Lesson 7: The Sacrament of Baptism in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

BaptismYou get an idea of the critical role played by the sacraments in Lutheran thought by examining Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. It defines the Holy Christian Church as “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian Church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with the pure understanding of it and the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that the ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places.”

All it takes to have a church is a group of believers proclaiming God’s Word accurately and practicing the sacraments correctly. That’s it! Nothing else is essential. The Gospel and sacraments are means of grace that God has chosen to use in coming to us. All other church practices are human attempts to supplement them.

I am going to present Luther’s ideas on baptism as reflections of the three primary principles of the Reformation. You can study his whole treatment here.

Justification is by grace through faith alone. As I mentioned above, Luther regarded baptism as a means of grace by which God makes himself present in our lives and world. He writes, baptism “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.” Proclaiming the Gospel orally brings change by declaring God’s love and his promise to act upon it. The sacrament proclaims the Gospel in an action that makes it more concrete and real. Some theologians refer to it as a living word. I think of it as an estranged lover expressing and enabling reconciliation by following his declaration of forgiveness and love with a hug. There are many nuances in this action, because it promises there is more to come.

Scripture has authority. Luther believed the requirements for a sacrament necessitated Jesus commanding us to perform it and accompanying that command with a promise. He writes, “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.” This led him to reduce the Roman Catholic’s seven sacraments to the two clearly commanded with a promise in the Bible. He supports his statements about baptism with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore to all nations baptizing in name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and his promise in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

Luther sees the role of scripture going beyond simply authorizing the practice, however. The Word also empowers. “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and not Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

All believers are members of the priesthood. Missing in Augsburg VII is any mention of ordination. Luther regarded baptism as all the ordination needed by the church. The sacrament bestows a vocation on all believers, none more important than another. In his 1520 “Address to the Christian Nobility,” he demonstrates this by asserting the princes might do the bishops’ work if they fail to fulfill their duties. Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

At the present time, baptism both unites and divides the Body of Christ. Even the Roman Catholics recognize the baptism of other Christian bodies. Still many Evangelicals believe only adult baptisms that submerge the candidate are authentic. Hopefully, the unity in diversity advocated by Augsburg VII and Vatican II will begin the healing.

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