Q&A — The Necessity of Holy Baptism
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.