Martin Luther’s Understanding of Baptism

Since most of our readers are Reformed, and since the Lutheran concept of baptism has been brought up, I thought it would be helpful to share what Bernhard Lohse, a Lutheran Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, has written about Luther’s view of the sacraments in general and of baptism in particular:

Formation of a new, Reformation theology of baptism went hand in hand with Luther’s entire theological development, particularly during his first lectures on the Psalms and Romans. In dealing with the sacraments, concentration on questions such as judgment and gospel, righteousness and faith, or on the divine promise and human confidence, led to a new impulse and important consequences: the criterion under which Luther dealt with baptism and baptismal usage. In other words, the relation of baptism to life from the perspective of the acceptance of the divine judgment promised in baptism took center stage. Since Luther’s understanding of the nature of sin was more radical than the theology of late scholasticism, he could no longer share the view that baptism purges inherited sin, of which a mere “tinder” (fomes) remains, and against the seductions of which the baptized can successfully resist.

The Gospel, according to Rome, and according to the Bible.

This, of course, is the Roman notion that man, at the fall, was merely “wounded”, and not the victim of “spiritual death”. Luther revived the understanding that sin=death.

[Luther] understood baptism in the total sense.

For they are baptized “into death,” that is, toward death, which is to say, they have begun to live in such a way that they are pursuing this kind of death and reach out toward this their goal. For although they are baptized unto eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, yet they do not all at once possess this goal fully, but they have begun to act in such a way that they may attain to it—for Baptism was established to direct us toward death and through this death to life. [Cited from Luther’s Works, vol 25, pg 312.]

This statement contains the quintessence of Luther’s later theology of baptism. Its most important characteristic is the relation of baptism to life under the sign of faith.

Bernhard Lohse, “Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development,” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, translated and edited by Roy A. Harrisville, 1999), pgs 298–299.

Keep in mind that Luther was operating within a church environment that was very heavily scholastic in nature, and very heavily influenced by a Roman theology which held that Baptism washes away sins up to that point in your life and no further [after which time you are on your own, with the help of the Roman Sacramental Treadmill, of course]. And later came the Anabaptists, who weren’t always consistent in their theologies. And Luther himself noted that he was operating in an environment in that was constantly evolving, where he himself noted, “a lack of order in which the events transpired made it necessary, are accordingly crude and disordered chaos, which is now not easy to arrange even for me.”

Continuing with Lohse:

Since the onset of his dispute with Rome, Luther was led to occupy himself in greater detail with baptism and the proper understanding of it. Controversy over indulgences and penance furnished him with the impetus for composing various sermons on the sacraments in 1519/1520, of which the sermon on baptism contained his first treatment of it (The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism,” LW, vol 35, pgs 29-43). From the fall of 1521 or the spring of 1522 Wittenberg was in turmoil over the sacraments generally. Naturally, the Lord’ Supper was in greater dispute than baptism. The topic of baptism became central when at Zurich, around 1524/1525, the Anabaptist movement took shape with its rejection of infant baptism and its advocacy of “believer’s baptism,” thus of adults. From that time on, Luther strongly insisted that baptism follows not from faith of the one to be baptized but from divine institution and disposition [emphasis added] (299).

Lutherans today are quick to point out that this is NOT an ex opera operato sacrament (though it does lead to a form of “baptismal regeneration”). As Martin Yee has pointed out:

Luther’s sacramental theology straddles between two extremes – the ex opere operato concept of Roman Catholicism and the baptism as symbolic external sign without real content of radical Protestantism and others. Luther sees baptism as one of the means of grace or sacraments. In the external form of water and together with the Word of God, baptism conveys God’s grace in forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Luther’s sacramental concept is extensive and covers both the Old Testament and New Testament. Old Testament rites are no less sacraments and their meaning is not exhausted by their symbolic value. Luther sees sacraments as masks behind which God works. God is present everywhere in the act. Even Jacob’s dream of the ladder and his wrestling with God at Jabbok has sacramental significance to Luther. In these appearances, as in baptism, God meets the believer. Both baptism and circumcision are seen as entry sacraments. They are not only just signs of the covenant, they are the covenant itself.

There is NO CONTRADICTION with Sola Fide. As to the relation between faith and baptism, for Luther baptism required faith for justification, but baptism and not faith provided the certainty of salvation. This is contra Baptists and others who see baptism merely as confession of faith. Luther says that God can save without baptism, but in the church we must judge and teach, in accordance with God’s ordered power, that without that outward baptism, no one is saved.(Luther’s Work Vol3 p274). In another word, Luther understood that baptism is NOT the cause of our salvation but God chose to save through baptism. Salvation is given in baptism, though not because of faith. God is the cause of our salvation, it is not man’s faith or baptism on its own [emphasis added]. The faith for justification is a gift of God lest any man should boast. Like in other sacraments, baptism is an activity in which God works salvation. But baptism is not the only mean by which God can save. That is why Luther could believe that babies who died before they can be baptised are saved. The thief on the cross who repented and trusted Jesus but has no chance to be baptised is undoubtedly saved too.

So when Lutherans say that baptism saves, they are not talking about “baptismal regeneration” as how other Protestants understand it. Baptism as a church rite saves nobody. It is God’s work in baptism that grants forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Faith receives God’s grace through this sacrament. This is where infant baptism comes in.

Continuing with Lohse:

Alongside these shifts in accent that the reflection on the nature of baptism involved, we need to note other specifically terminological changes respecting sacramental doctrine in general and baptism in particular. Augustine had once coined the now famous formula: “the word is added to the element and a sacrament occurs, a visible word, as it were”. [FN: Mühlen indicates that through his new understanding of Word and faith Luther to some extent gives new meaning to this formula]. In scholasticism, influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, one spoke of material and forma rather than “element” or “word.” Very early on, Luther reverted to Augustinian usage, suggesting that he developed his doctrine of the sacraments in exegetical fashion and thus avoided terms without basis in New Testament usage (299).

Luther’s dispute with scholasticism is a whole ’nother topic that we can’t get into here. But with respect to his exegetical method, Jaroslav Pelikan wrote (in a “companion volume” to the English Edition of “Luther’s Works” that he edited, “Luther the Expositor” [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House © 1959]) of Luther’s treatment of the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” [with reference to the cup in the Lord’s Supper]:

When grace was made into a kind of supernatural stuff which automatically conferred this “forgiveness of sins,” it seemed to Luther that the free and sovereign Lord stood in danger of becoming the captive of His own Sacraments. For the piety of simple people as well as for the speculations of learned theology the “forgiveness” spoken of in the text seemed to be manipulable and subject to man’s control…

Against Roman Catholicism, then, Luther proclaimed the freedom of God to forgive as He pleased. Against Protestantism, on the other hand, Luther proclaimed that the Sacrament was intended “for the forgiveness of sins.” Although he would not identify “forgiveness” and the channels of forgiveness, he would not separate them either. God in His freedom might confer His forgiveness wherever and whenever and however He pleased, but men were obliged to cling to the channels which He had selected and designated “for the forgiveness of sins.” For Luther this obligation was a necessary corollary derived from the nature of divine revelation itself. When other Protestants joined him in many of his exegetical principles but then went on to deny that the external Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper were means “for the forgiveness of sins,” Luther came to see this corollary more clearly. Thus a concentration upon revelation and upon its corollary was one of the most characteristic features of Luther’s exegesis.

Luther’s exegesis described this availability of God through the channels off forgiveness in the language of the fundamental distinction … between the presence of God and His presence “for you.” Even though God was present somewhere in His power, this did not necessarily mean that He was accessible there “for the forgiveness of sins.” He was present, Luther wrote, in the rock, the fire, and the water. But one was not to smash himself against the rock or hurl himself into the fire and the water in order to find Him. Only where through His Word He had promised to be was He to be sought – and found. This distinction between the presence of God and His presence “for you” was part of Luther’s larger distinction, basic to his exegesis, between God as He was for Himself and God as He was “toward us” (159, 161–162).

Lohse makes several more points about this, which “are of special importance”:

1. Luther did not begin with a sacramental doctrine from which to derive the interpretation of each sacrament. He rather developed his view of each sacrament by recourse to the New Testament.

2. For a time, that is, in 1519/1520, Luther still gave his own particular definition to the “sacrament,” that is, by way of the terms “sign,” “meaning,” and “faith.” After 1520, he no longer held to such a definition, though he returned to the juxtaposition and union of Word and Sacrament.

3. After 1520, in statements on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as in treating other sacraments taught by the church in this period, Luther gave centrality to the duality of “promise” (promissio) and faith (fides).

4. Due to Anabaptist resistance to infant baptism, as well as to the various symbolical interpretations of the elements in the Supper on the part of Karlstadt, Zwingli and others, Luther emphasized the institution or establishment of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The accent on faith is preserved throughout; it does not compete with the character of Baptism and Lord’s Supper as instituted.

5. We should note that Luther employed the term sacramentum (sacrament) in a narrower as well as in a broader sense. Particularly in his early period he could use sacramentum synonymously with signum (sign). In addition, sacramentum could also express the entire activity of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. In such twofold usage Luther was following Augustine.

6. When Luther at times used the word “sign,” particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms. Luther never intended the term to be merely “symbolic.”

Thus, throughout the various phases of his thought and activity, Luther consistently retained the Reformation impulse in his doctrine of the sacraments. At the same time, in his debate with fanatics and Anabaptists, he came more and more to reflect on presuppositions held early in his career and accordingly shored up his emphasis on promise and faith against possible misinterpretation (299–300).

This blog post is intended merely to be an introduction to Luther’s thinking on this topic. I believe that after Luther’s death, later Lutherans did make the effort to “clarify” Luther’s teachings on various topics, an effort which may or may not have changed some of his emphases, if not his actual understanding of things.

In my brief interactions with some Lutherans, it seems as if this “threading of the needle” which Luther did, between Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and other Protestants (including Zwingli and the Reformed) on the other, is a mark of Lutheranism, even today. We Reformed will find that, in some cases, we are very close to Luther’s positions on things. In other cases, Luther resisted moving in the direction of the Reformed. It ended up becoming not a very straight line.

But all in all, in the spirit of the Reformation Season that I have mentioned elsewhere, it seems like a very good opportunity to discuss these things now, at a time when our communications are much improved, and some of the rationales for the old prejudices have faded away or are no longer applicable.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

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