question, it must be understood that his approach for the entirety of this section of the Large Catechism has a systematic focus rather than exegetical, as he says in the beginning, “In order that it may be readily understood, we shall treat it in a systematic way and limit ourselves to that which is necessary for us to know” (para. 2). Thus, the reasons that follow are systematic and are, furthermore, limited in their scope. Nevertheless, what he says is both faithful and helpful.

First, he makes the point that “if God did not accept the baptism of infants, he would not have given any of them the Holy Spirit—or any part of him. In short, all this time down to the present day there would have been no person on earth who could have been a Christian” (para. 50). In other words, if God did not recognise the Baptism of infants as valid, there would be no Christians today since the early church baptised infants and, furthermore, no infant who was baptised would ever exhibit faith.

The most important point, however, is what Luther says next, “We do not put the main emphasis on whether the person baptized believes or not, for in the latter case [not believing] baptism does not become invalid. Everything depends on the Word and commandment of God,” just as he argued up to this point. “When the Word accompanies the water, baptism is valid, even though faith is lacking. For my faith does not make baptism; rather, it receives baptism. Baptism does not become invalid if it is not properly received or used, as I have said, for it is not bound to our faith but to the Word” (paras. 52-53; emphasis mine).

This is critically important. As in the beginning of Luther’s explanation of Baptism, the emphasis is always on the Word of God. The Word always does what it says without fail; it is efficacious. Faith merely receives; but if Baptism is received wrongly, this does not somehow render the Word of God weak or ineffective, as if by our wicked unbelief we somehow have power over God and His Word. “God’s ordinance and Word cannot be changed or altered by human beings” (para. 60). God is sovereign, not unbelief.

Thus, whether the infant (or adult) believes is not the point of Baptism’s effectiveness; its effectiveness relies solely on the Word of God, which always accomplishes what God sets it out to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Therefore, whenever opponents argue against infant baptism, whether or not an infant has faith in or after Baptism is a moot point since the efficacy of Baptism is always and only on the Word of God, not on its visible manifestations of human behaviour.

Furthermore, because God’s Word always accomplishes what He says, if one did not believe during Baptism but believes now, they do not need to be rebaptised but they simply need to believe in the promise that was given to them in their Baptism, thus receiving it properly by faith (para. 56). So then, why baptise our babies if we do not know if they believe? “We bring the child with the intent and hope that it may believe. But we do not baptize on this basis, but solely on the command of God. Why? Because we know God does not lie. My neighbor and I—in short, all people—may deceive and mislead, but God’s Word cannot deceive” (para. 57; emphasis mine). Thus, the question should not be, “Why baptise our babies” but rather, “Why not baptise them?”

Luther puts forth the Latin: Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam, meaning, “Misuse does not destroy the substance, but confirms its existence.” In other words, the fact that a thing is misused does not invalidate its existence but rather validates its existence. For example, if a father, mother, or president misuses or abuses their office, does this invalidate the office of fatherhood, motherhood, or presidency? No, because the misuse itself validates the existence of the office since it by nature informs us of its proper use. The person who holds the office might be in the wrong, but the office itself is not in the wrong or invalidated. So it is with Baptism (paras. 58-59).

Baptism’s Initiation into the Church Community

All this addresses Baptism’s necessity, but what about its initiating the baptised into the Christian community? In Baptism, the “old Adam” in you is slain and you rise as a new creature, “both of which must continue in us our whole life long” (cf. Romans 6). When you are baptised, you are initiated into a community of Christians who live a life that is:

…nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth. What is the old creature? It is what is born of us from Adam, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud—yes—and unbelieving; it is beset with all vices and by nature has nothing good in it. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom [the community of believers], this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.

paras. 65-67

In short, you enter into a community of believers following Christ in the lifelong process of baptismal regeneration (Titus 3:3-8). For Luther, this baptismal life “comprehends” the third sacrament, penance (Absolution, repentance). He writes, “What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and strength to suppress the old creature so that the new may come forth and grow strong” (paras. 75-76).

For Luther, Baptism is not a one-time event (para. 80). Rather, it is something we have daily access to in our daily repentance. Baptism is our “daily garment” (para. 84), forever clothed in Christ. Throughout this section on the community of believers, he hints at the simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) of the baptised people who simultaneously put off their old garment of the sinful flesh and put on their righteous garment of Christ on a daily basis. “As we have once obtained forgiveness of sins in baptism, so forgiveness remains day by day as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old creature around our necks” (para. 86).

No one does this alone; we all do it together. In the words of my regiment in South Korea, “Katchi Kapshida,” “We Go Together.”

Bibliograhpy

Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

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