Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is Baptism Necessary?

I was recently asked the question: do Lutherans say "one must be baptized in order to be saved." I thought I might share the answer I gave here as well: It comes in response to the perception that Lutherans say "one must be baptized in order to be saved."


The trouble comes when we start pitting baptism and faith against each other, or pitting them both against Jesus. The only way to be saved is to have Jesus save you. Jesus saves you by atoning for your sins through his death on the cross. He gives you that righteous gift by preaching it to you, by baptizing you into it, and by feeding you with his own body and blood as bread and wine. These gifts are a whole, through which your faith clings to Jesus. They are means of grace - carriers, holders, bringers.

Or, think of it this way: "faith" does not save by itself. Muslims have "faith." Even demons have "faith" of a sort (Ja. 2:19) Faith by itself is merely trust in something. Faith does not enact salvation. Saving faith receives the gift of salvation from Jesus. Saving faith believes in who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and what Jesus says. This is all to say, faith must have an object of faith. Christian faith has Jesus as our object - Jesus, his person, work and words. And...his words say (paraphrasing) "I want you baptized into my name (Mt. 28,) and this will kill and raise you with me (Rom 6) by giving you the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2), and in this way saving you (1 Pet. 3.)" Faith believes all these words.

The Biblical truth is that the manner in which Jesus told his Church to go and make disciples was by baptizing them into the faith which they would also be taught. Apart from this promise, there is no assurance that anyone anywhere will be saved. (The thief on the cross was saved the exact same way - by a direct promise from Jesus. Baptism is your "today, you will be with me.")

Against faith, doubt always says "what if...." There are many what if's. "What if someone hears the preaching and believes, but is killed before they are baptized. Will they be saved?" To this we should reply with Jesus, "With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." None who believe in him will be put to shame. But it is precisely because we believe in him that we hold as a great and cherished treasure the blessed assurance of baptism.

Thus, to get very technical, the Bible is very clear that baptism into Christ is the normal way in which Jesus gives people assurance of their election into the free gift of his death and resurrection for forgiveness, life and salvation, and thus, baptism strengthens and sustains their faith. It is not separate from faith. It is for faith. It is to give faith something to believe. "I am baptized."

This is the only way that this particular "choosing of us" has been given from Jesus. There is none other. Many search for their election in fasting, tithing, obedience, fruit of the Spirit, "spiritual" gifts, tongues and the like. But there are no such promises in these things. Yet, the sad fact remains that if one refuses to believe Jesus' promises in baptism, one will need to find some other object for faith. But Jesus has given no other object. In the end, one must then look somewhere other than Jesus. Ultimately, one will turn back to oneself.

Baptism elects. But that hardly means that preaching does not elect also. It does. And the Supper elects as well. These are Jesus' means of giving you grace. They were his ideas. He sent them. They are surely not mere water, bread, wine or vocal gutterals, but the Words of Christ by which the heavens and earth were formed out of nothing. Surely, he who made us with Words has the power to redeem us however he likes. We ought to have a little more faith in him, no?

Saving faith, then, believes what the Savior says. What he says is, "Be baptized, every one of you, and you will receive the forgiveness of your sins. This promise is for you and your children...." (Acts 2). This is the New Testament, the New Covenant, the power of salvation for all who believe. It is one Truth - the Way and the Life. Baptism is Jesus. Once you believe that, it all falls into place. If you don't believe that, then why are you getting baptized at all?

"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." Col. 2:11-14


Rev. Jonathan C. Watt said...

Great article Pr. Fisk. I love the paragraph ending in "Baptism is your 'today you will be with me.'" This is a fabulous way to speak about baptism. I envision reading (or telling the account of Christ on the cross" and ending with "Baptism is Jesus saying that very thing to you." How very cool and thanks!
Pr. Jonathan Watt.

RevFisk said...

Thank you Pr. Watt. Glad to be of service!

KathyS said...

So, everyone needs to paste this over that section in Pieper where he says that Baptism is necessary--but not absolutely.

RevFisk said...

Isn't that what I said?

KathyS said...

Is that what you said about what? Substituting this for Pieper? Or that we really can say that Baptism is not absolutely necessary? If we have been given faith to believe Christ's Word about Baptism, we will be baptized. If we do not have faith in Christ's Word, well then, we won't believe in the power of Baptism to save, and if we don't believe that, we don't believe Christ's Word...and if we don't believe Christ's entire Word, are we saved?

KathyS said...

I misread your article at first. I thought you were saying that Baptism IS absolutely necessary. Reading it again, I see that you do say the same thing as Pieper. I struggle with what Pieper says. The case where Baptism is not absolutely necessary would, as you say, be a bizarre catastrophe. That's why I think it's dangerous to say that it is necessary--but not absolutely. People will take that "loophole" and stretch it so they can get by with not believing Christ's Word about Baptism, "There are other ways to be saved, so it's OK that we don't Baptize." On the other hand, I guess we need the "loophole" for the "bizarre circumstance" where someone has been given faith but has not been baptized (the stillborn infant of believing parents, for example). Perhaps I'm super-sensitive because so many people deny the power of Baptism to save."why I want to know?" I don't understand why you ask. Do you think I don't believe Christ's entire Word, therefore I'm doubting my own faith? I don't mean to belabor this, but with Baptism all over the New Testament, I don't like when we give even a hint that it isn't necessary. And it does so much more than save us! Thanks for what you do write. I think you are a gifted writer and I have appreciated what you've written over the years.

RevFisk said...


Thank you for your kind words of encouragement.

I asked because I didn't want to answer the wrong question, and appear to be putting you off or stirring up strife.

I agree with your concerns. We should never teach that Baptism is not necessary.

The most important reason to maintain Scripture's (and Pieper's) distinction about Baptism not being "absolutely necessary" is really one of Law and Gospel. Baptism is not a Law we must keep to be saved. It is a gift given in order to save us.

The question I was writing to answer came from the perspective of a tradition that believes Baptism is Law, an act we do to profess what is in us. It then looked at the Lutheran theology of Baptism and could only say, "Look, they require something more than Jesus in order to be saved, this Law of Baptism."

In trying to help someone out of this "Law" way of doing theology, we must walk tenderly, opening the door to the Gospel Way.

Baptism is not "absolutely necessary" because that is Law language. Baptism is a gift. Don't you want the gift? That is Gospel language.

In any case, it seems we are on the same page after all. Thank you for continuing to echat with me, and have a blessed Eastertide!

Gary said...

Baptists and evangelicals are absolutely correct...there is no SPECIFIC mention in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants. There are references to entire households being converted and baptized, but we orthodox cannot prove, just from Scripture, that these households had infants, and neither can Baptists and evangelicals prove, just from Scripture, that they did not.

One interesting point that Baptists/evangelicals should note is that although there is no specific mention of infant baptism in the Bible...neither is there a prohibition of infant baptism in the Bible. Christians are commanded by Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations. No age restrictions are mentioned. If Christ had intended his followers to understand that infants could not be baptized in the New Covenant, in a household conversion process as was the practice of the Jews of Christ's day in converting Gentile households to the Covenant of Abraham, it is strange that no mention is made of this prohibition.

So, the only real way to find out if Infant Baptism was practiced by the Apostles is to look at the writings of the early Christians, some of whom were disciples of the Apostles, such as Polycarp, and see what they said on this issue.

And here is a key point: Infant Baptism makes absolutely no sense if you believe that sinners can and must make an informed, mature decision to believe in order to be saved. Infants cannot make informed, mature decisions, so if this is the correct Doctrine of Justification/Salvation, Infant Baptism is clearly false teaching. But the (arminian) Baptist/evangelical Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is unscriptural. Being forced to make a decision to obtain a gift, makes the gift no longer free. This is salvation by works.

Baptism is a command of God. It is not a work of man. God says in plain, simple language, in multiple locations in the Bible, that he saves/forgives sins in Baptism. We orthodox Christians accept God's literal Word. We take our infants to be baptized because God says to do it. Our infants are not saved because we perform the act of bringing them to the baptismal font...they are saved by the power of God's Word pronounced at the time of the Baptism. Christians have believed this for 2,000 years!

There is no evidence that any Christian in the early Church believed that sinners are saved by making a free will decision and then are baptized solely as a public profession of faith. None.

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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