I am consistently amazed at the visceral reaction of those who deny the efficacy of Baptism to any talk about how Baptism is efficacious. One person wrote a long response to my article, “Three Examples of How Lutherans DenyJustification by Faith Alone: A Response – Part One of Two,” decrying baptismal regeneration as a false gospel, and calling “water baptism” merely a symbol, commanded to be carried out on/by those who are believers. His comments are too long to reproduce here in their entirety (if you want to read them, simply go to the original article and scroll down to the bottom). I will, however, respond to two points the person made, as I think they get to the heart of the matter. Firstly, he writes:
“Water baptism is simply a remembrance. It is not the means of grace through which God provides salvation; that is simply ‘warmed over’ Roman Catholicism. The Bible asserts unambiguously that an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Trying to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel. Any ecclesiastical (church) procedure plays no part in justification.”
First, we have to deal with this term “water baptism.” To talk about “water” baptism is akin to talking about “food” eating. There is no baptism without water, as the Greek word “baptizo,” from which we get our word baptism, means to apply water either by immersing, dipping, pouring, or sprinkling. Certainly we hear about things such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said that the one to come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Understanding how language works, though, we know that when one applies a word like baptism (which means “to apply water”) to something which is not water, one understands from context that the speaker is using analogy. Continuing with our food/eating parallel, one might say, after reading an interesting book, “I devoured every word!” One would not mean that he engaged in any type of actual eating. Rather, he is saying that the book was interesting and he read it with enthusiasm. So, we must agree with Paul that there is only one baptism, and can dispense with the rather annoying and theologically loaded term “water baptism.”
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Second, I understand what this person thinks they are trying to say, but he misses the mark. Perhaps this is just me knit-picking, but the Bible does not assert that “an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.” I know this, because what this person is attempting to use in his argument, though he may not realize it, are the “solas” which came from Luther’s theology and the Lutheran Reformation (you’re welcome, by the way). As I stated in the original article, Paul says we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ, and even this faith does not come from us. Back to Ephesians two, yet again:
For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
So, how does that faith, which is God’s gift, get to us, since it isn’t by work, so that men are deprived of boasting? It comes through his means – His Word. And, when God couples his word of promise with a physical element…voila! You get a sacrament. When God couples water and his word of promise, you get Holy Baptism, which is the washing of regeneration.
For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by his grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).
So, you may say all day long that baptism is simply a remembrance and that it is not a means of grace. I challenge you to show me in Scripture where it says such a thing. You cannot. I, on the other hand, can, as countless orthodox Christian theologians have for 2,000 years, point to the words of St. Peter:
There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).
Did you catch that? Peter says that baptism now saves us! And he clarifies, just so we don’t mistakenly think that he means the physical act of washing dirt away by itself. Baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What wonderful news! If the commenter wants to maintain that, “…to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel,” he may take that up with the Apostle Peter if he likes. I will cling to the plain reading of the words of Scripture in their context.
That context is the comparison Peter makes between baptism and the flood and Noah’s Ark. Eight people were saved in the ark, “through water,” Peter writes, and in the next sentence likens this salvation (the shadow) to the salvation given by God in baptism, through the resurrection of Jesus. Luther, in his Small Catechism, explains it this way:
How can water do such great things? Answer: It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost as St. Paul says, Titus, Chapter three…this is a trustworthy saying (Luther 2008).
In the end, it is a question of what you see baptism to be. Is it God’s act, or man’s? Is it something God does to you, or a work of obedience you offer to God? Scripture is clear that baptism is God’s work, done using the hands of a pastor, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to deliver His gifts to us. It all comes from outside of us.
This brings me to the second point of contention. If baptism is so important in regenerating people, why did Paul say he was not sent to baptize? The commenter writes:
“It is interesting that Christ did not send the apostle Paul, his chief evangelist, to baptize, isn’t it? Instead, he was sent to preach the gospel. That is where the power is…in the gospel, not water.”
My friend, you and I agree. The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). As we have discussed previously, that is why baptism is able to work forgiveness of sins, deliver from death and the devil, and give eternal salvation to all who believe this: It is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s word! That Gospel, of which we are not ashamed, is the power working in baptism.
Yes, Paul did write that he was not sent to baptize. He was, as he says sent to preach the Gospel. Here is the entire passage in context:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
Paul did not baptize. He was sent to preach. Well, except for Crispus and Gaius…and also Stephanas’ household…and maybe some others he doesn’t recall…but he didn’t baptize! Paul is addressing the issue of sectarianism among the Corinthians and he is making the point that it’s good he didn’t personally baptize a bunch of people, otherwise these wretched Corinthians might say he was doing it to gain a following. Certainly Paul is not saying that his mission was only to preach separate and apart from baptism. Paul’s mission is the same as that of the other Apostles:
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:16-20).
So, the disciples are sent here by Jesus to baptize and teach, but not to preach? Right, that was going to be Paul’s job…how absurd. Jesus gave the same mission to all the Apostles. The baptizing, preaching, and teaching can’t be separated out and any one thing omitted, because it is all part of them delivering the means of grace – God’s Word – to unregenerate sinners so that God could, by the power of His Spirit, do his work of making these sinners into regenerate Christians, when and where he willed to do so.
God comes to we who are spiritually dead from outside of ourselves, by means. Jesus is delivered to us through the external word, whether by reading, preaching, or through the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit uses those means, as he wills, to create believers out of unbelievers or, as the confessions say, willing persons out of unwilling ones. This faith is more than intellectual assent and knowledge and comes to us without our work, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Repentance? Another gift worked in us by God the Holy Spirit, and not something done of our own will.
That’s really as far as I know how to take this, so I’ll end with the words of the Small Catechism (which are really the words of St. Paul, because in this passage, Luther ends by quoting Romans):
What does such baptizing with water signify? Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Where is this written? Answer: St. Paul says, Romans, chapter six: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as he was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Luther 2008).
Catholic Answers. “Baptism: Immersion Only?” Catholic Answers. August 14, 2004.http://www.catholic.com/tracts/baptism-immersion-only (accessed June 22, 2016).
Joersz, Dr. Jerald C. “Baptism: Dunking, Sprinkling, or Pouring?” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: News and Information. October 5, 2010. https://blogs.lcms.org/2010/baptism-dunking-sprinkling-or-pouring-10-2010 (accessed June 22, 2016).
Luther, Dr. Martin. “The Small Catechism.” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. September 2008. http://www.bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#baptism (accessed June 22, 2016).
 According to Strong’s Concordance, baptizo means “submerge” or, literally, “dip under.” It is used in the New Testament, however, to also describe the washing of things which would have been impossible to immerse (such as dining couches), or were not normally washed by being fully submerged under water, (such as the hands of the Pharisees prior to eating). See Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38 (Catholic Answers 2004). One Greek dictionary widely used by translators today gives examples of acceptable ways to translate the term and then says: “such expressions do not necessarily imply the quantity of water, nor the particular means by which the water is applied.” In some churches in Luther’s day the pastor poured water from the baptismal font over the infant’s head. Others immersed an infant three times in the baptismal font. Luther expressed a personal preference for this latter practice because of its symbolic significance (Joersz 2010).