[I had written the following back on September 7 of 2005 for an adult instruction class and posted it to another site. We had talked a lot in that class about the sacrament of Baptism, its necessity, infant faith and many other topics related to the sacrament. I reprinted two other articles from the class on infant faith and infant baptism back in mid-February, which should be in the archives. Recently the issue of Baptism's necessity came up again at church, and I was reminded of what I originally wrote. Note that the numbers in parenthesis are footnotes referenced at the end of the article.]
WHY IS BAPTISM IMPORTANT ?
An Apologia for the Lutheran Practice
If I had no more than the command to baptize I would be compelled to gladly obey. For the force of God’s Word I cannot, in true faith, resist. I am God’s servant; my will is subservient to His. And even if I could not understand, I would nevertheless carry out his command in trust of what He has promised. His ways are beyond our complete comprehension. (1) How he carries out the fullness of his will in our lives remains partly hidden in the mystery that is God.(2) Yet we do know from Holy Scripture that our Lord has connected wonderful promises to Baptism: salvation, rebirth, cleansing, forgiveness, life.(3)
Yet questions persist. Is Baptism absolutely necessary, in that salvation is forfeited without it? Certainly we cannot assent to this, and we know that some have indeed come to faith by the Word alone.(4) Do the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation come in other ways? Yes, the living Word of God, from which Baptism draws its power, remains the source of my salvation in Christ and the strength of my faith. So why baptize? What does it offer that is so unique?
First it must be realized that Baptism is the normal and usual way that a person comes to faith and thereby enters into the Kingdom of God. Thus, when the apostles went forth at Christ’s command to make disciples, they did so by “baptizing and teaching.”(5) The Book of Acts, the earliest history of the Church, demonstrates over and over that a child of God comes into the Kingdom normally in connection with the waters of Baptism.(6) Jesus Himself set the stage for this way of proceeding when He told Nicodemus that to enter into the Kingdom of God one had to be “born of water and the Spirit.” (7) Likewise Paul talks about that Christ made his people holy, “having cleansed [them] by the washing of water with the Word.”(8) And in Titus 3 he writes that God our Savior “saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit…”(9) When they built churches in the earlier history of the Faith this order was understood as the usual way, and they therefore placed their baptismal fonts at the door where one entered the sanctuary, conscious that this was how one normally entered into the Kingdom: through the Word and through water, by which the Spirit is active, and where Christ is present. Given the holy nature of God, one would not dare enter the Kingdom unless one where cleansed. As Paul writes: “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man….has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ.”(10) No, such will not enter the Kingdom of God as he tells the Corinthians, but “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”(11) To be saved is to be washed.
Secondly, we are thankful that our Lord provided means for his grace that are objective and visible to our outward senses. Salvation and faith are not matters of my feelings or impressions of the inner heart. We are tempted to look inside ourselves for assurance (Did I really believe? Was I truly sincere?), yet “out of the heart come evil thoughts….,” Jesus tells us.(12) My feelings are also laced with doubts and insecurities and a flood of conflicting thoughts. Salvation is not dependant on my personal act of assent to His Will, for as Jesus also said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (13) Salvation comes from without, not from within. We need something outside of ourselves for true assurance. One author wrote: “The confidence that these promises apply to me, that I am a Christian and have been saved, is established not by the vagaries of memories, decisions, or sensations of being elected or not, but by an objective, tangible historical event. ‘When our sins or conscience oppress us,’ Luther writes, we must retort, ‘But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’”(14)
My baptism is thus a moment of purest grace. I find no comfort in any work that I have done. At the last day I will say with the righteous: “Lord, when…? as I hear him give testimony of the fruits of my faith.(15) To me right now the benefit of these are hidden. My so-called good deeds are stained with sin and nothing more than filthy rags compared to the holiness of my God.(16) And my salvation is even further from my natural strength. I was dead in my trespasses and sins, a spiritual corpse when Christ found me and made me his own.(17) The day my mother arranged my baptism at Hollywood Children’s Hospital on February 6, 1961, I was not even two months old and facing life-threatening surgery. It was a fragile existence and I was vulnerable and weak. Yet God chose me. And claimed me. And washed me. And regenerated my heart by the Spirit working through the water and the Word. Grace. Gift. Unearned. Dependant on God, not me. And how can I claim this? The Word of Promise in Christ connected to that water of regeneration. To this I cling.
That day was a beginning from which I mark my own personal history. To it I return like one in need of always needing to know from where I came. My family tree is full of missing limbs and the leaves of most branches are bare. I really don’t even know my father, except by name. But my lineage in Christ is assured. God is my father and I am his child with the full rights of inheritance. This will not be taken from me. To the day I die I may claim my rights in Christ. My adoption papers are signed by my Lord.(18) This is not a general proclamation, but a personal claim on my life. And in that Baptism takes on special meaning and importance for me personally. We talk much about God’s general declarations of grace and love and salvation. But here these promises are given with a name tag attached!
As my mother did, so I have done with my children by having them baptized. No, they did not choose this for themselves, but then as we have seen, we cannot by ourselves chose Christ. He chooses us. It is grace. Pure gift.
Do I believe that they received faith through this Baptism? Yes, but not because of sentimentality or wishful thinking. And I believe this against what human logic and so-called common sense might believe to the contrary. I brought my children to the waters of Baptism based on the simple promises of God’s Word. I took it at face value, just as the word read, careful not to project into it what I thought it should say or even what others might think it should mean. Jesus welcomed little children to himself and said that these “little ones” actually “believe,” that is, they “have faith.”(19) I also hear Him as he says that even infants can “receive” the “kingdom of God,” and I know that one does not receive the kingdom without faith.(20)
As I search the scriptures reading the actual commands to baptize or the instances where baptism was carried out in the history of the church, I see not one reference to any limits of age, gender, or nationality.(21) I agree with one author that it cannot be a later introduction into the life of the Church, for “a later introduction of infant baptism would have provoked a profound upset in the church and would have left distinct traces in the history of the church.” (22) In fact, I actually find many references supporting the presence and practice of infant baptism from the earliest days of the church’s history.(23) There is no reason to believe that the Church is doing anything but reflecting the intent of our Lord and his apostles from the beginning.
Yet, one might ask, why was it so necessary, so compelling to baptize them? Even despite the truth that one can come to faith by the power of the Word alone, I see in Baptism a mean of God’s grace well-suited to little children. While I am convinced from Scripture that they can believe, as has been shown, I know that their cognitive abilities were still in a developing state and I could not expect them to be able to attentively listen to me while I instructed them verbally by the naked letter of the Word. I certainly could have assured myself at that time that in such a developing state of seeming innocence they would not be held accountable for their sins. But that would not have squared with the Word. For I know that despite their seeming innocent demeanor, they were nevertheless “conceived in sin” and “brought forth in iniquity.”(24) But can such a little one actually commit a sin? Some would claim we are judged not on the basis of our inherited sin, but on actual sins committed.(25) Still, does not St. Paul say that “Sin entered the world through one man, and death came through sin….?”(26) Yet we are saved by faith alone (27) and not because of our many good works, and therefore if condemned, condemned on the lack of faith, not because of the preponderance of our many sins.(28)
Luther in dealing with infants who died before baptism did hold out the hope that “Even though infants bring with them inborn sin, which we call original sin, it is nevertheless important that they have committed no sin against the Law. Since God is by nature merciful, He will not let their condition be worse because they were unable to obtain…Baptism.”(29) Still, there is more silence than sound when we search for comfort outside of God’s appointed means to create faith and save. While we appeal to the mercy of God rightly (30), there is little more we can say, for scripture is silent here and the will of God beyond this hidden. “We are entering the field of the unsearchable judgments of God…”(31) Baptism, on the other hand, grants abundant comfort and assurance, and we are freely invited to have its benefits from infancy on. As a parent I could see no reason to not afford my children this blessing, especially since I am convinced by Scripture of its promises and power in Christ for all.
(1) Rom. 11:33, 34.
(2) Colossians 1:26, 2:2; Eph. 1:9, 3:3, 4, 9
(3) Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Romans 6, Titus 3, John 3, et. al.
(4) Mark 16:16 reminds us that he who “believes not is condemned,” not he who is not baptized.” Also, we know from the example of the thief on the cross that one can come to faith by the Word alone.
(5) Matt. 28:19
(6) Acts 2:38, 41 (Pentecost), 8:12-16 (Philip among the Samaritans), 8: 36-38 (Philip and the Ethiopian eunich) 9:18 (Paul), 10:47, 48 (Paul in Caesaria), 16:15 (Lydia and her household), 16:33 (the jailer and his family), 18:8 (the Corinthians), 19:5 (Ephesians), 22:16 (Paul).
(7) John 3:5 – Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
(8) Eph. 5:26
(9) Titus 3:4, 5
(10) Eph. 5:5
(11) 1 Cor. 6:9-11
(12) Matt. 15:19
(13) John 15:16
(14) Edward Veith, Jr, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals (St. Louis: CPH, 1999), 49; from Luther’s Large Catechism, 442.
(15) Matthew 25: 31ff, esp. vss. 37-40.
(16) Isaiah 64:6
(17) Eph. 2:1 – “And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins….”
(18) Galatians 3: 26-4:7. Note how Paul goes from “baptized into Christ” to “you are Abraham’s offspring” to “heirs according to promise” to “receiv[ing] adoption as sons.”
(19) Matthew 18:6.
(20) Luke 18:15-17.
(21) Matthew 28:19 – “all nations”, Acts 2:38 – “to you and your children”, Acts 16: 15 – “with her household”, Acts 16: 33 – “with all his family.”
(22) Herman Sasse, We Confess the Sacraments (St. Louis: CPH, 1985), 39.
(23) Irenaeus (cir. 185), Polycarp (circa before AD 70), etc. See Sasse, 38.
(24) Psalm 51:5.
(25) One author (Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.), a Baptist, states that “we will face the judgment seat of Chrsit and be judged, not on the basis of original sin, but for sins committed during our own lifetimes….But what about infants? Have those who die in infancy committed such sins in the body? We believe not.” – http://www.sbts.edu/mohler/FidellitasRead.php?article+fidel1036.
(26) Romans 5:12a. The entire verse reads: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way dead cam to all men, because all sined.”
(27) Eph. 2:8, 9, et. al.
(28) Matthew 22;1-10, Luke 14:16-24. Being left out of the wedding was for refusal to accept the invitation to come.
(29) Scaer, 159.
(30) God is by nature merciful (Jer. 3;12), and we know that our salvation is “because of His mercy” (Titus 3:5). God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but calls them to turn and live (Ezek. 33:11). Yes, God “desires all men to be saved,” but as Paul adds in the very next clause, this is connected with the fact that “they come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:3).
(31) Quotation of Pieper in Scaer, 159. Ref. to Romans 11:33 – “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways!” See also vs. 34: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Is. 40:13ff).