There Are Two Perspectives On Delayed And Legalistic Baptisms

The sacraments of baptism and communion were instituted by Jesus. He calls the church to baptize in the great commission of Matthew 28:16-20 and He also calls the church to the Lord’s Table (i.e. communion) in Matthew 26:26-29 and Luke 22:14-20. We practice baptism and communion because Jesus said to. Simple enough, or not?

In my circles of ministry when the issues of baptism and communion are brought up, a whole host of disputes come forth.  Typically two topics emerge from my conversations.  The first is the issue of whether or not to delay baptisms and the second is on the perception of Lutherans being legalistic with infant baptisms.

In order to flesh these two topics out a bit further, I would like to pose a question to get us thinking, “Which way is the arrow aimed when it comes to the sacraments?” What? In other words, are the sacraments something that we do toward God as a way of showing our obedience OR are the sacraments the way that God shows His commitment to us and gives grace to us? Are the sacraments things that we observe in response to hearing the Gospel (i.e. fruits of faith) OR are the sacraments ways that God responds to our sinfulness with the Gospel; are they a result of His compassion and pursuit of sinners? Do the sacraments belong in our discussions on man’s obedience OR do the sacraments belong in the discussion of God’s justifying grace? Who does the verb in the sacraments? The difference between these two views are of paramount importance and do impact our interpretation of scriptural chair passages on baptism and communion!

It seems to me that several things can happen when people discern the sacraments from these two different perspectives.

Delaying Baptism?

The other day I had a conversation with a veteran pastor and he shared with me the general observation that, “the degree to which we see the sacrament of baptism as God’s actions to us will directly impact the timing of baptism, that is to baptize earlier.” In other words, those who see baptism as an act of obedience tend to delay the age of baptism whereas those who see baptism as an act of God tend to baptize their children at a much earlier age. Makes sense doesn’t it? If baptism is an act of obedience then one would need to wait on baptism until the child can make a decision of baptism towards God. On the other hand, if baptism is an act of God upon us then the age and one’s cognitive obedience abilities are not the main issue but rather God’s, power, promise and faithfulness towards the individual. Let me put this in an easy equation:

Baptism as a Work of God = Generally Baptize Children Younger

Baptism as a Mark of Obedience = Generally Baptize Children Older

Perceiving Sacramental Christians As Legalistic and Weak In Faith?

I have also noticed among non-sacramental brothers and sisters that they many times perceive sacramental Christians as legalistic or having weak faith when it comes to the sacraments. In order to flesh this out let me illustrate through a scenario.

Meet Bob. Bob, sees the sacraments as acts of obedience that testify of the believers commitment towards God.

Meet Susan. Susan, on the other hand, sees the sacraments as acts of grace that testify of God’s commitment towards His church.

Due to Susan’s belief and presuppositions about the sacraments, the sacraments have become a big deal for her! Susan often says to herself,

“Why would anyone want to withhold God’s gifts? We should not delay baptism, nor shy away from communion. We can and should be frantically crowding the Lord’s Table each and every week to receive God’s best, the forgiveness of sin won by Christ!”

For Susan, the sacraments are of utmost importance to her because they are the place where God meets man with the forgiveness of sins accomplished by Christ, thus the reason why Susan is constantly holding to the sacraments.

Now, this is where it gets really interesting. From Bob’s perspective he sees the sacraments as mankind’s act of obedience towards God. He sees them as fruits of faith belonging to the realm of man-centered sanctification. So, when he interacts with Susan what does he perceive of Susan’s insistence and dependence on the sacraments? He sees her as overly focused on performing a ritual work, as being trapped in Legalism or weak in faith. Bob perceives Susan as holding on to the sacraments as a work that she must do in order to acquire salvation. Bob sees Susan holding to a non-primary sacramental layer that consequentially gets between Christ and mankind. Bob perceives that Susan is adding to the Gospel by her insistence on the sacraments. Bob perceives that Susan is mingling fruits of faith/obedience with justification.  Bob has separated the sacraments from justification and placed them into the horizontal realm of mankind’s obedience thus creating a host of problems.

Bob’s perception of Lutherans is very typical of non-Lutherans. The problem at hand is that Bob’s perception is not consistent with the reason, motives or the scriptural convictions held by Lutherans. Lutherans don’t see the sacraments as a fruit of faith.  Furthermore, we do not see the sacraments belonging to the sphere of mankind but rather belonging to the realm of God, therefore, we are not promoting a man-centered tradition but a salvific gift of God. Finally, when Lutheran’s insist and hold to the primacy of the sacraments we are not insisting on mankind’s upward actions towards God but rather exalting the downward action of God towards sinners.

The sacraments are God’s delivery method, where God descends to mankind to deliver the forgiveness of sins in a personal and intimate way to sinners.

“Take and eat, take and drink, this is my body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of your sins. You my child are baptized, cleansed and marked by my Holy Name; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

In the words of Gerhard Forde, “The sacraments pour Christ into the recipients,” and that is really, really good news.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.

Comments

There Are Two Perspectives On Delayed And Legalistic Baptisms — 22 Comments

  1. What about delaying the baptism of an adult convert until “properly instructed”? Is it proper to withhold the gift of Baptism until the pastor is convinced that the convert has a certain level of knowledge?

  2. “In the words of Gerhard Forde, “The sacraments pour Christ into the recipients,” and that is really, really good news.”

    Literally, the Gospel. The sacraments are pure Gospel. This truth is lost to those who insist on confusing Law and Gospel as the provided examples illustrate.

    “Is it proper to withhold the gift of Baptism until the pastor is convinced that the convert has a certain level of knowledge?”

    Withhold? No.

    To suggest that those who are able to confess the faith might delay briefly in order to share their joy with other new converts (perhaps at Easter Vigil), no problem. Proper distinction.

    Certain level of knowledge? That has everything backwards. Our faith is not an intellectual exercise. Also, there is no warning that we could be in danger of baptizing ourselves to damnation as in the Sacrament of the Altar.

  3. So following your arguement communion should be given to children as well, correct? And not have to wait until after they are “confirmed” to partake in this sacrament?

  4. Chad,

    That is not correct; look at 1st Corinthians 11:27-29

    “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

    We don’t want our children to eat and drink in an unworthy manner. Hence, confirmation. In this case, it is the responsibility of the church to keep our brothers and sister from falling into sin unwittingly; coincidentally, this is also why the LCMS should not practice open communion.

  5. @Alden #4
    We don’t want our children to eat and drink in an unworthy manner. Hence, confirmation. In this case, it is the responsibility of the church to keep our brothers and sister from falling into sin unwittingly; coincidentally, this is also why the LCMS should not practice open communion.

    All true, but I don’t know if we should make them wait until 14 for communion.
    Luther said that a child of 7 knows what the church is; with organized training, (instead of craft projects?) a child of 10 could have the Small Catechism learned and be taught what it means. (He can learn it sooner.)
    The church might be well advised to get its training under way before the distractions of junior high, although I think it should continue through high school.

  6. @helen #5
    Exactly! Even advertisers know that they need to reach the very young in order to encourage lifelong brand loyalty. This seems to have worked well for the Roman Catholics.

    Why are Lutherans different in this regard?

  7. James Sarver :
    “In the words of Gerhard Forde, “The sacraments pour Christ into the recipients,” and that is really, really good news.”
    Literally, the Gospel. The sacraments are pure Gospel. This truth is lost to those who insist on confusing Law and Gospel as the provided examples illustrate.
    “Is it proper to withhold the gift of Baptism until the pastor is convinced that the convert has a certain level of knowledge?”
    Withhold? No.
    To suggest that those who are able to confess the faith might delay briefly in order to share their joy with other new converts (perhaps at Easter Vigil), no problem. Proper distinction.
    Certain level of knowledge? That has everything backwards. Our faith is not an intellectual exercise. Also, there is no warning that we could be in danger of baptizing ourselves to damnation as in the Sacrament of the Altar.

    So an extended period (multiple months) of instruction prior to Baptism is not necessary?

  8. @David Hartung #7

    Please do not infer any particular position on my part, based upon the questions I am asking. In our circuit we have pretty much the full range of instruction prior to adult baptism and confirmation. From what I understand, some of our pastors will not baptize or confirm an adult without a course of instruction that appears to last several months, while some appear to do so after a few hours worth of class.

    I have one more question. Once an adult convert is baptized, no matter how lengthy his period of instruction may have been, should he be immediately admitted to the Table?

  9. I have found it helpful to characterize the relationship not only between God and the one baptized, but between God, the one baptized, and the church.

    God speaks
    — to person being baptized: you are forgiven, count yourself among the heirs of heaven
    — to church: baptize; accept this person among you

    The person being baptized speaks
    — to God: expressing repentance, an appeal for a clean conscience (1 peter 3:21), i.e. a new life without shame; a desire to be united with Christ
    — to the church: expressing a desire to be counted among the followers of Christ, live accordingly, and enjoy the blessings of that fellowship

    The Church speaks
    — to person being baptized: we receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ
    — to God: as you have commanded, we receive this one in your name, and pledge our love and care

    Among other things, baptism is the means by which one gains an identity as a disciple — a follower of Christ. You do not need to understand much to be a follower. To the contrary, you follow because you want to understand.

    Yet even sacramental churches normally require that some testimony be provided, either by one who wishes to be baptized (as with adults) or by the baptismal candidate’s parents and sponsors (as with infants). We baptize not only in response to God’s command, but in response to this testimony.

  10. David Hartung#8: “Once an adult convert is baptized, no matter how lengthy his period of instruction may have been, should he be immediately admitted to the Table?”

    The adult convert should be baptized as soon as he requests baptism. Confirmation and admission to the Lord’s Table must be delayed until after a lengthy period of instruction.

    As an adult, I was required to confess and pledge my life to defend the bible and Lutheran Book of Concord before confirmation and first communion. This took approximately nine months of instruction. Even then, I felt like I was being rushed.

    My recommendation is that no one under 21 be confirmed or admitted to the Lord’s Table. The minimum instruction period should be for two years and should include an indepth study of every book of the bible and every section of the Book of Concord.

  11. @Daniel Gorman #10
    The minimum instruction period should be for two years and should include an indepth study of every book of the bible and every section of the Book of Concord.

    Two years of what?
    30-45 minutes during the Sunday School hour?
    Two hours one evening a week?
    Or as once was the case in rural Minnesota, a school year (after 8th grade)
    5 days a week, 9-3?
    [That lasted until most farmers’ children wanted to go to high school,
    and did not like being a year older than their class, i.e., somewhere in the mid-1940’s.]

    As a matter of comparison: we are currently spending an hour twice a month on BOC, and another hour twice a week on Bible studies, and I think it will take quite a bit more than “two years” to get through either one.

    I should think we’d be more informed Lutherans if every member did the BOC study, but I don’t think the Sacrament of the Altar should be withheld till it’s done.

  12. helen#11: “Two years of what?”

    How the study is accomplished is not so important as the examination that follows. The pastor must verify that the student understands and confesses all the doctrines of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (i.e., the Book of Concord) before he is admitted to Lord’s Table. It is doubtful that anyone under 21 would have the intellectual maturity to handle the material.

    “With us many use the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day, but after having been first instructed, examined [whether they know and understand anything of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments], and absolved.” Apology, XV.

  13. My recommendation is that no one under 21 be confirmed or admitted to the Lord’s Table. The minimum instruction period should be for two years and should include an indepth study of every book of the bible and every section of the Book of Concord.

    This would mean a very educated and very small membership.  Don’t you need to have enough members to pay the pastor?

  14. At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. (Matthew 11:25 )

  15. John Rixe#13: “This would mean a very educated and very small membership. Don’t you need to have enough members to pay the pastor?”

    Many Christians would join a church where the entire communicant membership understands and is fully committed to the pure teachings of the Book of Concord. Most every adult has the necessary education and intelligence to learn the Book of Concord but many are unwilling to commit the necessary time and effort.

    What better motivating factor is there than prospect of receiving the body and blood of our Lord and God in a church that teaches the pure Gospel? But those who are unwilling to learn Lutheran doctrine would have the option of being non-communicant members.

  16. But those who are unwilling to learn Lutheran doctrine would have the option of being non-communicant members.

    Respectfully, almost everyone feels middle school catechism classes are adequate and the real option would be driving another 20 minutes to join another church.

  17. So keep lowering our standards for communicant membership because there’s a church twenty minutes away with even lower standards? A race to the bottom? How’s that working for the LCMS?

    We demand middle schoolers make a life commitment to a church whose confessions they have never read much less studied. And then we’re shocked when they leave the church shortly after their first communion?

    We confirm adults after only 10 hours of instruction. And then we’re shocked when they teach the same errors as their former denomination?

  18. I’m not arguing against the ideal world. I’m just describing the real world. In your congregation, is 21 the minimum confirmation age? Have you advocated for this in your voter’s assembly?

  19. @Daniel Gorman #12
    “With us many use the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day, but after having been first instructed, examined [whether they know and understand anything of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments], and absolved.” Apology, XV.

    It would appear, Mr. Gorman, that you are setting the bar higher than Apology, XV does.

    I’m glad to have studied the Bible and the BOC before I was 21, but confirmation was at 13, when we had absorbed a great deal of the Bible and hymnal but not the BOC. [Not everyone is fortunate enough (or willing to live as cheaply as I did?) to attend a Lutheran college, (and not everyone there took religion courses beyond the requirements, either).]

  20. @John Rixe #16
    Respectfully, almost everyone feels middle school catechism classes are adequate and the real option would be driving another 20 minutes to join another church.

    Respectfully, middle school classes may not be adequate and parents who want the best for their children, should ask for more, or supplement themselves.

    But many “adult instruction” classes short-cut the membership procedure even more drastically, and in doing so, shortchange the congregation as well as the members being taken in.

  21. helen#19: “It would appear, Mr. Gorman, that you are setting the bar higher than Apology, XV does.”

    Considering the fact that most 16th century Germans couldn’t read or write, I don’t think so. The Apology, XV, represents the minimum standard for a laity which is basically uneducated. 21th century American Lutheran churches can and must do better.

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