This blog article, “How Lutherans Implicitly Deny Faith Alone in Christ Alone,” showed up in my Facebook news feed a couple days ago. I usually allow things like this to drift past without a second glance. This one, however, I thought merited a response because the author – whether intentionally or not – seems to be presenting a bastardized version of confessional Lutheran theology. I have no idea what “Free Grace Theology” is. I am merely a layman with no formal theological training. I have simply extracted the author’s three points and attempted to answer them from the confessional Lutheran point of view. The first two points regarding baptism are dealt with below. The third, how Lutherans deny justification by faith alone by teaching that a believer can lose their salvation will be dealt with in a separate article.
Unfortunately, unlike Free Grace theology, the Lutheran tradition has not kept to faith alone in Christ alone, despite their stated intention. Indeed, I believe the Lutheran tradition has adopted a number of doctrines in direct opposition to justification/eternal life by faith in Christ apart from works. Let me give three examples:
1) Infant baptism: The fact that Lutherans baptize infants denies justification by faith alone. Infants cannot believe and yet Lutherans claim they are justified in the act of water baptism. By baptizing people who do not have faith, the Lutheran churches effectively teach that justification is apart from faith, not by it. Some Lutherans will respond by saying that infants can believe and be justified by faith apart from works, and so are the proper subjects of baptism. If so, that leads to an obvious problem. If infants can believe, they can also disbelieve. How can you tell the difference between believing infants and non-believing infants? How can you tell a difference between infants who believe in justification by faith alone and those who believe in salvation by works? You can’t. Indeed, the whole idea is quite silly, and yet that very argument is often made by Lutherans. I have heard a Lutheran dismiss the problem as being “rationalistic,” whatever that means. In reply, it seems like special pleading of the worst kind to insist that infants can believe, but deny that we would be able to tell whether they do or not.
If Lutherans held consistently to justification by faith in Christ alone, they would not baptize infants. They would only baptize believers (however old they may be).
Let’s forget for a second that infants are included in the phrase “all nations,” (Matthew 28:18-20). Let’s set aside for the moment that St. Peter explains that a) baptism now saves you (1 Peter 3:21)and b) is for you and for your children and all those who are far off (Acts 2:38-39). Let’s even ignore for the moment that St. Paul equates baptism with circumcision by calling it a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29) not made by hands (Colossians 2:11-14), and circumcision was mandated for infants eight days old (all those things will be dealt with in greater detail later) (Genesis 17:12). Leaving all that aside, let’s focus our attention on the idea that infants can’t believe. Such an idea is totally, completely, and utterly true. Infants cannot believe…and neither can adults. We are all, by nature, objects of God’s wrath. In fact, let’s take a look at St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. No one can explain it better than him.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18), the sinful mind is hostile to God (Romans 8:7), and we all – every single human being since The Fall – have been born dead in trespass and sin. We were all born with a mind hostile to God, and with a heart inclined to evil (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 51:5). Left on our own to make a decision using our reason, whether or not to put our trust in Jesus, we would all choose “not Jesus” every time.
The analogy of a dead body is often used, but for good reason: Just as a corpse has no power to raise itself to life, so the spiritually dead person has no power to raise themselves to spiritual life, as St. Paul explicitly says in Ephesians 2. It is the Holy Spirit who calls people by the Gospel when and where he wills. And we know, from Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper and from what is normally known as “The Great Commission” – not to mention the rest of Holy Scripture – that God works through means. Christ has specifically commanded his Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to observe all that he has commanded. So, it doesn’t matter if an unregenerate person is nine seconds old, nine days old, nine years old, or nine decades old because, as St. Paul writes, no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). That faith by which they are saved comes from God as a gift through the Word. So, to be accurate, man is saved sola gratia, sola fide – by grace, through faith. That Word – God’s promised redemption – comes to an adult through preaching, or reading; that same word comes to an infant through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, which leads to the next point of contention.
2) Baptismal regeneration: Paul chastised the Galatians for thinking that circumcision was necessary for our salvation. And yet Lutherans insist that we must be baptized in order to be saved. Water baptism was as much a work of the Law as circumcision (Lev 16:23-24). How can Lutherans teach that making circumcision a condition of salvation is legalism but making baptism a condition of salvation is not? Some Lutherans will respond that baptism is not a work like circumcision, but the Gospel promise put into visible form. It is a work that God does to us, not something that we do for God. But this same reasoning could also apply to circumcision. Infant boys certainly don’t circumcise themselves. It is something done to them. And yet Paul denounced this practice as seeking to be justified by works of the law. What if the Galatians had said to Paul: “Paul, this isn’t legalism. It isn’t the boy’s work. This is God’s gift to the boy—a circumcised heart!” Apparently, Paul did not take that view. Adding any requirement to faith was a form of salvation by works, and another gospel.
If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would not make baptism a condition of eternal salvation.
The author of this article seems to be confused about the Lutheran position regarding baptism. He certainly doesn’t understand what St. Paul writes regarding baptism’s relationship to Old Testament circumcision. It isn’t a condition of eternal salvation in the way the author suggests. Baptism is the vehicle through which God’s promises are delivered. I guess baptism is a condition of eternal salvation in the same way that going through the front door is a condition of entering a house. You can try to crawl in through the mail slot, but the blessing is available by the means through which the homeowner has provided access. Baptism works the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), rescues from death and the devil (Romans 6:3-5), and gives eternal salvation (1 Peter 3:21). It is a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
Today in the United States circumcision is performed routinely in hospitals when a male child is born. The practice has little to do with religious faith, and is heavily debated between those who support the practice for medical and hygienic reasons, and those who decry the practice as mutilation and an infringement on individual liberty. The purpose of circumcision as instituted by God in the book of Genesis, however, was to be a mark of his covenant with Abraham. God had promised to send a savior to redeem mankind after The Fall, and he promised that savior would be the seed of Abraham. By the removal of the foreskin, males received a visible sign of this promise that God would send a Savior, born of a woman. No Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of the promise God had made long before, and every conjugal act between a husband and wife would illustrate the hope that God was working to restore creation and redeem all people (Engelbrecht 2009). As a pledge, or sign, of the covenant, circumcision pointed to something greater than merely the act itself. The Word – the promise of God – not the mere removal of flesh from the body, was the chief thing in circumcision (Engelbrecht 2009).
St. Paul correlates baptism with Old Testament circumcision. As a covenant sign, circumcision physically established the covenant and pointed to what God was doing in order to redeem us to himself. In Christ, however, the purpose of the covenant with Abraham (i.e. to be a blessing to all the families of the earth) was fulfilled. The new covenant is established with a different kind of circumcision – baptism (Engelbrecht 2009).
As the Bible sees it, baptism is not primarily a sign of repentance and faith on the part of the baptized. It is not a sign of anything that we do at all. It is a covenant sign (like circumcision, but without blood-shedding), and therefore a sign of the work of God on our behalf which precedes and makes possible our own responsive movement (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1990).
Certainly, based on what the Bible tells us about the nature of circumcision, and St. Paul’s correlation of circumcision with baptism, one is certainly justified in concluding that there is a Biblical basis for baptizing infants. This rite was performed on infants eight days old. It would be odd to refer to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ” if Baptism of infants was to be forbidden while circumcision was given almost exclusively to infants. However, this is by no means the only reasoning for infant baptism. Babies, even before they are born as evidenced in the case of John the Baptist, are capable of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. The work of God’s Holy Spirit is not limited by age, or anything else. The Holy Spirit works when and where he wills.
For he [John the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb…When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy'” (Luke 1: 15, 41-44).
Children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom, and are not merely some sort of amoral being until they reach a nebulous “age of accountability”. Being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature. Along with that corrupt nature comes the inclination and desire to flee from God, and they therefore need the forgiveness that Christ offers in baptism, just as an unregenerate adult does. Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth (Psalm 51:5). St. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23-24 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism, by the working of the Holy Spirit, and makes it possible for us to respond to him, though feebly (Galatians 3:27; Colossians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 6:11). In this way baptism is not unlike the defibrillator used by paramedics on a person whose heart has stopped beating; such a person is technically dead, and is powerless to make themselves alive again. Someone – a paramedic – must do something to them without their help to get their heart beating again. St. Paul tells us that we are dead in our transgressions. Through baptism, God takes us who were dead in our transgressions, and makes us alive in Christ.
Additionally, there are several reports in scripture where people bring their children to Christ to have him touch and bless them. Jesus warns against the danger of offending against little ones that believe in him, and in the same context says that to be Christians we have not to become adults but to become as children (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1990).
One such passage is in the Gospel of St. Mark:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10: 13-16).
St. Luke also writes:
People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).
On the contrary, there is a long tradition in the church of baptizing children, derived from Scripture, dating back to apostolic times. Infant Baptism was common practice in the early church. Scripture lends support to this when it reports that the Apostles baptized entire families – some of which, at least, would normally include children. When entire families, and all indeed who belonged to them were baptized, it is probable that if there were a number of children in these families, the Apostles did not exclude them. More importantly, the Apostles could refer Jesus’ command to “let the little children come to me,” and to the rite of circumcision from the Old Testament. The fathers of the early church certainly debated the subject of infant baptism. However, the volume of writings in favor of infant baptism far outweighs those in opposition to the practice, from the second century to the time of the Apostolic Constitutions:
He came to save all persons by means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, children, boys, youth, and old men (Irenaeus (c. 180 E/W), 1.391)… Even to the greatest sinners and to those who have sinned much against God, when they subsequently believe, remission of sins is granted. Nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace. How much more should we shrink from hindering an infant. For he, being lately born, has not sinned – other than, in being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth. For this reason, he more easily approaches the reception of the forgiveness of sins. For to him are remitted – not his own sins – but the sins of another. Therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council that no one should be hindered by us from baptism and from the grace of God
(17 Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.354)… Baptize your infants also and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of God. For He says, “Allow the little children to come unto me and do not forbid them (Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E) 7.457),” (Bercot 2002).
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word (Concordia Publishing House 1991). Through baptism, God receives people into fellowship with himself. Babies are to be baptized because they are included in the Savior’s command to baptize all nations. And, like all of mankind, a baby is, by nature, an object of wrath, prior to regeneration through faith in Christ. Thanks be to God that he has provided for mankind this means of grace by which he 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.
Stay tuned for part two.
Bercot, David W., ed. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002. Concordia Publishing House.
Luther’s Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990.