I almost became a Presbyterian, it was years ago, and I still feel the swoosh of the cars under my feet as I hung off a ragged precipice ready to jump. Those were scary times. Now I’m quite a convinced, dyed-in-the-wool Baptist, and in my better days I think of baptizing babies with only minor horror. But with that all to say, when I consider the Presbyterian view of baptism, I can at least catch a glimmer of a rationale behind it, I can see a haze of a biblical argument. But when it comes to the Lutheran view, ach wo!
Westminster Confession 28.1 speaks of baptism as the admission into the church, and while it goes on to say that it is regeneration, remission of sins, etc., WCF 28.6 says that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the time when it is administered–therefore baptismal regeneration is avoided, notwithstanding the head-scratching of many Baptists like myself.
However, when you read major Lutheran statements on baptism, one goes from head scratching to head pounding…on a brick wall. The denomination whose founder was so strong on justification by faith alone leaves all that negated; or at the very least, faith alone is “preserved” through a series of back-spasm-provoking exegetical back-flips that leaves you heaving in a whirl of pain waiting for the demerol to kick in.
The pain of course comes from baptismal regeneration. In his “Sermon on Baptism” from 1534, Luther says that baptism brings the new believer “out of sin into righteousness, out of guilt and condemnation to innocence and grace, out of death into eternal life” (WA, 37:645.17-18). Later he says that the Christian is drawn by Christ “out of unrighteousness, condemnation, wickedness, death. He draws us through baptism into righteousness, life, and goodness. Where does baptism get that kind of power? It has God as the one who is at work in it” (“Sermon on Baptism,” 1538, WA, 46.175.37). He believed that the power of Christ’s suffering was brought into baptism, and that the waters of baptism “make atonement.” In effect, Luther believed that baptism washes away original sin.
Now, if you are a Baptist with a high sacramentology, and you argue for a deep relationship, though a distinction, between the “sign” and the “thing signified,” you may not be a baptismal regenerationist, because faith can still be a predicate. But when you are Luther, or a Lutheran, you believe this happens to a child, and faith cannot be a predicate. Well, unless you think that a newborn child can have faith that is, but who would believe that? Oh…Luther does: “Baptism is true. If it is possible that children do not have faith–and that they cannot demonstrate it–nevertheless, we should piously believe that God himself baptizes children and gives them faith and the Holy Spirit. That follows from the text” (“Sermons on Baptism,” 1539, WA, 47.655.1). I love that last line, it’s as if he says it to reassure us in light of our incredulity that it is in the text at all.
What is more incredulity-rendering is this: “But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it” (Larger Catechism XIII.4). So, faith alone saves–check. That faith must have an object–check. This faith must cling to…the waters of baptism. Sure, it is not mere water, but a water that is “embodied in the Word,” but please tell me how this does not heave works or merit into the mix. I love Luther, I want to read Luther as charitably as possible, I don’t think he was a heretic…but this just doesn’t make sense!
While Luther says that baptism is a work of God, and not of us, he cannot get away from the fact that baptism is a command that must be submitted to, and is therefore rightly understood as a work. As D. Patrick Ramsey says, “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” (“Sola Fide Compromised? Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Baptism” in Themelios 34.2). Luther also stumbles on the rock of Christian perseverance, because in his theology a baptized (note: regenerated) person can fall away from faith. This explains why later Lutherans do not espouse a theology of perseverance of the saints.
There is an object lesson in all of this: we must be wary of uncritical adulation of heroes. Luther was a great man, and his contribution to the defense of the gospel should be respected. But Luther, as an early Reformer, had significant problems. Sadly, his problems have flowed into later Lutheranism that has picked up the inconsistencies that he sought (though failed) to avoid, and run with them. Luther was the man for the hour in the Magisterial Reformation, he was a good Reformer, but he was not an exegete. There is a reason why commentaries on Galatians, or Romans today quote Luther sparingly, but Calvin figures large–the latter was skilled with the text of Scripture, the former was not. Luther should be read, but he must be read with a critical eye, and the areas where he failed must be admitted, and the theology must be rejected.
I am, of course, much more comfortable with these words about baptism: “Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance,” and “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance” (Second London Confession of Faith, 29.1 and 4). Ah, home sweet home.