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When Does Faith Begin? Lutheranism’s “Lonely Way” on Baptism

April 25th, 2010
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When would you say that faith begins, on the basis of which we should venture to baptize? Perhaps at the present age of confirmation? Or in little children when they can confess with the mouth, as Thomas Muenzer of old would have it? Why, it would be the equivalent of turning the miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit into a psychologically perceptible fact, if any attempt were made here to fix a time-limit for the working of the Spirit.  Here, too, Luther goes his lonely way between Rome with its hierarchical, and the enthusiasts with their psychological sanctions—the lonely way of the Reformer who heeds only the Word and God and trusts that this Word can do all things, even the humanly impossible. In this way, and only in this way, has Luther and the Lutheran Church after him been able to hold both the objectivity of the sacrament and the sola fide, not forgetting that justifying faith is not a matter of a single moment but the content of an entire human life. For this faith certainly is not the individual act of surrender to God, consciously felt and experienced at certain moments of our life, but it is the continuing trust—though overshadowed again and again—in the Gospel promise of grace; just as repentance according to the evangelical conception is not a single act but something that goes on continually throughout our life. So too our baptism is not a finished act, but it goes with us throughout our life. To be a Christian does not mean simply to have been baptized sometime in the past, but it means to live in the power of Baptism and to return to it again and again. As is well known, the Small Catechism answers the question: “What does such baptizing with water signify?” by saying:

It signifies that the old Adam in us, by daily contrition and repentance should be drowned and die, with all sins and evil lusts, and that a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live in righteousness and purity before God forever.

Just as we who are sinners and righteous at the same time live by daily contrition and repentance and by daily forgiveness of sins, so too our dying and rising again with Christ, that real though incomprehensible anticipation of an eschatological event which takes place in Baptism, is something that determines our entire life. This, over against Rome and against the enthusiasts, was Luther’s understanding of Baptism and of the faith that accepts Baptism. We embrace it not only at one given moment, whether it be at the moment we are baptized, or at the moment of confirmation, or any other given moment of our life that might be named, but we embrace it or should embrace it throughout our entire life, every day anew. This is the reason why Luther recognized no additional sacrament to supplement Baptism, whether it be confirmation or repentance, which would be anything else but a return to Baptism.

Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, IV

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  1. April 25th, 2010 at 10:35 | #1

    Thank you Pastor for these encouraging words from Sasse.

  2. April 25th, 2010 at 17:09 | #2

    This issue is of great interest to my wife and I. Since leaving an ELCA congregation we have been attending a church that preaches adult baptism and does not recognize infant baptism.

    Personally I am skeptical of the entire infant baptism vs. adult baptism debate. I don’t even know if baptism should be considered a sacrament. The story about the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 39-43) seems to undermine both sides in that argument, since I doubt that fellow was ever baptized. Arguments about baptism remind me somewhat about arguments concerning eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor 8) – lots of heat, but little light.

  3. Jonathan
    April 26th, 2010 at 07:42 | #3

    Baptism is your “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

  4. Jim
    April 27th, 2010 at 09:40 | #4

    “Recovering Lutheran”:

    Some people say that infants should not be baptized. But the Bible teaches otherwise. In 1 Co 10, Paul notes that everyone in Israel — infants as well as adults — were “all” under the cloud and that “all” passed through the Red sea, and that “all” were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (vv. 1-2). Paul then twice writes that this event serves as an example that the Christian church needs to follow and learn (1 Co 10.6, 11).

    It is worth emphasizing that Paul points to Israel’s baptism as a nation in the Red Sea. And Paul expressly says that Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea serves as an example for the Christian church to follow. So when we then think biblically about the Great Commission that Jesus gave us — that we are to make disciples of the nations by baptizing them i.e., by baptizing the nations – then we cannot help but draw upon the single example of a national baptism that God gives us in the Scriptures, and that is Israel’s national baptism, which included the baptism of “all” who were in Israel, including the little babies.

    So, too, Peter says “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). Peter then expressly states that this promise is for the children of his hearers, as well as for Gentiles who are far off.

    In response, people who say that infants should not be baptized say that Peter’s promise does not apply to babies, because babies cannot repent.

    But let’s consider what the Bible actually teaches that babies can do: Infants can praise God (Ps 8.2) and can be filled with the Spirit (Lk 1.15). So, too, the Scriptures teach us that infants can fall down and worship God (2 Chronicles 20.13 with 18). Similarly, “little ones” (which is the Hebrew word translated as “children” by the NIV), “stand in the presence of God” (Dt 29.10-11), and enter into a covenant with God which “confirms you this day as his people, that he may be your God” (Dt 29.13).

    So when talking about whether babies can have faith, what do we believe? God’s word or human eyes?

    To be sure, infants cannot do all those things by themselves. That’s why we have their parents and godparents speak for them before God. The Bible teaches this as well. The Bible teaches that representatives can speak for and represent those who can’t. The “whole congregation of the Lord,” which includes infants, is said to “speak” through only a few representatives (Josh 22.14-16). And “all” are said to “hear” when only the representatives hear (Josh 23.2, cf., 24.1-2). So, too, “all” are committed when representatives gather before God (2 Chr 5.2-3, cf., chs 5-7, esp., 6.3, 7.4). The Bible’s representative principle extends to generational representation as well (Dt 29.14-15). So, too, in baptism, adults speak for and represent the infant. Godparents speaking for infants is Biblical. And, thus, the Apostolic practice of baptizing “households” (Acts 16.15, 33, 18.8, 1 Co 1.16) is entirely nonproblematic for Lutherans.

    The Bible makes clear that baptism is for “all,” and that the forgiveness promised in baptism is explicitly also “for our children.” The Scriptures teach us that infants can do all things that believers do – stand before God, fall down and worship God, praise God, and be members of God’s people. Just as representatives in the Bible speak for the whole assembly of God—including infants—parents and godparents can speak for their children, expressing their faith and their repentance. The form of baptism used in Lutheran churches is entirely consistent with what the Bible teaches us about God’s relationship with the infants of believing parents. All of us are saved by baptism into Jesus Christ, adult and child alike.

    Finally, as for the thief on the cross. God blessed him, but it’s simply and obviously wrong to draw conclusions contrary to the Scriptures from exceptional circumstances. Jesus gives us the general practice: He tells his church to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them his word. You thereby nullify the Word of God by trying to make a rule out of an exception.

  5. Steven Goodrich
    April 27th, 2010 at 19:26 | #5

    “This is the reason why Luther recognized no additional sacrament to supplement Baptism, whether it be confirmation or repentance, which would be anything else but a return to Baptism.”

    This is such a great summary of why Absolution is not a seperate Sacrament.

  6. Roberto
    April 28th, 2010 at 17:50 | #6

    There is something that I do not understand. Lutherans say very exactly that “when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant.”

    Can God create faith if he wants to before anybody gets baptized?

  7. Jonathan
    April 29th, 2010 at 07:45 | #7

    @Roberto

    Sure he can. Lutherans don’t poopoo God’s sovereignty as some might think. God certainly could zap faith–ex nihilo– directly into someone who’s never heard of him–if He wanted to. However, it is just that God shows us that he prefers to work by and through Means of Grace to create faith. As St Paul confirms in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of Christ.

    The Word of God is effective in any of the means of grace: Word and Sacrament alike. So, the criminal on the cross is an example of saving faith created in a person who probably wasn’t baptized. The criminal must have heard the Word of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart for him to make his confession of faith, which Jesus accepted by special exception.

    That aside, however, it’s just that Lutherans take as the norm Jesus’ command in Matt. 28:19-20 that we Christians are to go make disciples of all *nations* by (1) baptizing them, and (2) teaching them–in that order. The term *nations* includes everyone, from babies on up. As the post entry above expresses, and also implied in Matt 28: 19-20, faith is not a one shot innoculation–a decision or an action–but it is a lifelong process of daily regeneration. And we live it every day in our baptism.

  8. Jean
    May 1st, 2010 at 00:49 | #8

    I have a problem with baptism saving anyone -infant, child or adult. Jesus was sinless. He did not need to be saved, as he was the Savior. Yet he was baptized. So, if baptism is salvation, then why did Jesus need to be baptized?

  9. May 1st, 2010 at 07:33 | #9

    Jean (@8), you might want to think this through a little more.

    In the first place, if you “have a problem with baptism saving” you have a problem with the Word of God — “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

    Second, your reasoning regarding Jesus’ baptism would be similar to saying something like, “My husband loaded the dishwasher with dishes I had already washed and ran it. Since they were already clean, dishwashers must not actually wash anything.”

  10. Kelly
    May 2nd, 2010 at 21:21 | #10

    Or think of it this way, Jean: The fact that Jesus was baptized seems initially bizarre *whether or not* you believe that Baptism is efficacious. You will agree that sinners should be baptized, I presume; that all who are baptized are sinners. So the question for us all is: Why was Jesus baptized if he wasn’t a sinner?

    Jesus didn’t *need* to be baptized to remove sin any more than he needed to be circumcised to be one of God’s own. In perfect obedience to the Father, he *chose* to become incarnate, to be born under the Law, to put himself in the shoes of sinners in every way, in order to save sinners. His Baptism was “for us men and for our salvation,” just like everything else he did. He sanctified our lives by his perfect, holy life. His baptism is now the baptism we are clothed with. His life is now our life, because he took our sin and death into his own body and killed it on the cross.

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