By: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
When it comes to our place within the American religious landscape, maybe no Lutheran doctrine raises as many questions as baptism. Where does Scripture command the baptism of infants? How can an infant be saved at baptism? How do you reconcile justification by faith with infant baptismal regeneration? How can an infant believe? We answer these questions in every adult instruction class, every confirmation class, even many bible classes. Yet, for whatever controversy exists about these matters today, there was relatively little over it in the early years of the Reformation, when Luther penned his “On the Sacrament of Holy Baptism” in November 1519. The view he articulated there was remarkably consistent with much of what had been said throughout church history. The greatest criticism to this view of baptism would come not from Luther’s Roman opponents, but from his reforming friends.
In this November 1519 writing, however, Luther said very little that could cause controversy. He divided the sacrament of Holy Baptism into three distinct categories: the sign (signa), the thing (res) that it signifies, and how it signifies what it signifies. These distinctions go back to St. Augustine and his De doctrina christiana, where the archbishop of Hippo divided Christian doctrine (and, in particular, the sacraments) into the external words or signs used, the reality to which they point, and how they do so. For the sacraments, that means the element is the sign, the meaning of the sacrament that to which it points, and the signification how the sign represents that thing. In the specific case of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine are the sign, the body and blood of Christ is the thing signified, and how the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s crucified flesh the signification. Luther uses this exact framework to describe Holy Baptism. The baptismal water is the sign. The thing signified is the dying to sin and rising to new, eternal life, as St. Paul says in Romans 6. The way the baptismal waters signify this dying to sin and rising to new is through the physical act of baptism—especially, Luther suggests, immersion!—whereby the meaning of the sacrament plays itself out in real time. (This lays the foundation for how Luther will explain baptism later in the Small Catechism.)
Where Luther begins to say something that will eventually cause controversy is by incorporating his newfound understanding of justification by faith into the sacrament of Holy Baptism. For Luther, what baptism signifies is inextricably bound to God’s covenantal promise of forgiveness: it isn’t just that baptism forgives sins committed prior to receiving it, but it stands as constant promise of forgiveness for the one who has faith in what baptism declares. The believer is never without sin, and since the believer is never without sin he always needs the promise of forgiveness in order to believe that the forgiveness of sin did not just apply to those sins “back there,” but to the sins “here and now.” This, of course, provides us the connection between confession and baptism with which we are familiar. The promise of forgiveness declared at the font is received anew in confession and absolution, through the process of “daily contrition and repentance.” Now, this doesn’t mean that saving faith and mortal sin (however one defines that) can coexist, as the Lutheran confessions make manifestly clear [e.g., AC IV.64, 115, 144; SA III.3.43-45; FC SD II.29]. On the contrary, it assumes a life of contrition and repentance that continually returns to the promise of baptism by acknowledging those sins in confession and seeking to do better, as it says in the Brief Form of Confession appended to the Small Catechism: “For all this I am sorry, and pray for grace; I want to do better.” Nevertheless, sin remains, the effects of sin remain, and therefore the promise of forgiveness must also remain so that the one who has been baptized, repents, and believes might know that forgiveness still stands.
There was nothing controversial about Luther’s intent, nor is there anything in his words remarkably new or strange to our ears. But, by the end of the 1520s, that would change. Rome hardly spared print on the matter. Instead, a new group of opponents arose against Luther in the Spiritualists, Sacramentarians, and Anabaptists. The Spiritualists argued that God did not need to mediate his revelation or his grace through Word or Sacraments. The Sacramentarians applied this criticism to the Lord’s Supper. But it was the Anabaptists who pushed this debate to its logical conclusion: if justification comes through faith, and if faith involves believing in the gospel, then infants should not be baptized for their justification because they can’t believe in the gospel. In this event, infant baptism remains a slavish repetition of “Catholic” sacramental theology and should be abandoned, with all those baptized as infants by Roman priests being rebaptized once they come to the conscious intellectual embrace of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. In 1528, Luther responds to this with his treatise “Concerning Rebaptism,” where he makes the claim that baptism does not depend upon our faith, but God’s Word. If faith is lacking, we don’t need to correct the baptism, which is perfectly valid where those waters are blessed according to Christ’s command; we must correct the faith, that is, by teaching and believing what the Scriptures say about justification by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake.
The deeper issue here is how we as Lutherans understand faith. It is not a conscious, intellectual assent to particular doctrines; it is rather a passive gift received through the Holy Spirit at work in Word and Sacrament—and, in the case of infants, through the waters of Holy Baptism. The infant is capable of faith (what historically was called fides infantium) because faith is not an intellectual concept, but a spiritual reception of God’s promise spoken through Christ in the sacrament. Justifying faith is not a matter of understanding, but of receiving the Word of Christ, and that is a reception only possible through the Holy Spirit—and that work of the Holy Spirit is the same in the 80-year-old with dementia, the 60-year-old physician, the 40-year-old pastor, the 20-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, and, yes, even the newborn infant. To use Luther’s famous comparison, if a six-month in utero John the Baptist could respond to recently-conceived Christ speaking through the voice of Mary, how much more can a newborn infant respond to the voice of Christ speaking his Word through the priest administering baptism? Furthermore, as the Luther scholar Heiko Obermann once wrote, there may be no better example of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith than infant baptism: “Infant baptism revealed the meaning of baptism. From Luther's standpoint one could not genuinely preserve baptism while repudiating infant baptism, for it was in the child to be baptized that the meaning of the Evangelical faith became visible: trusting only in the ‘alien’ justification granted by God.” (Luther: Man between God and Devil, 230).
How should we make sense of what Luther says about Holy Baptism in our context, then? On this score, we face two very different fronts. First, the great majority of Protestant churches in America do not baptize infants, and none of those who do believe the baptism of infants actually provides them justifying faith and thus regenerates them from sin. We have all no doubt experienced this when introducing evangelical converts to Lutheranism. I might add that for the evangelical this will always be the most profound obstacle to embracing Lutheranism. To them, we must make vitally clear that faith is not an idea to be understood (at least not at first!), but a work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and that in turn nothing represents our doctrine of justification by faith better than the infant—incapable of doing good works, understanding doctrine, or making a decision—passively receiving the justification Jesus offers through the Word he speaks at the font. The obstacle for the evangelical is never infant baptism per se, but the very nature of justification by faith itself.
But the greater challenge we face, especially here in the secularized northeast and its hereditary, largely non-practicing Roman Catholicism, is what to do with the baptism of infants to families with no involvement in a church and no express intention to raise their children in the faith. The typical argument has been that we must “err on the side of grace.” Yet it is interesting that the early church, facing a similarly antagonistic, religiously pluralistic culture, never did such a thing. They delayed baptism of new adult converts for anywhere from one to three years in order to catechize them, and that in turn meant the delayal of baptism for their infants. What might we do in our day to address this problem? What sort of catechesis can we do with families—members or not—prior to baptism so that they understand not only what we believe about the sacrament, but also the implication of ongoing participation in the church for the sustaining of faith? After all, Lutherans categorically repudiate “eternal security,” or the notion that one cannot lose justifying faith [AC XII.7]. And since justifying faith depends upon the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament to fortify it against the flesh, the world, and the devil, baptizing without any intention of future church participation is the equivalent of taking the first dose of antibiotics without any intention of completing the cycle. It also seems terribly strange that we require six weeks, three months, six months of adult instruction for someone to become a member of our church, let alone up to two years of confirmation instruction before one receives the sacrament, yet settle for a meeting or two with non-practicing Christian parents prior to the baptism of their child. What can we do differently by way of policy, catechesis, and counsel to insure baptized infants have what they need to retain their faith: the work of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament, strengthening, sustaining, fortifying their faith against the attacks of the flesh, the world, and the devil?