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The Fathers Speak: Baptism is the Sacrament of Regeneration

June 14th, 2010
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I’m going to start regularly offering quotes and snippets from the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Starting…now. And, if you want to understand how/why Lutherans cherish and value the wisdom and teaching of the Church Fathers, here is a helpful article by Carl Beckwith explaining how we read and use the writings of the Fathers based on Martin Chemnitz’ discussion of this topic in his Loci Theologici: beckwithchemnitzchurchfathersjustification-4

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration. But just as one who never lived cannot die, adn one who has not did cannot rise again, so too one who was never born cannot be reborn.”

— Augustine
On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism 2.27.43

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Categories: baptism, Church Fathers
  1. Gabriel Borlean
    June 15th, 2010 at 00:48 | #1

    Thank you for this wonderful extract

    “We can, at this point, begin to see Chemnitz’s chief criticism of the fathers. The failure to distinguish between law and gospel confounds the article of justification (reconciliation) by not properly distinguishing it from the article of sanctification (renewal). Both the scholastics and the early church fathers failed to maintain a correct distinction between our reconciliation with the Father on account of the Son’s redeeming work and the renewal or newness of life brought about by the Holy Spirit in the justified person”


  2. Gabriel Borlean
    June 15th, 2010 at 01:03 | #2

    Dear Pastor McCain

    The writing on page 281-283, of Carl Beckwith’s article listed above, especially highlight the reason why (even though I have a high respect for the Church Fathers and the Eastern Church) I could now never cross the Bosphorus and become Eastern Orthodox. The eastern liturgy may be very moving and reverential, but Santification (or Theosis) should never be confused with Justification on the sole merits of Christ.

    Thank you for posting this. It has strengthened my faith.

    Gabriel Borlean

    P.S. a few months ago I attending a Roumanian-Orthodox service here in Odense, Denmark. I was almost floored to hear the priest during his sermon, say that “we continually work for our salvation.”

  3. Bob Gruener
    June 15th, 2010 at 19:45 | #3

    Perhaps the good brethren here can help with what has become a stumbling block for me: Lutheran explanations of baptism seem to assert that it is the moment that the Holy Spirit “creates faith.” I am not clear on the basis for believing that the Holy Spirit has not acted, through another presentation of the Gospel, to engender faith prior to baptism. Could it be that, by the time the baptism occurs, spiritual regeneration has already begun for some?

  4. June 16th, 2010 at 09:06 | #4

    @Bob Gruener
    Mr. Gruener: Yes. Lutherans have no problem with saying that the Holy Spirit can create faith through the Word, before someone has been baptized. This was certainly the case with, say, the Ethiopian eunuch, who asked Philip for baptism because he believed. And with adult converts it is our practice not to baptize until they have made a confession of their faith.

    But since most of the time when Lutherans are talking about baptism they are talking about the baptism of infants (with whom it would be hard, if not impossible, to see evidence of Word-worked faith), we tend to emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit to create faith through baptism — both in affirmation of the miracle and blessing worked through this means of grace and in contrast to/argument against those who insist that baptism is only for those who already believe.

    I hope this is of some help in dealing with your stumbling block.

  5. Bob Gruener
    June 18th, 2010 at 18:59 | #5

    Rev. Samelson: Thank you for taking the time to reply. Hopefully Rev. McCain will allow a follow-up round here.

    A lifelong Lutheran, I can readily agree with you that “the wind blows where it will.” The Lutheran statements that I still trip over, however, do not only “emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit to create faith,” as you put it, but make unqualified assertions about precisely when the Holy Spirit brought that faith into being:

    1. “When I was just about 3 weeks old, I was baptized [and] the Holy Spirit created faith in my heart also through that form of the Gospel.”

    2. [Infants] “approach the font, still being under Satan’s sway, and leave as God’s children with faith in their hearts.”

    3. “[The] man who is born of the flesh, before the new birth which happens through water and the Spirit, is not in the kingdom of God, but under the power of darkness [...].”

    4. “[It] must be right and Christian to bring little children to [Christ]. There is no other way of doing this than baptism.”

    5. Through baptism, “God creates the gift of faith in a person’s heart.”

    6. In baptism, the “Word brings the entrance of God’s Holy Spirit into the life of the person [...].

    If we cannot in truth confirm when the Spirit has acted (or grasp the true condition of another person’s heart), how does one best respond to these statements?

  6. June 21st, 2010 at 09:57 | #6

    @Bob Gruener
    Mr. Gruener: Without knowing the context of your quotations, it’s hard to either defend or discount them, but I understand that you’re offering them as examples of ideas and expressions you struggle with. My response, therefore, will have to be more general.

    I guess I’d start by saying that it’s all about assurance. The Holy Spirit wants sinners to be certain that the grace of God applies to them, has worked in them, has called and saved and sanctified and changed them. And so that’s what he does through the Means of Grace, and so that’s what we take from them. God has told us that he works powerfully through his Word and through the Sacraments, and he has assured us that his grace through them is always effective (so long as the Word is rightly preached/taught and the Sacraments rightly administered).

    Now will some reject the gospel when it is shared with them? Yes. Will some take the Lord’s Supper to their judgment because they do not recognize Christ’s body and blood? Yes. And will some reject the rich blessings offered them in baptism — either through deliberate unbelief at the time of baptism or through falling away from faith later in life? Yes.

    But these are the choices of the unbeliever, not the fault or weakness of the Means of Grace. The believer looks to his baptism — or the Word, or the Supper — and says, “Wow! Look what God has done — he is so good to me! Thank you, Lord!” without asking himself, “Hmm . . . did I do something to mess this up or get in the way? Did I believe enough? Are God’s gifts somehow less effective in or for me because of something in me or that I did?”

    And because we cannot read anyone else’s heart and can only judge by their public confessions, we assume the same effectiveness for the Means of Grace in other people — and praise God for his work. Unless we have good reason to believe otherwise, we presume — without introducing conditions or contingencies — that the Holy Spirit actually and wonderfully did his saving, sanctifying work in baptism, whether in a minutes-old infant or a minutes-to-live nonagenarian.

    Will we sometimes be wrong about whether someone has truly become a believer through baptism? I suppose so. But the fault there lies with the individual, not with the power of baptism. I – Lutherans – Christians – don’t concern ourselves with confirming whether the Spirit has acted or not, because that’s not our business. Instead we do precisely what the Spirit wants us to do and works for us to do: trust his promises.

    And he has promised to work and create faith through baptism.

    I hope this quick Monday morning ramblings are of some assistance.

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