What it means to be truly Lutheran: Baptism

Joel D. Otto

Most American Protestant Christians have views of Baptism different from Lutherans. Some see Baptism as little more than a dedication ceremony where the parents are promising to raise their child as a Christian. They don’t think Baptism has the power to do anything. Others think infants should not be baptized. Still others believe that Baptism is something believers do to show their commitment to God. They turn Baptism from gospel into law.

That is not how true Lutherans view Baptism because that’s not what the Bible teaches. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote that “baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.” He could say this because the Bible says that in Baptism God forgives our sins (Acts 3:28; Acts 22:16) and saves us (1 Peter 3:20,21; Mark 16:16). Luther wrote that Baptism is “a gracious water of life and a washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit.” He could say that because the Bible says that the Holy Spirit is given in Baptism (Acts 2:38) and that through Baptism the Spirit works rebirth and renewal (Titus 3:5).

Baptism seems so simple—a splash of water and a few words. Those who deny the power of Baptism often point to the fact that it is just an outward ceremony. In the Small Catechism, Luther rightly points out that “it is certainly not the water that does such things, but God’s Word which is in and with the water and faith which trust this Word used with the water.” God’s Word is powerful. It was powerful enough to call the universe into existence. It is powerful enough to give the spiritual and eternal blessings God promises through Baptism (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Following Luther’s example, true Lutherans find great comfort in Baptism because Baptism is God’s work for us. Paul wrote that we are clothed with Christ through Baptism and made children of our heavenly Father (Galatians 3:26,27). We are connected to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). Everything Christ won for through his death and resurrection is given to me—personally, individually—through my baptism.

In a sermon, Luther explained, “Holy baptism was purchased for us through this same blood, which [Christ] shed for us and with which he paid for sin. This blood and its merit and power he put into baptism, in order that in baptism we might receive it. For whenever a person receives baptism in faith this is the same as if he were visibly washed and cleansed of sin with the blood of Christ. For we do not attain the forgiveness of sins through our work, but rather through the death and the shedding of the blood of the Son of God. But he takes this forgiveness of sin and tucks it into baptism” (Luther’s Works 51:325).


Questions to consider

1. What Bible passages would you use to defend the biblical teaching and practice of infant baptism? Explain how you might use those passages.

The first place to start is Matthew 28:19. Jesus said to make disciples of “all nations” by baptizing and teaching. Infants are included in “all nations.” That’s an inclusive term, and there is no reason infants are not part of “all nations.”

While some people say infants do not need Baptism because they are born innocent or morally neutral or not guilty of sin, Psalm 51:5 points out we are sinful from the time of conception. God says in Genesis 8:21 that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” Infants need the cleansing of sin which God gives in Baptism.

At the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he encourages the crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38,39). The promise of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit that God gives through Baptism is not limited by age.

Some also will argue that infants cannot believe in Jesus. Therefore, Baptism is useless for them, if Baptism even gives faith. Jesus, however, talks about the seriousness of not causing “one of these little ones—those that believe in me—to stumble” (Matthew 18:6). Jesus says that little children can trust in him.

Jesus desires children to be brought to him so that they can be blessed by him (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel is for “infants.” He desires that all of us receive the kingdom of God like a little child, humbly and unquestioningly trusting in him.

2. When Luther was battling temptations to doubt his salvation, he would remember, “I am baptized.” Why is this better than saying, “I was baptized”? How can this truth strengthen you in times of doubt?

“I am baptized” stresses the ongoing identity we have as a result of our baptism, while “I was baptized” can make it sound like our baptism was a past event with no current benefit. Remembering that we are baptized can strengthen us when we doubt that we are forgiven or that eternal life is secured for us or that God still loves us. God has connected us to Jesus’ death and resurrection through Baptism (Romans 6:3,4). We can silence Satan’s accusations because in Baptism we’ve been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26,27); God has rescued us from our sins (1 Peter 3:21), He has promised forgiveness and the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38,39), and he has cleansed us from our sins (Ephesians 5:25-27). The Holy Spirit has given us a new birth and made us heirs of eternal life through Baptism (Titus 3:4-7). These blessings are ongoing because of what God has accomplished for us in Baptism. “I am baptized” can be our battle cry and a source of great comfort because that is our new identity: baptized children of God (see the hymn, “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It,” Christian Worship: Supplement 737).


Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


This is the seventh article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after April 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

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