Abuse Does Not Destroy The Essence, But Confirms It

“Baptize an infant? No way! We want to wait for our children to get older so that they can actually mean it, so that they can have a valid baptism.”

Maybe you hold to the position above. Maybe you know someone that holds this position as well. For myself, I have flirted with this ideology in my past. The rationale behind the statement above is simply this,

“I have seen way too many people baptized in the church as a baby only to grow up to live a wild and crazy sin filled life! We baptize them, confirm them and then they drift into lawlessness and the world, never to return! Obviously baptism for babies does not work, it produces nominal Christians at best. Look at the results, it obviously isn’t valid, it is nothing. Let’s wait now! Let the child grow up, show that they are serious and that they will take this baptism to heart and then we can have a valid baptism.”

Personally, I can easily see how people would be offended by the idea of infant baptism and perceive it as invalid and nothing when they look at things from a practical point of view. I can empathize with and understand the frustration of seeing countless individuals baptized as babies only to wander from the church later on in life. It is frustrating, I agree. It is also heart breaking.

A problem exists in the rationale above though. The problem is that the rationale is considering infant baptism as invalid based on the failed end result of nominalism, lawlessness and leaving the faith. In a sense this is reverse-pragmatism. Instead of the end justifying the means, this reverse-pragmatism uses the end to criticize and invalidate the means.

Borrowing some thoughts from Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, let me rephrase a gentle rebuttal to the reverse-pragmatism rationale:

  • If a nonbeliever comes into a worship service, hears the Word and leaves unchanged or even more hardened to the Word we certainly would not consider the preached Word as invalid.
  • If a person does not believe in Jesus, we also wouldn’t say that this unbelief makes Christ into nothing.
  • If a child or citizen disobeys the civil government or his/her parents we would not say that the Government and the parents are invalid, that they are nothing.
  • Logically, these examples don’t make sense and these examples expose the problems with reverse-pragmatism.

Luther comments that this kind of rationale has inverted the whole argument. He states,

“My dear, just invert the argument and rather draw this conclusion: For this very reason Baptism is something and is right, because it has been wrongly received. For if Baptism was not right and true in itself, it could not be misused or sinned against. The saying is, ‘Abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it.’ For gold is not the less gold even though a harlot wears it in sin and shame.”

In other words, if baptism was actually nothing or invalid one would not even be considering baptizing in a different manner or time frame. Furthermore, if infant baptism is invalid, then how could one abuse something invalid? Why worry at all, why make it into an issue? If infant baptism is invalid then how can something invalid, something that is nothing, be responsible for the bad end results? Isn’t criticizing and blaming a supposed invalid infant baptism essentially making it into a straw man? However, because baptism is something, because it is valid and because it is an ordained means of grace, we react when it is abused. The reaction that we have to the abuse of infant baptism confirms that it is not invalid but the very opposite that it is valid. Thus, let us release our frustrations not upon this precious means of grace but upon the individual and circumstances that abuse the means. Baptism always remains true, whole, valid and good regardless of how mankind treats it. The abuse of baptism cannot destroy its essence and validity. Rather, the abuse confirms the validity and true essence of infant baptism.

To read more on this subject:
Freedom For The Gospel

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.


Abuse Does Not Destroy The Essence, But Confirms It — 6 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I’ve been guilty of this type of thinking in the past and have encountered it dozens of times. People attempt to discredit something by pointing to abuses of it. Logically it makes no sense. Such arguements are non sequitur.

  2. The point that baptism is valid means that those who have strayed can always return to their baptism in repentance and they are more likely to do so.

  3. From the original post: “The abuse of baptism cannot destroy its essence and validity. Rather, the abuse confirms the validity and true essence of infant baptism.”

    I don’t follow. Consider some other religion. Let’s say a pagan complains that a pagan rite has been desecrated. Does that confirm the validity and true essence of that rite?

    I can see that a complaint about an abuse of a thing does imply a conviction about the proper use of it. But to my way of thinking that begs the question about whether the conviction is correct.

    “Abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it.” In the context of resistance to infant baptism, it seems to me that the phrase repels common concerns without addressing them pastorally.

    Perhaps if those concerns were expressed as questions, some might sound like this:

    — What is valid about one believer, in the rite of baptism, reciting the Apostles’ Creed on behalf of someone who has expressed neither belief nor unbelief?

    — Who is the one that should be making “an appeal to God for a good conscience”? (1 Peter 3:21)

    — As a practical matter, don’t Christians tend to take their faith more seriously when they approach the baptismal font willfully as a matter of their own faith and conviction, rather than somebody else’s?

    — What really does make infant baptism valid, anyway?

  4. Infant baptism regenerates a child into Christ and his church. Just because millions walk away(in affect losing their salvation) does not make it false.

    Boeing has quality tested every airplane coming off their assembly line. They really do. Just because over half of them destruct mid air carrying hundreds of passengers does not negate their excellant construction and testing.

    If the original posters logic is correct you should have no worry about boarding one of these airplanes .
    I’m just an ignorant layman with a california public education .

  5. In Luther’s mind, what makes an infant baptism valid is that baptism is not based on the work of men, but upon the promise of God.

    When addressing infant baptism in the Large Catechism, he makes two basic points in argument for infant baptism. The first point is simply church history and tradition: if infant baptism is invalid, what can be said about all the pillars of the church throughout history who were baptized as infants? Clearly their baptism was not invalidated because they were not baptized or (the more specific issue that Luther is dealing with) re-baptized as adults. The baptism that they received as children is just as valid as a baptism received by an adult because it is the Word of God that makes the baptism, not a ritual of man.

    The second basic point is tied into this: what is baptism? Baptism, for Luther, is simply water and God’s Word in and with each other. It is God’s Word, and the promise communicated through it, that makes the baptism. It isn’t the priest, or the holy water, or the method of washing, or even the faith of the participant. “…when the Word accompanies the water, baptism is valid, even though faith is lacking. For my faith does not make baptism, rather, it receives baptism. Baptism does not become invalid if it is not properly received or used, as I have said, for it is not bound to our faith but to the Word” (LC, Part Four, par. 53).

    This is where the idea mentioned above (the abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it) comes in. Since baptism is the work of God, communicated through the Word, it is still a valid baptism even if the person received it unworthily. Just as a person who takes communion unworthily does not invalidate the communion, but rather eats and drinks condemnation upon himself as Paul says (Romans 11), so a person can fail to receive baptism… but it does not unmake the Word of God. Since baptism is the Word of God and water in and with each other, it is a concrete thing, not dependent upon us to give it power and meaning.

    The example that Luther uses for this point is actually that of adult baptism. If someone were to come as an adult and be baptized, not truly believing and receiving it unworthily, you wouldn’t rebaptize them again an hour later, as if it was not administered correctly the first time. Even if infants do not believe (which Luther disagreed with), the baptism they received as infants is still valid and they do not need to be rebaptized.

    This is because Luther links baptism and repentance into the same idea – essentially, to be baptized is to repent from your sins, and to repent from your sins is to return once again to the baptismal font (albeit not physically, as the anabaptists were doing). Baptism then becomes a daily renewal, as repentance should be practiced daily and continually – because of this, whether baptized as an infant or adult, the baptism is always there to return to, even if received unworthily.

    Ultimately, Luther’s point is that baptism is valid because it’s the ordinance and the Word of God, and it doesn’t matter when you receive it, you can always return to it. You don’t need to be rebaptized in order to lay claim to the promise of God – indeed, to be rebaptized or worry about the proper way of doing baptism is to turn baptism into a work of righteousness, whereby you do not trust in God’s Word, but in the ritual itself.

    Hmm… sorry about the long post… working on a paper related to this subject for Systematics, so it was quick to spring to mind. There’s obviously more that could be said on the subject, but that’s a brief overview of Luther’s argument in the Large Catechism.

  6. Parents attempting to be pragmatists for their children, utilizing the illogical thinking of allowing their child to make his own choice, don’t realize that they have already made a choice for their precious child. Essentially, they have deprived their child’s priceless soul of the blessings of baptism. Their choice to do so is in direct opposition to Scripture’s bidding. Parents who think that they are doing their child a favor by allowing him to make a decision (later) down life’s road, are being not only remiss, but irresponsible. Their passivity on the whole issue, plays into the devil’s hand, to insulate that precious soul from the Gospel call.

    Nathan M. Bickel


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