Baptismal Regeneration: A False Gospel?

My daughter Caitlyn's baptism at St. John's Ev. Luth. Church - Chicago, IL in 2004

My daughter Caitlyn’s baptism at St. John’s Ev. Luth. Church – Chicago, IL in 2004

I am consistently amazed at the visceral reaction of those who deny the efficacy of Baptism to any talk about how Baptism is efficacious. One person wrote a long response to my article, “Three Examples of How Lutherans DenyJustification by Faith Alone: A Response – Part One of Two,” decrying baptismal regeneration as a false gospel, and calling “water baptism” merely a symbol, commanded to be carried out on/by those who are believers. His comments are too long to reproduce here in their entirety (if you want to read them, simply go to the original article and scroll down to the bottom). I will, however, respond to two points the person made, as I think they get to the heart of the matter. Firstly, he writes:

“Water baptism is simply a remembrance. It is not the means of grace through which God provides salvation; that is simply ‘warmed over’ Roman Catholicism. The Bible asserts unambiguously that an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Trying to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel. Any ecclesiastical (church) procedure plays no part in justification.”

First, we have to deal with this term “water baptism.” To talk about “water” baptism is akin to talking about “food” eating. There is no baptism without water, as the Greek word “baptizo,” from which we get our word baptism, means to apply water either by immersing, dipping, pouring, or sprinkling[1]. Certainly we hear about things such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said that the one to come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Understanding how language works, though, we know that when one applies a word like baptism (which means “to apply water”) to something which is not water, one understands from context that the speaker is using analogy. Continuing with our food/eating parallel, one might say, after reading an interesting book, “I devoured every word!” One would not mean that he engaged in any type of actual eating. Rather, he is saying that the book was interesting and he read it with enthusiasm. So, we must agree with Paul that there is only one baptism, and can dispense with the rather annoying and theologically loaded term “water baptism.”

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Second, I understand what this person thinks they are trying to say, but he misses the mark. Perhaps this is just me knit-picking, but the Bible does not assert that “an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.” I know this, because what this person is attempting to use in his argument, though he may not realize it, are the “solas” which came from Luther’s theology and the Lutheran Reformation (you’re welcome, by the way). As I stated in the original article, Paul says we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ, and even this faith does not come from us. Back to Ephesians two, yet again:

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

My daughter Emma's baptism at Immanuel Ev. Luth. Church - Hodgkins, IL in 2006

My daughter Emma’s baptism at Immanuel Ev. Luth. Church – Hodgkins, IL in 2006

So, how does that faith, which is God’s gift, get to us, since it isn’t by work, so that men are deprived of boasting? It comes through his means – His Word. And, when God couples his word of promise with a physical element…voila! You get a sacrament. When God couples water and his word of promise, you get Holy Baptism, which is the washing of regeneration.

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by his grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).

So, you may say all day long that baptism is simply a remembrance and that it is not a means of grace. I challenge you to show me in Scripture where it says such a thing. You cannot. I, on the other hand, can, as countless orthodox Christian theologians have for 2,000 years, point to the words of St. Peter:

There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).

Did you catch that? Peter says that baptism now saves us! And he clarifies, just so we don’t mistakenly think that he means the physical act of washing dirt away by itself. Baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What wonderful news! If the commenter wants to maintain that, “…to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel,” he may take that up with the Apostle Peter if he likes. I will cling to the plain reading of the words of Scripture in their context.

That context is the comparison Peter makes between baptism and the flood and Noah’s Ark. Eight people were saved in the ark, “through water,” Peter writes, and in the next sentence likens this salvation (the shadow) to the salvation given by God in baptism, through the resurrection of Jesus. Luther, in his Small Catechism, explains it this way:

How can water do such great things? Answer: It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost as St. Paul says, Titus, Chapter three…this is a trustworthy saying (Luther 2008).

In the end, it is a question of what you see baptism to be. Is it God’s act, or man’s? Is it something God does to you, or a work of obedience you offer to God? Scripture is clear that baptism is God’s work, done using the hands of a pastor, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to deliver His gifts to us. It all comes from outside of us.

This brings me to the second point of contention. If baptism is so important in regenerating people, why did Paul say he was not sent to baptize? The commenter writes:

“It is interesting that Christ did not send the apostle Paul, his chief evangelist, to baptize, isn’t it? Instead, he was sent to preach the gospel. That is where the power is…in the gospel, not water.”

My friend, you and I agree. The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). As we have discussed previously, that is why baptism is able to work forgiveness of sins, deliver from death and the devil, and give eternal salvation to all who believe this: It is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s word! That Gospel, of which we are not ashamed, is the power working in baptism.

Yes, Paul did write that he was not sent to baptize. He was, as he says sent to preach the Gospel. Here is the entire passage in context:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).

Paul did not baptize. He was sent to preach. Well, except for Crispus and Gaius…and also Stephanas’ household…and maybe some others he doesn’t recall…but he didn’t baptize! Paul is addressing the issue of sectarianism among the Corinthians and he is making the point that it’s good he didn’t personally baptize a bunch of people, otherwise these wretched Corinthians might say he was doing it to gain a following. Certainly Paul is not saying that his mission was only to preach separate and apart from baptism. Paul’s mission is the same as that of the other Apostles:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:16-20).

So, the disciples are sent here by Jesus to baptize and teach, but not to preach? Right, that was going to be Paul’s job…how absurd. Jesus gave the same mission to all the Apostles. The baptizing, preaching, and teaching can’t be separated out and any one thing omitted, because it is all part of them delivering the means of grace – God’s Word – to unregenerate sinners so that God could, by the power of His Spirit, do his work of making these sinners into regenerate Christians, when and where he willed to do so.

God comes to we who are spiritually dead from outside of ourselves, by means. Jesus is delivered to us through the external word, whether by reading, preaching, or through the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit uses those means, as he wills, to create believers out of unbelievers or, as the confessions say, willing persons out of unwilling ones. This faith is more than intellectual assent and knowledge and comes to us without our work, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Repentance? Another gift worked in us by God the Holy Spirit, and not something done of our own will.

That’s really as far as I know how to take this, so I’ll end with the words of the Small Catechism (which are really the words of St. Paul, because in this passage, Luther ends by quoting Romans):

What does such baptizing with water signify? Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Where is this written? Answer: St. Paul says, Romans, chapter six: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as he was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Luther 2008).

Works Cited

Catholic Answers. “Baptism: Immersion Only?” Catholic Answers. August 14, 2004. (accessed June 22, 2016).

Joersz, Dr. Jerald C. “Baptism: Dunking, Sprinkling, or Pouring?” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: News and Information. October 5, 2010. (accessed June 22, 2016).

Luther, Dr. Martin. “The Small Catechism.” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. September 2008. (accessed June 22, 2016).

End Notes

[1] According to Strong’s Concordance, baptizo means “submerge” or, literally, “dip under.” It is used in the New Testament, however, to also describe the washing of things which would have been impossible to immerse (such as dining couches), or were not normally washed by being fully submerged under water, (such as the hands of the Pharisees prior to eating). See Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38 (Catholic Answers 2004). One Greek dictionary widely used by translators today gives examples of acceptable ways to translate the term and then says: “such expressions do not necessarily imply the quantity of water, nor the particular means by which the water is applied.” In some churches in Luther’s day the pastor poured water from the baptismal font over the infant’s head. Others immersed an infant three times in the baptismal font. Luther expressed a personal preference for this latter practice because of its symbolic significance (Joersz 2010).


Baptismal Regeneration: A False Gospel? — 14 Comments

  1. Baptism is how disciples are made, not how they return the favor.
    Thank you, Mr. Klotz. I’ve never heard it explained better!

  2. Thank you Mr. Klotz for your posts. I chalk up misunderstandings of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion to the woeful lack of catechesis over the past 25 years or more. Also, the Biblical teaching of conversion is not understand even by Lutherans. American Evangelicalism came close to overtaking the LC-MS in recent decades, but it appears that isn’t the case anymore from what I witnessed of the convention via the videos.


  3. Good article.

    If you really want to have some fun, show symbolists the quotes from the early church fathers about the sacraments, even as far back as the second century. There is no sense whatsoever that the sacraments are treated in a merely symbolic sense.

    It’s also interesting to note that Calvin AND Wesley did not believe in a merely symbolic take on the sacraments (I already knew about Calvin, but Wesley surprised me). I wonder how Methodists would react if more of them knew this.

  4. @J. Dean #3

    It’s also interesting to note that Calvin AND Wesley did not believe in a merely symbolic take on the sacraments (I already knew about Calvin, but Wesley surprised me). I wonder how Methodists would react if more of them knew this.

    We were told that Methodists in my home town baptized babies. We attributed the practice to “lutherans marrying in”. Maybe not?
    Of course they grew up to be “Job’s daughters” and “DeMolay” …. 🙁

  5. Methodists baptize babies. Most Methodists is my adult classes also believed in the real presence in the Lords Supper. The pastors read the words of institution and didn’t bother teaching otherwise so the people believed the words.

  6. Helen wrote: “Of course they grew up to be ‘Job’s daughters’ and ‘DeMolay’….”

    Some of the younger readers of BJS may not be familiar with Job’s Daughters and DeMolay. They are the young women’s and young men’s groups associated with the Masonic Lodge. A prominent alumnus of DeMolay is Bill Clinton.

    For even younger readers, why is being associated with the Masonic Lodge a problem?

    From the 1932 “Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod”

    Of God
    4. On the basis of the Holy Scriptures we teach the sublime article of the Holy Trinity; that is, we teach that the one true God, Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4, is the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, three distinct persons, but of one and the same divine essence, equal in power, equal in eternity, equal in majesty, because each person possesses the one divine essence entire, Col. 2:9, Matt. 28:19. We hold that all teachers and communions that deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are outside the pale of the Christian Church. The Triune God is the God who is gracious to man, John 3:16- 18, 1 Cor. 12:3. Since the Fall, no man can believe in the “fatherhood” of God except he believe in the eternal Son of God, who became man and reconciled us to God by His vicarious satisfaction, 1 John 2:23; John 14:6. Hence we warn against Unitarianism, which in our country has to a great extent impenetrated the sects and is being spread particularly also through the influence of the lodges. [Emphasis added.]

    For more info see: Lutherans Informed about Lodges (A web site badly in need of updating, but which nevertheless has a lot of good information.)

  7. Thank you, Mr. Klotz, for a clear, Gospel-centered (as any discussion of Baptism has to be) posting about Baptism. I am particularly gratified that this comes from a layman, proving, once more, that the Holy Spirit works the same understanding of the truth in the called clergy and lay people.
    I was feeling truly edified until I came to the last paragraph. I suppose Lutherans have read these words for centuries, memorized them, and repeated them when they felt necessary. But do we really understand what Luther is saying here. This is pious nonsense! Even as Luther asks, “where is this written?” he refers to where St. Paul is speaking of one Baptism and one resurrection, not some kind of a daily washing and regeneration. What he refers to does not support what he claims.
    I have nothing against fighting against the old Adam, but what happens when we drown him and he dies? What happens is that we are no longer living on this earth, but have gone to be with the Lord. In this world we are inseparable from the old Adam. If “a new man (shall – GAM) daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever,” then where does the old Adam come from every day, who has been drowned and is dead? Scripture does not teach that the purpose of the Christian life is to either attain or come close to attaining perfection; it clearly teaches that were are to be servants, and to love one another. If we are constantly concerned with fighting sin so as to “live before God in righteousness and purity forever,” we will be disappointed, because we will be among those who did not give the least of His brethren food, drink, clothing etc.
    This portion of the Small Catechism has troubled me for many years and is one of several reasons why I think we should look a little more critically at our Confessions, rather than hiding behind the quia principle.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  8. Over the years I learned to first explain what the Bible teaches about the status of the unbeliever, as we teach in our doctrine on Original Sin. Once they clearly understood that, then they understand much better what a great blessing Baptism is.

  9. From another Lutheran layman:

    Baptism achieves and signifies a number of things. It is a washing that demonstrates and promises that all prior sin is of no account before the Lord and before the Body of Christ into which the baptized is being received. Baptism grants a new identity, for the one who is baptized in Christ has put on Christ like a brand new uniform — a bright garment that features the cross and the empty tomb as marvelous emblems. To receive this identity in faith, which is also a gift, is to appropriate the work of Christ and consequently to stand thereafter as one justified before God, so long as this faith endures.

    Yet faith without works is dead. True faith cannot presume upon God’s grace, for grace is not license. Those who are rescued gratefully follow their rescuer. Baptism identifies the baptized person before God and man as a follower of Christ, that is, one who is aspiring and learning with His Church to imitate Him, observe all that He has commanded, and bear good fruit. The faith that is enabled and energized by the Holy Spirit seeks the fulfillment of one’s baptismal identity to the glory of the One who has granted it, trusting that God in His mercy will carry on to completion the work that He has begun, and thus save.

    “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:10

    “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Rev. 2:10

  10. True faith cannot presume upon God’s grace, for grace is not license.

    What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Romans 6:1-3

  11. @Jay #11
    Maybe I’m nitpicking…

    Typos are generally excused on lists, if they do not distort the meaning. Some of us text; easy to create typos on that little screen. [I’m on my desktop now, and have deleted two extra letters already!]

  12. “So, do Lutherans actually believe that baptism is necessary for salvation?” Of course. Baptism is the Gospel. It works forgiveness of sins. The Gospel is necessary for salvation. Does that mean Lutherans believe it is absolutely necessary for salvation. No. Since God can and does deliver faith through the means of His spoken Word as well. But His spoken Word also directs us to take comfort in the fact that God comes to us personally in Baptism washing our sins away as delivered from the once for all atonement made for us on the cross.

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