More Than a Mere Bath

Photo used under Creative Commons license from flikr user Sunfrog1

Photo used under Creative Commons license from flikr user Sunfrog1

Therefore I exhort again that these two, the water and the Word, by no means be separated from one another and parted. For if the Word is separated from it, the water is the same as that with which the servant cooks, and may indeed be called a bath-keeper’s baptism. But when it is added, as God has ordained, it is a Sacrament, and is called Christ-baptism. Let this be the first part, regarding the essence and dignity of the holy Sacrament.

Large Catechism

The Baptist church I grew up in had baptisms fairly regularly. Not that this happened frequently, but whenever the necessity came up, the ceremony was performed. There was some lead-up to the ceremony itself for each candidate. For instance, the church constitution required the diaconate board to examine each candidate. This generally consisted of a short series of questions. I don’t recall anything doctrinal being asked; we were simply required to “give our testimony.” In FE bodies, especially for people so young as I was when I was baptized, this means telling the story of when and how the candidate prayed the sinner’s prayer. Even during the baptism ceremony itself, the candidate is usually asked to give their testimony again in front of those witnessing the baptism. No baptism was performed without this first taking place, and indeed the sinner’s prayer is seen as the entry into the Christian life. This in accordance with the typical FE view of salvation, and one has to wonder if the reason why the sinner’s prayer is emphasized so heavily is due to the lack of a sacrament to serve the same purpose. Interestingly, Dr. Luther makes a similar case in the Large Catechism; faith in God’s promise must cling to something. Should it cling to something within the believer’s mind or something external to him?

As normal, I don’t want to take space to write much on the sinner’s prayer. But I will take time to mention that this prayer is the FE’s sacrament of entrance into the Christian life, not baptism. For FE’s, baptism is not afforded the great import that the scriptures give to it. FE’s believe nothing of what the scriptures teach concerning baptism.

The scriptures speak of baptism in terms of regeneration, salvation, forgiveness of sin, entrance into and identity with Christ. Yes, Lutherans believe these words concerning baptism as they are written. We believe the scriptures without need to qualify them. We believe that baptism works forgiveness of sin and delivers from death and the Devil.

This is a point of contention with FE’s. To FE’s, baptism is seen as a work performed by a mere man’s hands, something one does or has done to him. In accordance with the Pauline writing concerning the inability of our works to save us, FE’s believe that only faith can save. However, when one considers baptism a work of man, he must therefore conclude that baptism does not save. For the FE understanding, faith originates within the believer and baptism has nothing to do with the matter. As example of this, FE’s will point to the verse in 1st Peter. The verse explicitly states that it is not the physical washing of dirt from the flesh that brings life, but an appeal to God. The conclusion is then that baptism is a physical work, and physical works do not save.

The physicality of this act cannot be denied. Physical works do not save. But the verse doesn’t end there.

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

The scripture disagrees with the FE interpretation. When this verse is read, to come away with any interpretation other than baptism saves is to deny the plain teaching of the verse. Some parts of scripture are written metaphorically or otherwise figuratively, and it’s true that we do see some imagery concerning Noak’s ark in this passage. But what is the symbol? Is it the ark, is it baptism, or is it both? I think it’s obvious by the passage that it is intended for the ark to be a symbol for interpreting baptism. But just because the ark is a symbol, it is not necessitated that baptism is also not a symbol. In fact, many FE’s also take this interpretation.

The particular mode of baptism chosen by FE’s (typically immersion… and it seems odd that FE’s will simultaneously insist on immersion for proper administration of a symbol because they believe that’s the way it was done, all while refusing the use of wine for yet another symbol in their view, even though the scripture plainly states that it’s what Christ used) does have a visual significance. It does look as though one is being laid into a grave and raised again. With the presence of water, there’s also potential for it to symbolize cleansing. One can make a convincing argument that baptism is a beautiful symbol.

Yet that is not how the verse reads. The verse doesn’t speak of a ceremony that symbolizes salvation, it speaks of something that saves. Baptism saves. Any other explanation of this verse is one that explains that it doesn’t mean what it plainly says. Any other interpretation ignores that the the New Testament is dripping (no pun intended) with such a high view of baptism. Lutherans believe the scriptures as they are written. We see God’s promise in baptism as foundational in the scriptures. We also see a cohesiveness in all the passages; we see an intentional choice of words in 1 Peter 3:15 and Romans 6 by two different authors making the same point: baptism in God’s name unites one through faith to Christ’s death and resurrection.

This position typically leaves an FE scratching his head. Lutherans believe this scriptural doctrine of baptism, that it saves! Yet we also believe in salvation by faith alone. To the typical FE, this “does not compute” because they consider the water as the thing of great import in the rite, and faith as something else entirely that precedes the rite. Because it has a physical element (water), baptism is viewed as an administration of a physical element. But the scriptures make it clear that this is no ordinary application of water. Lutherans believe the doctrine of original sin, that we are entirely incapable of desiring God in and of ourselves. Therefore, God must make the first and every move (Calvinists believe something similar, but I’ve addressed this in prior posts, that the sacraments bring something external for the believer whereas the Calvinists must continue to look inward for signs of their own faith since they don’t have a baptism and supper that actually save). A baptism is nothing less than being given God’s name. It’s how disciples are made. Lutherans do not distinguish faith from baptism. It would be like trying to distinguish a man from his personality.

But this distinction between water and the Word in baptism is unwarranted also. As Dr. Luther said, if you take God’s name away from baptism then it cannot rightly be called a baptism. It’s a mere bath. My Baptist pastor when I was a child had a phrase which I will borrow and apply differently than he did: if God’s name is not used to perform a baptism, then the candidate simply enters the baptismal waters as a dry sinner and comes back out a wet one. The water is common, ordinary water. Without God’s name, no benefit is provided.

But baptism is not common, ordinary water. It is water with the Word.

And what Word is that? It is the Word of God. It is Christ. It is God’s sure promise of salvation. It is not an act of an individual’s will. It is not in the power of the hands that perform the baptism. It is in God’s solemn promise to us, clinging to the water. What a great gift!


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