I’ve argued in previous posts (1 | 2) that Anglican conservative evangelicals (ACEs for the remainder of this post) have responded to the widespread phenomenon of “baptised unbelievers” by denying that baptism has any power or instrumentality. (I appreciate that’s an oversimplification, but at a popular level the message usually sent out is simply that “being baptised doesn’t make you a Christian”, as opposed to the more nuanced statements found in a book such as Michael Green’s Baptism.)
The motivations behind this are understandable: not wishing people to have a false confidence, and an aversion to what are seen as “Catholic” notions of automatic efficacy (“magic water”). However, the effect is to marginalise baptism in the life of the church and the lives of individuals. Committed church members leave their children unbaptised; believers are denied the comfort and assurance that Luther was able to derive from saying, “Baptizatus sum!” – “I am baptised!”.
The Lutheran understanding of baptism provides a different approach, which avoids both the dangers of false confidence or magical thinking, while retaining a high view of baptism as an instrument used by God to bring new life and a means of ongoing assurance for Christians.
This understanding of baptism is summarised in the Small Catechism. This sets out four questions and answers on baptism (with accompanying biblical “proofs”), of which the second and third are the most relevant here.
In the second Q&A, Luther summarises the benefits of baptism as follows:
What benefits does Baptism give?
It 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.
This is a strong statement, and one at which I suspect most ACEs would balk. Certainly I thought it was going too far when I first encountered it as an ACE a few years ago. However, it’s no stronger than New Testament statements about baptism as linked in my previous post (and here). I’d argue that the shock comes from seeing those statements applied so unambiguously and unreservedly to baptism with water.
This statement also introduces the role of faith in receiving these benefits, a point which Luther expands upon in the third Q&A, as he answers the question that will spring to many people’s lips on reading the statement above:
How can water do such great things?
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 no 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…
This is the key point in addressing the pastoral and evangelistic concerns about what we might call “effectual baptism”.
First, this is not a matter of “magic water”. As Luther puts it, it is “certainly not just water” that does these things, “but the word of God in and with the water”. In other words, the power of baptism is precisely the same as the power of preaching: namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Baptism is another means by which the saving word of the gospel is brought to us and applied to us.
Second, Luther emphasises the need for faith as a means of receiving these benefits. God’s Word does these things “along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water”; baptism works forgiveness, saves from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation “to all who believe this”.
So the problem with the millions of baptised non-believers in a country like Britain is not the fact that they have been baptised, but the fact that they don’t believe what was promised to them in their baptism; that is, they don’t have faith in Christ or his gospel.
We don’t need to explain away or talk down the benefits and power of baptism. On the contrary, we need to recall people to those benefits, to the promises of the gospel that give baptism its power. The message the church gives to “nominal Christians” or “baptised pagans” should not be that their baptism is worthless, but that they are failing to take hold of its benefits; not that they are valuing their baptism too much, but that they are valuing it too little.