Q&A — The Necessity of Holy Baptism

October 26th, 2012 Post by

Two questions have come our way concerning holy baptism.

The [Book of Concord] seems to say that infants who die un-baptized may not go to heaven. (from the Epitome, in the section “Articles that Cannot be Tolerated in the Church.”; also SD XII 11) It further suggests that the fate of said infant may turn on whether his/her parents are baptized believers themselves, which strikes me as particularly unjust. Can you clarify the LCMS position on this issue for me? (Also a link to the

The second questioner asked:
1. When are we to baptize, at what age…birth – 8 days or up to 90 days for infants? 2. What did Luther specifically say regarding an infant that was not baptized should that infant die?

 
I will attempt to answer these conjointly. I ask the reader to understand, however, that the questions themselves are the result of many assumptions, often unknown to the the one asking the question, born of hundreds of years of our Lutheran Confessions being read through the lens of a Calvinistic and Armenian theology here in the United States. So if I seem to ramble and go on tangents, bear with me as there is far more here than meets the eye.

Also, before we begin, I feel I must first apologize to the BJS team and to the individuals who asked these questions for not getting this out sooner. Sorry. And I must say that I am continually encouraged that our laity are reading and wrestling with both the Word of God and our beloved Lutheran Confessions. Such practices will only strengthen us in our common confession and life.

I would also begin by referring the reader to two books by the Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer that deal specifically with holy baptism and these questions. One is entitled “Infant Baptism” and is published by CPH. The other is book XI of a dogmatics series and is entitled “Baptism”. It is published by The Luther Academy (1999). It can probably be found on Amazon, but first ask your pastor if you can borrow his copy. Not because you shouldn’t have a copy of your own, but because your pastor needs to know that he should have one!

To the point at hand: our Confessions say that Baptism is necessary to salvation in both the Augsburg Confession (article IX) and in the corresponding article in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. But what is important to know is that the Confessions are speaking against the Anabaptists who denied that Baptism is anything at all except a public confession of the faith of an individual. Their theology on Baptism is most akin to modern Baptists (though the Baptists do not come from the Anabaptists), wherein baptism is made to be nothing more than a symbol of the faithful’s faith toward God in Christ. In short, baptism is for them a work they do. For them, baptism is law.

The Lutheran confessors were (and are!) confessing against this. Baptism is not our work but God’s work. It is not something we do to show our allegiance to God, but something God does to us to show His mercy toward us. It is God’s work whereby He puts troubled consciences to rest (1 Peter 3:21); whereby you are clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27); whereby He saves you through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5); whereby you are raised by God in the resurrection of Christ (Romans 6).

To put it as bluntly as it can be put: baptism is not law but gospel. Always!

Our Lutheran Confessions seeks to confess this, that baptism is always gospel. They say that baptism is necessary not in order to say that those who are not baptized are in no wise going to heaven, but to insist that baptism is God’s work and is the grace of God. His mercy and grace in Christ is the only thing necessary for salvation, and this grace of God – the merits and righteousness and forgiveness in Christ – is found in and given in holy baptism. So that we confess that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promise of God declare” (Small Catechism, IV: Baptism).

In fact, all the sacraments are always gospel. They are never law in the sense that we must do them or else God will punish us. God punishes no one for not participating in the sacraments. They don’t need punishing; they are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18). The sacraments are not for unbelievers but for believers. They are not for those who do not believe for those who do believe. Baptism is not for the one who denies Christ but for the one who believes in and is brought to Christ. In this we see that Jesus’ miracles of healing are really commentaries on holy baptism.

Those who were healed believed before they were healed, which is why the came to Jesus in the first place. Sometimes their faith is weak and small and sometimes great and mighty, but it is always there. And it isn’t the measure of faith that saves, but the presences of faith. Moreover, sometimes, like with the paralytic of Mark 2, it is the faith of friends that brings the sick to Jesus and He heals them based on the faith of the friends. This is not to say that others can believe for us, but that the healing and forgiving was as much for the sake of the friends as for the sake of the sick man who was healed and forgiven. When others are baptized, your faith is strengthened. Not only so, but the one being baptized is having Jesus say to him, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven you.” In both cases the sacrament is for the believer, whether it is the one watching and bringing or the one being healed and baptized.

In this way parents who trust in Christ bring their children to Him. Whether the child has faith is a moot point for the parents. They bring their little one in their faith. But the child, even the infant, may certainly also have faith; that is, trust in his or her Savior, having heard the word of the Lord from the lips of His servant even as he or she was still in the womb (Luke 1:39-45). Faith is not intellectual consent or understanding. Perhaps more than any other truth, our day and age demands that we know this and preach it loudly and clearly: faith does not equal intellectual consent or understanding. (Knowing this would free many of our children to receive what Christ gives to and for them: His body and blood.) No one understands the mercy of God in the way we understand how a car works. It’s more like a child who simply knows that the car has an engine that makes it somehow move down the road. But even the infant sitting strapped in his car seat receives the benefit of the car without knowing anything about it. Faith does not equal intellectual consent or understanding. Faith equals trust, which is frankly beyond any comprehension or understanding. It clings to the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

So what about those who are not baptized? The lack of baptism does not equal the lack of faith. Part of our trouble in regard to appreciating the sacraments is that we approach them as law, as things we must do and keep in order to be saved. We tend to approach them as individual moments in time when we either obeyed God by our participation or did not obey Him by not participating in the sacraments. In some sense we can say that, yes, to participate is to obey and to refrain from participating is to not obey. But the participation or lack of it is not the source or nexus of our obedience. Our obedience is not found in doing these things but in the faith that draws us to them. The word of Christ brings about the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26) . If our obedience were in participating in the sacraments then we wouldn’t need faith, we would need only to participate in the sacraments. That’s what Rome teaches. But our obedience is an obedience of faith so that as Abraham was so we are: justified by faith. And this faith draws us to the sacraments so that we want to participate in them because of faith. So we can say – and should say – that participation and lack thereof is a good symptom of a person’s faith, but is not proof or disproof of it. Which is why your pastor will visit you (or ought to visit you) should you be a long time in participating in the sacraments.

Moreover, participation in the sacraments is not merely boiled down to those times in which we have participated in them temporally (i.e., on Sunday). We live in baptism and continually feed on Christ, resting in holy absolution whether we are at work, play, or in the Lord’s gathering. The sacraments are not individual moments in time like a television show that we either watched or didn’t watch; they are ongoing realities in which we live and move and have our being since their reality is Christ who is always and everywhere living with and among His saints. It may be said (and I think well said) that the sacraments are not only our life in God but are God’s life in us. They are how God lives among us and with us and reveals Himself to us and for us. So that by participating in the blessed sacraments we are participating in the life of God, which is necessary for salvation.

In this way we can easily see that being baptized is necessary. So, too, is feeding on the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man. So, too, is hearing His word. So, too, is receiving holy absolution. These are all necessary for salvation because they are our participation in the life of God, and those who believe participate in the life of God as the Scriptures teach, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

It is the word “necessary” that gets us all tied in knots. We hear or read that word and we think of things such as breathing being necessary for life; or wearing a seat belt as necessary for obeying the law; or getting a passing grade as necessary to graduation. We hear the word necessary and immediately judge a thing by its consequence. So if we do not breathe, we die. If we do not wear our seat belt, we get a ticket. If we do not pass, we do not graduate. In this line of thinking, if baptism is necessary then if we are not baptized, we do not go to heaven. But the formula doesn’t hold in regard to the sacraments precisely because the sacraments are not law but gospel. It doesn’t hold because the sacraments are not for unbelievers but for believers. The opposite of being baptized is not eternal damnation. The opposite of not eating and drinking the Blessed Sacrament is not hatred of Christ or the denial of His merits and grace. The opposite of not going to confession is not rebellion against God. Unless, of course, that person is not baptized, not eating and drinking at the altar, and not hearing God’s word because he or she does not believe in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18). But then it is the unbelief that damns, not the lack of the sacraments.

So eating and drinking in unbelief draws condemnation and judgment on the one eating and drinking because they are profaning the body and blood of Christ by denying the very thing for which they are given: forgiveness of sins and life eternal. Those who are baptized and eat and drink and hear God’s word and receive absolution do so trusting in Christ or else they do so to their judgment because they deny and do not confess the truth. This is what we mean by faith alone justifies. Yet faith is not alone. It has the sacraments to strengthen and sustain it, to confirm and grow it, even to create it because the sacraments are the word and will of God toward sinners saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The word of the Lord in the sacraments creates the faith that trusts the word of God so that faith comes by hearing, yet it comes attached to the sacraments which are the visible word, and by which we can even call preaching a sacrament as St. Paul says that faith comes through hearing (Romans 10:17).

So what about the unbaptized babies? Are they saved or not? If so, how? In his commentary on Genesis (AE 3:103), Luther deals with this question in light of the Mosaic Law that infant boys must be circumcised on the eighth day. He writes that since the law demands circumcision on the eighth day, then those who cannot reach the eighth day by reason of death are not held accountable to the law, since the law was not for them but for those of the eighth day (pg. 103). He equates this to baptism by saying that those who are not brought to baptism for reasons beyond their control (i.e., death or parents who don’t think baptism important or necessary) are not held accountable for having despised the sacrament since they did not keep themselves from it but were kept from it, even if they have faith.

Now we can make all manner of conclusions from this, and it can become dangerous to equate baptism to circumcision too rigidly, but it is of the utmost value and importance to remember that while circumcision was demanded by the law, circumcision itself is a promise. It is grace for the circumcised. So too, is baptism. It is commanded (Matthew 28:16ff), yet baptism itself is the gospel and ought never be used as a bludgeoning tool against the lapsed or the unbeliever, but always as a comfort and promise of God toward all mankind since all nations are to be baptized, just as circumcision was used as a sign of God’s promise and grace and never as a weapon of doubt. In other words, we never cast doubt on the salvation of a child because dad and mom couldn’t or didn’t get that child to holy water. Since it is commanded Luther writes, “Those adults who despised circumcision or who despise Baptism are surely damned” (AE 3:103). Those who refuse to bring the child to baptism are cursed, not the child. It is the one who withholds God’s mercy and grace that is judged, not the one in need of the mercy. The child is always – before, during, and after baptism – at the mercy of his heavenly Father, who is indeed merciful and full of compassion. The child, the infant, is saved the same way an adult is saved: by the will of God through the word of God. That is, by grace through faith.

Now someone will undoubtedly wonder or ask about those children who were not born to Christian parents and so were prevented from coming to baptism for that reason. Here we must remember that faith comes by hearing, not by having water poured over us. So that if one does not hear the gospel of Jesus, then one cannot have faith in Him. This is not to call God unjust or unmerciful (or to belittle baptism), but to trust all the more that He saves those to whom He sends messengers. And those to whom He doesn’t send messengers are not worse sinners, but by their disobedience (unbelief) the mercy of God is made all the more glorious in those who hear and believe. This is St. Paul’s point in Romans (8-12) about the people of Israel. Their unbelief doesn’t make God unjust, but in fact justifies Him in His words and deeds toward them.

But here we must also remember that it is the elect of God that come to faith. Not one who is given to Christ will be lost. Not one will perish and no one and nothing can snatch them from out of His hand. Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ. The elect shall be saved. The doctrine of election, like that of the sacraments, is grossly misunderstood and misapplied and does far more harm than good when we approach it as law with legal-like demands and characteristics. The doctrine of election, like the sacraments, is pure gospel, pure grace. So that we do not preach or teach that there are those who are elected to damnation, but that God wills that none should perish, which is why He sent His Son to die for the sins of the whole world. So we can freely preach the gospel to all people without wondering if they are elect or not, but trusting in the mercy of God in Christ that their sins, just as ours, have been forgiven by God in Christ and that they, too, have an inheritance waiting for them.

Finally, since it was part of the questions that sparked this post, I feel I must say a word on when a person should be brought to holy baptism. First I must say that we need to be in conversation with our pastors and theologians on this because life is never the same in two places. But briefly, a person should be baptized when they confess Jesus and desire it (Acts 6). We should baptize those who are brought in the faith of the parents, whether that person is an hour old, a day old, or twelve years old. Age doesn’t matter. What matters is that baptism is the promise of God that the blood of Jesus washes away sin, makes righteous, and cleanses us from all our diseases. Baptism is God’s mercy toward us, His seal and guarantee that we are among the blessed and that the inheritance of Christ is ours and our children’s. Baptism is the most glorious treasure of heaven, giving the blessings of the eternal Father to those who are hidden in His eternal Son, Jesus.

I hope this satisfactorily answers the questions, but if not, please don’t hesitate to ask for more.
Peace be with you.


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  1. jim claybourn
    October 26th, 2012 at 13:33 | #1

    Pastor, is there a typo in the second sentence of the last paragraph?

    It reads “First I must say that we need to be in conversation with out pastors and theologians on this because life is never the same in two places. ”

    Should the word “out” really be “our”? If not I’m confused!

    Great article!

  2. October 26th, 2012 at 15:21 | #2

    @jim claybourn #1
    Wow! Good catch; I’ll edit it right away. Thanks!

  3. October 26th, 2012 at 18:48 | #3

    One correction. At the beginning of your article you mention “Calvinistic and Armenian [sic]” theology. It may be true that some Armenians have bad theology, but I believe you intended to refer to Arminian theology!

  4. Carl H
    October 26th, 2012 at 21:27 | #4

    Pastor Lovett,

    I appreciate your post, since it touched upon several aspects of baptism that, in my experience, are sometimes unclear. One statement that stood out for me is this one:

    “But the child, even the infant, may certainly also have faith; that is, trust in his or her Savior, having heard the word of the Lord from the lips of His servant even as he or she was still in the womb (Luke 1:39-45).”

    The statement is clear enough, and I agree with it. But it does not seem to harmonize well with a few other Lutheran sources:

    1.
    An LCMS document that answers frequently asked questions (FAQs) concerning baptism says without qualification (and in two different places) that “when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant”. (http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=699)

    Doesn’t the word “create” mean that the faith was not there before?

    2.
    LSB 596 says this:

    “You were before your day of birth,
    Indeed from your conception,
    Condemned and lost with all the earth,
    None good, without exception.
    For like your parents’ flesh and blood,
    Turned inward from the highest good,
    You constantly denied Him.”

    Don’t the words, “without exception,” plainly reject any possibility of faith before baptism?

    3.
    A rite of baptism printed in the bulletin of an LCMS congregation in 2011 has the pastor saying this to the parents of the infant to be baptized:

    “You now bring him to God’s house that He may bestow His gift of faith onto him, in and through baptism.”

    Don’t the words, “that He may bestow,” mean that baptism is a condition for bestowing faith?

    ————

    If you are correct in claiming that an infant may have faith before baptism (I believe Scripture substantiates that claim clearly), then what do you make of these other sources that seem to tell us that all infants are faithless before baptism?

  5. helen
    October 26th, 2012 at 22:38 | #5

    @Carl H #4
    then what do you make of these other sources that seem to tell us that all infants are faithless before baptism?

    IMO, sloppy thinking or sloppy writing.
    You only need to go to Luther’s Small Catechism for this one [not even the “Explanation”].
    What benefits does Baptism give?
    It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
    Which are these words and promises of God?
    Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” –Mark 16:16

    In class, we were told to note that, while baptism is commanded, along with teaching all that Christ has said, it is faith that saves. That faith is the gift of God, nothing we can achieve ourselves.

    Since Christ commanded that children be allowed to come to Him (the word means even infants or new borns) we pray that they be given faith and are confident that they have it.

  6. October 26th, 2012 at 23:17 | #6

    @helen #5

    Dr. David Scaer’s recent book “Infant Baptism” does a great job of showing that the Lutheran Reformers confessed “Infant Faith” and how later Lutherans questioned or denied that, to their own theological peril!

  7. Tim Schenks
    October 27th, 2012 at 06:14 | #7

    The Fisk had a good answer on one of his WE videos.

    1. Do you have to be baptized? No!
    2. Do you have to be baptized? Yes!

    Works for me.

  8. October 27th, 2012 at 08:40 | #8

    Ha! The foibles of not having to hand write anything anymore. Thanks for the clarification.
    @Pastor Tom Eckstein #3

  9. October 27th, 2012 at 09:02 | #9

    @Carl H #4
    I would agree with Helen. It’s sloppy writing.
    Baptism does create faith, just as preaching does. But we should be careful not to use the word “create” as a one-time deal. God created everything over the course of time, yet He created in one act of creation. So, too, faith. There is certainly a time when faith was not and then is, but pinpointing that time is nigh impossible.
    Rather, faith is created like a building. It goes up slowly or quickly, but it is being created. And the foundation is not baptism but the word of Christ (Ro. 8). I think this is a more helpful way of looking at faith. When building a building, sometimes work goes backward because something was done wrong. So with faith. Sometimes it goes backward due to sloppy teaching and preaching, sometimes everything goes very well and it is built up quickly and with strength. But faith is living and growing, and holy baptism certainly builds, grows, and creates faith.

  10. October 27th, 2012 at 18:23 | #10

    Dr. Kurt Marquart used to point out in the dogmatics classes that I had with him that the problem with telling people that babies in the womb are saved by hearing the sermon is that we begin to forget that the word of God comes to us in human language and is received in the same way as we receive other human speech–through the ears and then the brain interprets the sensory information received through the ears. When we start acting as if infants, who cannot reason, can comprehend the spoken word of God, we are forgetting that the Holy Spirit comes to us in the “external word”–that is the human, earthly words that we use in other settings to order dinner at a restaurant or discuss politics. If we say that babies believe in Christ by means of preaching or us reading John 3:16 to them while they are still in the womb, why don’t we conduct the divine service and read the lessons in latin–if it is taken for granted that the word works even without our ability to comprehend it? Children may receive faith through the word even though their ability to use language is limited, but if we are going to be dogmatic about that we risk denying the reality that the means of grace are received in an earthly manner. Bread and wine that are the body and blood of Christ still must be eaten and drunk with the mouth, even if the life that is in Christ’s body and blood are received in a spiritual manner and not by being converted into blood sugar, like earthly food. In the same way, words written on a page or spoken out loud are received by ears and a mind with the capacity for language. God is not limited by our weakness, but we should be circumspect about speaking too dogmatically

    The reality is that baptism is the ordinary means by which the Holy Spirit regenerates a person. So the AC insists that we aren’t free to dispense with it, but we must direct people to it. However, in cases where someone is unable to be baptized, despite the desire of their parents to have them baptized (or their own desire), Luther and many other Lutheran theologians pointed people to Christ’s promises: “Let the little children come to me…for of such is the kingdom of God,” and “whatever you ask in my name, it will be done for you.” The reason we are assured of the salvation of baptized infants is this promise of Jesus–“Of such is the kingdom of God.” And Luther points out that people who are brought to Jesus in prayer are nonetheless brought to Him. The biblical example of this is the centurion who comes to Jesus asking for healing for his servant who is at home. In prayer, he brought the servant to Jesus. Jesus spoke the word to heal the man. The man didn’t hear it (at least we have no reason to think he did)–but he was still healed. Because of Christ’s promise we have the same assurance about infants.

    If not, as Luther pointed out, we shouldn’t baptize them at all. If babies don’t have faith without baptism, then the whole questioning of the child at baptism if it renounces the devil, if it believes the Apostles’ Creed, if it wants to be baptized, is mocking God. Luther talks about this at length in his sermon on the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany in the church postil.

    This is the reason why the church prays, in Luther’s flood prayer (which LSB brought back) for Christ to grant the child true faith, to receive it, etc. The church is doing (along with the parents and sponsors) what the centurion did with his servant–bringing them to Jesus. So we do also with our children while they are still in the womb.

    How does Jesus grant them faith? I don’t know. I don’t have to know. All I know is that he says that they should be brought to him and that the kingdom of God belongs to them. That is all I need to know. How is up to Him, just as it is up to Christ how He makes His body present on millions of altars at the same moment.

    If we deny that, then sadly we are denying that Christians as the royal priesthood actually enter into the holy of holies and go into the presence of the Father in Christ.

    When I pray, I’m not just throwing thoughts into the sky, but I come as a priest in the great High Priest to the Father himself–in Christ. That’s why Luther makes such great claims about prayer throughout the Large Catechism. It would be a blessing if we recovered his theology of prayer, and if pious laypeople were not left to doubt whether their heavenly Father had received this child into the kingdom of God. To doubt that is really to denigrate the great privilege and boldness Christ has given us to go to His Father in heaven–and ours–with bold requests and great certainty.

  11. October 27th, 2012 at 20:25 | #11

    @Rev. Karl Hess #10
    Thanks, Karl. We don’t bring our children to baptism because they believe, but because of the promise of Jesus that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for us and our children. And you’re right, we shouldn’t be dogmatic about how infants believe, and we can’t deny the Scriptures that say that faith comes by hearing. Yet it is not in mental ability, else those who aren’t smart enough to understand would never come to faith. So baptism creates faith, yet baptism isn’t magical. It creates faith by the word of God.
    So babies can’t be saved without the word. But it’s not the word they understand but the word that Jesus proclaims about them, just like you and me. The only difference between us and babies is we can say “amen” in our capacity to understand language. They cannot. Right?

    Anyway, it’s not an easy topic. Lots to consider in how to best comfort and encourage the faithful.

  12. October 27th, 2012 at 22:44 | #12

    Well, we ask the baby whether he (or she) believes, and he or she says, “Yes” through the sponsors.

    Luther says in the church postil sermon I cited that if babies really can’t believe at that point, we shouldn’t ask them nor should we baptize them, because we would be mocking God. No one can be baptized in his parents’ faith or the church’s faith, because we can’t believe for someone else. However, my faith can benefit my child or any of the rest of my relatives or neighbors, when my faith in Christ causes me to bring them to Jesus in faith that He will heal them (or grant them saving faith.)

    But we have more consolation with our children. With our children we have an additional promise from Jesus: “Let them come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Because of that promise I should pray with certainty that Jesus will give my child or the child of someone else in my congregation saving faith. Just as I pray “forgive us our trespasses”–I don’t wonder after praying it whether God will really forgive my trespasses after all, but I say a certain “amen” because Jesus has promised it. Likewise at the holy Supper, I don’t say, “I hope that really was Jesus’ body and blood; or I hope I really received forgiveness of sins and not damnation.” It is “Amen!”

    When Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” it is certain. I certainly am bringing my child to Jesus when I pray for his salvation when he’s still in his mother’s womb. When we pray the flood prayer before baptism, we are certainly bringing the child to Jesus as God’s holy priesthood, interceding in Christ with the Father.

    Why do Lutherans always act as if baptized babies who die are saved–period? Is that just being nice to the parents? Why should I be any more certain of the little baby who is baptized than the person who came to church 10 times a year and whose faith produced little–if any– visible good fruit? If the assurance of the salvation of infants rests on the fact that they were exposed to the Word, why should we be more comforted by that than we would be with the adult who hears the word but does not appear to come to faith? The Word can be rejected or resisted, and, so far as that goes, so can Baptism–as we see happens more frequently than not among those baptized in LCMS churches. So how can you really give certain consolation even to parents with baptized children?

    The reason we speak with certainty about infants is that promise of Jesus: “Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them…the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” We have a special promise about little children that we do not have with adults.

    With adults who die, we can’t simply say, “Well, he was baptized, therefore he died a blessed death.” Those who live an openly unrepentant life, in fact, have rejected their baptism.

    But with babies we have more certainty. Jesus says: bring them to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them. That is the promise that enables us to tell parents who have lost their baptized baby that he or she is certainly with Christ. That’s why we have the feast of the Holy Innocents, even though surely not all of them were circumcised, and the church is not saying by this feast day that children are born without original sin.

    Because in prayer we certainly come into the presence of the Father as part of His priesthood, whatever we ask in prayer according to the will of God we will receive. And we should have no doubt that it is His will to grant saving faith to our infants. How and in what way they receive saving faith it is unnecessary to try to spell out. Even if we say they receive it through hearing the Word through their mom’s stomach, we are still posing a kind of “hearing” of the external word that is extraordinary.

    We read scripture to dying people who are unresponsive, hoping that they hear and are comforted. But it would be a stretch to go to the bedside of a life long unbeliever, now dying and having long since lost their reason to Alzheimer’s, and read the Bible to them for a few days, and then claim with certainty that they are in heaven.

    We would never do that. The comfort we could give to the family of the person would be very slim. And that would pretty much have to be what we would say about stillborn children of Christian parents if we base our comfort merely on the fact that the infant heard the word in the womb.

    But instead we have a guarantee from Christ that He will give the kingdom of heaven to little children who are brought to him, “for of such is the kingdom of God.”

    This is kind of a hobby horse for me, so I’m sorry if I hijacked the thread. I’ve written about this several times on my blog ( http://www.deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com ) so I wondered if maybe the questions you got were related to some of the conversation that has been going on over there.

  13. James Sarver
    October 28th, 2012 at 07:54 | #13

    Pr. Hess,

    “Dr. Kurt Marquart used to point out in the dogmatics classes that I had with him that the problem with telling people that babies in the womb are saved by hearing the sermon is that we begin to forget that the word of God comes to us in human language and is received in the same way as we receive other human speech–through the ears and then the brain interprets the sensory information received through the ears. When we start acting as if infants, who cannot reason, can comprehend the spoken word of God, we are forgetting that the Holy Spirit comes to us in the “external word”…”

    I choke on it a bit, but I have to disagree with Dr. Marquart here. God speaks and things happen. It is independent of our intellect. How would the Word engage a fallen intellect that has no ears to hear, regardless of linguistic capability? Maybe Dr. Marquart was not saying what you think he was.

  14. fws
    October 28th, 2012 at 08:32 | #14

    There is a really critical law and gospel error here.
    Baptism, the holy supper and even the preaching of christ crucified are BOTH Law and Gospel.

  15. Mark Lovett
    October 28th, 2012 at 13:38 | #15

    @fws #14
    How are the sacraments – the means by which the Lord engenders, creates, sustains, and fortifies, etc. faith – law?
    We preach the law, but then, that’s not preaching the gospel and so doesn’t create or sustain faith but in fact kills. When do the sacraments kill?

  16. helen
    October 28th, 2012 at 15:55 | #16

    @Mark Lovett #15
    When do the sacraments kill?

    Didn’t Paul say that the sacrament killed when unbelievers or the impenitent received it “not discerning the Lord’s Body”?

  17. Mark Lovett
    October 28th, 2012 at 16:30 | #17

    @helen #16
    The sacrament didn’t kill them, their unbelief did. St. Paul specifically uses the phrase “Fallen asleep” which is not punative but instructive chastizement. But, no, the body and blood of Jesus didn’t kill anyone. Those who do not discern the body do not believe Jesus’ words or presence there at the Supper, and so take it to their judgment because of their unbelief.
    To illustrate: if I said, “Jesus loves you and gave His life for you and by His blood you are forgiven,” and you do not believe this, does the gospel kill you or does your unbelief? Jesus said that He did not come to condemn the world but save it.
    Moreover, Paul’s language in 1 Cor. 11 is reminisent of the language he uses in chapter 10, which talks about when Israel rebelled that they were chasized for our education. So to those who do not discern the body, they are chastized for our education. But the sacrament doesn’t kill. Jesus came to give life.

  18. helen
    October 28th, 2012 at 16:57 | #18

    @Mark Lovett #17
    But the sacrament doesn’t kill. Jesus came to give life.

    Thank you. That’s the further explanation I wanted.

  19. Tim Schenks
    October 29th, 2012 at 05:37 | #19

    I choke on it a bit, but I have to disagree with Dr. Marquart here. God speaks and things happen. It is independent of our intellect. How would the Word engage a fallen intellect that has no ears to hear, regardless of linguistic capability? Maybe Dr. Marquart was not saying what you think he was.

    From the Apology, Article XXIV (XII):

    It has, however, nowhere been written or represented that the act of hearing lessons not understood profits men, or that ceremonies profit, not because they teach or admonish, but ex opere operato, because they are thus performed or are looked upon. Away with such pharisaic opinions! [Ye sophists ought to be heartily ashamed of such dreams!]

  20. James Sarver
    October 29th, 2012 at 06:15 | #20

    Pr. Schenks @ #19,

    From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.”

    In the context of Apology XXIV what do you think Melancthon is speaking against, the actions of men or the actions of God?

  21. October 29th, 2012 at 07:40 | #21

    I am not a pastor.

    The Apology in that article was speaking against the adversaries claim that merely being present at the service without understanding will save them. I think Pr. Marquart was agreeing with the Lutheran Confessions.

  22. Carl H
    October 29th, 2012 at 08:19 | #22

    @Pastor Mark Lovett #9

    Thanks for your comments. You advise that “we should be careful not to use the word ‘create’ as a one-time deal.” Frankly, I do not know how that understanding can be avoided. Baptism for us is indeed “a one-time deal” and the word “create” is usually understood to mean “to bring into existence” (www.m-w.com). So the claim that “baptism creates faith” is going to be understood to mean that faith was brought into existence right at baptism.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

  23. James Sarver
    October 29th, 2012 at 17:01 | #23

    Tim Schenks @ #21,

    I think the Confessions speak against ‘ex opere operato’ in the sense that men fool themselves into thinking that their actions are the cause of the application of the power of God. This somehow gets twisted into a suggestion that God does not do what God does unless we understand it.

    I suspect the Confessors would be horrified at the suggestion that the Word must engage human reason in the form of language skills in order to be effective.

  24. Tim Schenks
    October 30th, 2012 at 03:23 | #24

    James Sarver :Tim Schenks @ #21,
    I think the Confessions speak against ‘ex opere operato’ in the sense that men fool themselves into thinking that their actions are the cause of the application of the power of God. This somehow gets twisted into a suggestion that God does not do what God does unless we understand it.
    I suspect the Confessors would be horrified at the suggestion that the Word must engage human reason in the form of language skills in order to be effective.

    Hence the exclusive use of Latin to this day in our Lutheran Divine Services. Did you order that new Vulgate edition of The Lutheran Study Bible from CPH?

  25. James Sarver
    October 30th, 2012 at 06:55 | #25

    Tim Schenks @ #24,

    “Hence the exclusive use of Latin to this day in our Lutheran Divine Services. Did you order that new Vulgate edition of The Lutheran Study Bible from CPH?”

    I hear sales are slow. :)

    Look at the section from Apology XXIV you cite above and ask why Melancthon goes out of his way to say “act of hearing” instead of just hearing. I’m not saying understanding never matters. That was the adversaries and Melancthon rightly takes them to task for it.

  26. Charles F. (Fred) Wilhelm
    October 30th, 2012 at 15:44 | #26

    Pastor Lovett,

    I need some help in understanding the last part of your response to my question on the fate of infants who die unbaptized, particularly with the paragraph that begins “Now someone will undoubtedly – – -“. In it, you state that if one does not hear the Gospel, one cannot have faith. You further state that God saves those to whom He has sent messengers. I assume these would be visitations of the Holy Spirit. It appears you are defining two categories of infants (or fetuses): those who receive faith through a visitation (even in the womb) and those who do not. In the case of the latter category, how is the child to receive faith, and therefore salvation? Later you refer to the fact that the “elect of God” come to faith and shall be saved; does this imply the fate of the child rests on whether he/she is a member of the elect?

  27. Joe
    October 30th, 2012 at 16:56 | #27

    Excellent article, Pastor Lovett.

  28. Carl H
    October 31st, 2012 at 07:01 | #28

    Pr. Hess (#12),

    Your reflections resonate with some of my thoughts and concerns. I have lined up here a few Bible verses that influence my thinking on the matter:

    What is truly in the heart of any other person is obscured.

    — “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?
    1 Corinthians 2:11

    — “[Y]ou, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind….”
    1 Kings 8:39

    Beyond what God has revealed in Scripture, His are ways are difficult to fathom.

    — “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
    Romans 11:33

    — “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
    1 Cor 13:12

    — The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
    John 3:8

    Nevertheless, to the degree that God gives the grace, we relate to God and to one another in faith.

    — “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
    Hebrews 11:1

    Perhaps it can be said that, among other things, baptism provides an identity that faith embraces.

  29. sue wilson
    October 31st, 2012 at 09:15 | #29

    @mark lovett
    Thanks, Pastor Mark, for trying to remove the legalistic view of baptism that I frequently hear from fellow Lutherans. Reading Acts demonstrates that baptism does indeed save by God’s grace and promise, but Acts also demonstrates that faith is the one absolute necessity.
    If someone balks at baptism, I ask them, ‘Why would you not want to be baptized as Jesus commanded?”

  30. October 31st, 2012 at 14:51 | #30

    Charles F. (Fred) Wilhelm :
    Pastor Lovett,
    I need some help in understanding the last part of your response to my question on the fate of infants who die unbaptized, particularly with the paragraph that begins “Now someone will undoubtedly – – -”. In it, you state that if one does not hear the Gospel, one cannot have faith. You further state that God saves those to whom He has sent messengers. I assume these would be visitations of the Holy Spirit. It appears you are defining two categories of infants (or fetuses): those who receive faith through a visitation (even in the womb) and those who do not. In the case of the latter category, how is the child to receive faith, and therefore salvation? Later you refer to the fact that the “elect of God” come to faith and shall be saved; does this imply the fate of the child rests on whether he/she is a member of the elect?

    Fred, this is why I began my post with the caution (to myself as much as to anyone) that we live in a theologically warped framework, chiefly because of Arminianism. If you’ll bear with me, your question here is the heart of the matter, I think, and so deserves a well thought out response. I’m working on one that I plan to publish as a separate post on BJS so perhaps others can join the conversation.
    As I said, I think you have put the matter succinctly in regard to the seeming difficulty of infant faith, hearing, election, and the role of holy baptism. Kudos on that! I’ll try to have the post written and posted by close of business tomorrow. Is this satisfactory?

  31. October 31st, 2012 at 16:02 | #31

    James Sarver:

    Of course the Holy Spirit can work faith through the spoken word of God even when someone is not able to understand human language. He can and has done so when John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb at the voice of the mother of God. Unless, that is, babies really can understand human language and we just don’t know it.

    The point is we don’t want to act as if the spoken word of God does not function the way that any other spoken words function. There is a reason why we try to preach the word in a way that people will understand it (and be able to hear it, for that matter). It’s not that if I succeed in speaking audibly and clearly and the content of what I’m saying is understood, then people will believe the Gospel and receive the Holy Spirit. It’s not that if I preach a poorly prepared sermon the Holy Spirit isn’t capable of creating faith through it. But it would be tempting God for me to preach in latin–or even in really elevated diction–purposely, and then say, “Well, the Holy Spirit works faith through the word anyway.” I do the best I can and then I commend it into God’s hands and trust that because it is His Word he will not permit my human weakness to prevent it from doing what it was sent forth to do.

    But at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a general rule the spoken word of God has to be understood by the intellect to work faith. Otherwise, what is Paul talking about in 1 Cor. 14? Or why did the Holy Spirit cause the apostles to speak in the language of all the people in Jerusalem on Pentecost?

    So rather than declare dogmatically that God works faith in babies in the womb through the hearing of the Word, we can do what Luther does, and simply say that we have been commanded by Jesus, “Let the little children come to me…for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” This tells us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the infants of Christians and Jesus really desires that they receive it. So how the baby in the womb receives faith when we bring them to Christ in prayer, we don’t know and don’t have to know, since we have Christ’s promise. We certainly should not think that after saying, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” Jesus will turn them away because they were not able to be baptized. If we bring the infants to Christ in prayer, we are as surely bringing them to Him as when we bring them to church to hear the sermon. If not, then Paul made a mistake when He said that God “seated us in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2) or that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3) or when the writer to the Hebrews says “since we have such a great high priest…let us come boldly to the throne of grace.”

  32. James Sarver
    November 2nd, 2012 at 05:48 | #32

    Pr. Hess @ #31,

    “The point is we don’t want to act as if the spoken word of God does not function the way that any other spoken words function.”

    I get what you are saying. I think this is more of an imagined problem than a real one though. Nobody I have heard of is advocating ditching the vernacular and returning to Latin (or Greek or German or whatever). That accusation arises naturally though (as evidenced above) whenever someone suggests that the word of God functions beyond our intellect.

    It seems to scare people and evokes the accusation of ‘ex opere operato’ as if that term applied to what God does.

    You are correct in saying that the spoken word of God does function that way that spoken words function. The waters of Baptism function the way that water functions. The bread and wine of the Sacrament function the way bread and wine function. But that is not the end of the story. It is all the same word of God. The same word that God spoke and called the universe into existence out of nothing.

    You are right that we should not be so dogmatic about that. Dogmatics doesn’t really do it justice.

  33. James Sarver
    November 2nd, 2012 at 06:16 | #33

    Pr Hess @ #31,

    “But at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a general rule the spoken word of God has to be understood by the intellect to work faith. ”

    It is my understanding that scripture says faith comes by hearing. It is my understanding that scripture makes a distinction between hearing and understanding. It is my understanding that fallen humanity (including the intellect) is not receptive but is in utter opposition to the word of God.

    Is this all incorrect? What have I missed?

    How does the word of God engage the fallen intellect that has “no ears to hear”?

  34. November 2nd, 2012 at 17:08 | #34

    Yes, humanity is not receptive to the word of God. But God uses human language to communicate to human beings. He uses the rules of grammar. He works with the biology of human brains in hearing and interpreting language. He does not bypass people’s brains completely in working faith through the word. He could do that. But if He always did that we wouldn’t bother to teach God’s Word so much. We expect that people will hear the words, understand the words, and then through these words the Holy Spirit will work faith.

    The Scripture says, in 1 Cor. 14, that if you speak in tongues but don’t interpret, you don’t build up the church because no one understands what you are talking about. The Holy Spirit sighs within us to God with groans that cannot be uttered (Rom. 8), but those sighs of the Holy Spirit are not understandable to us or to other people in the church, and so, even if they were heard, and even though they are the words of God, they would not work faith.

    Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Everyone who heard him say that knew what the words he was saying meant. They all could hear with their literal ears; their eardrums took the words Jesus spoke in Aramaic or whatever and conveyed it to the language center of their brains which then interpreted the words. However, not all of them believed.

    The point is that the spoken word of God which, as you said, calls the universe into existence, is coming in limited, human words, that are normally received through the ears and the brain.

    Now Christ can take limited, human words, speak them, and create faith in deaf people through them, even though normally, limited, spoken human words do nothing for a person who is not able to hear. Christ can do that. But it is not right to say that He has to do that, or that He normally does that. In reality the Spirit typically works faith through the teaching of Scripture, and the teaching of Scripture happens in more or less the same way that anything else is taught.

    No one would attempt to teach an infant in the womb physics or auto repair, simply because they would not be able to understand what was being taught. In the same way to insist that God must work faith through the teaching of the bible to a child in the womb risks ignoring or denigrating the earthliness of God’s Word in Scripture and preaching. Yes, God can create faith in unborn children through the teaching of God’s word or the reading of Scripture, but if we say that He always does or He must the question is why do we waste so much energy translating bibles and writing sermons and teaching catechism?

    Anyway, I’m definitely not trying to say that reason and intellect are necessary to faith. Obviously infants and sleeping people and people with Alzheimer’s have faith, even if we don’t see it or understand it. What I am saying is that just as the Sacrament of the Altar requires eating and drinking, and Baptism requires water, the preached word of God normally requires hearing and the ability to use language in order to be received. We need to not forget that God’s word comes in human language. In a sense, when we act as if the spoken word always works faith independent of understanding, we’re undoing the very thing we are trying to uphold. We’re trying to uphold the idea that the Spirit works through means. But if the Spirit works faith through the word independent of the normal means through which human speech is received, the “means” is out the window, for all intents and purposes.

    Anyway, I pretty much should give up trying to clarify this anymore. I can’t seem to do it.

  35. jb
    November 2nd, 2012 at 17:37 | #35

    Pastor Lovett –

    Good piece.

    As to the comments . . .

    I am convinced many Lutherans intend to wring all of the mystery out of the Mysteries.

  36. Tim Schenks
    November 3rd, 2012 at 02:58 | #36

    Rev. Karl Hess :Anyway, I pretty much should give up trying to clarify this anymore. I can’t seem to do it.

    Yes, especially on a blog. If you post much more than a paragraph most people aren’t going to read it anyway.

    I agree with you on your entire post, though.

  37. Tim Schenks
    November 3rd, 2012 at 03:02 | #37

    @jb #35

    Pr. Wilken claims 85% of us are only half-Lutheran and the remaining 15% are non-denominational. There’s no room for mystery-wringing Lutherans if that’s the case. :)

  38. James Sarver
    November 3rd, 2012 at 08:12 | #38

    Pr. Hess @ #34,

    “He does not bypass people’s brains completely in working faith through the word. He could do that. But if He always did that we wouldn’t bother to teach God’s Word so much.”

    I think He does bypass our brains (which are corrupt and in opposition to what is offered) to work saving faith in us.

    I think we would (and do) bother to teach God’s Word because having worked that saving faith He has also created a receptive intellect that must be fed since it coexists with that former intellect that opposes.

    A Justification/Sanctification distinction is in order here. They are not the same. They are inseparable, but distinct. I think this is what Paul is getting at in I Cor. 14, not creating saving faith but strengthening and preserving exisiting faith. Building up the Church.

    But he also makes the point about unknown tongues as a sign for those who remain in unbelief, that reject. It’s like God is saying “I may as well address you in a language you don’t understand because your corrupt intellect doesn’t get it, despite your language skills”.

  39. James Sarver
    November 3rd, 2012 at 08:33 | #39

    Tim Schenks @ #37,

    “Pr. Wilken claims 85% of us are only half-Lutheran and the remaining 15% are non-denominational. There’s no room for mystery-wringing Lutherans if that’s the case. ”

    Yogi Berra calimed that baseball was 90% mental and the other half was physical. If baseball can have 145% I think Lutherans can as well. Maybe there is room after all.

  40. Carl H
    November 3rd, 2012 at 10:42 | #40

    Regarding God’s work in an infant, I find it difficult to go along with claims about what God “normally” does. The work is hidden, and God has not constrained himself in that regard.

    Rather, I find it more helpful to distinguish between faith and presumption. Analogy: I believe that God can bring miraculous healing when and where he pleases. I cannot discern what God “normally” does in that the regard. I do advise friends and loved ones to see a doctor. I do pray for them. I should not presume that God will work a miraculous healing, but by faith I can trust that He will act according to his God and gracious will, as He has promised.

  41. January 10th, 2014 at 14:54 | #41

    @Tim Schenks #7
    Thanks for a definitive answer, Just what Luther would have said.
    How ’bout admitting that we(sinful humans on this side of heaven) don’t know.
    We leave it up to God. Since He is and we are not!

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