Lutheran baptism for Anglican evangelicals

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.

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15 Responses to Lutheran baptism for Anglican evangelicals

  1. Peter Ould says:

    Thanks John – that’s pretty well near my position, except that I might be slightly more reluctant to permit a parent to bring a child to baptism were I concerned that they would not teach their child that faith is required to receive the benefits or believe what was promised to them in baptism.

  2. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    Very nice post.

    I’m interested to know, however, what you mean by “magical thinking” – which the Lutheran articulation of the doctrine of Baptism presumably avoids. Obviously, certain extra-liturgical “folkish” superstitions connected to holy water and the like are perhaps classifiable as “magical thinking” – but these practices to not much reflect the Roman Catholic or Orthodox teaching on the doctrine of Baptism any more than backwoods Latvian Lutherans leaving food out for the “little people of the woods” represents Lutheran social teaching.

    In fine, isn’t the invocation of “magical thinking” held by other Christians a bit of a polemical red herring?

  3. John H says:

    Peter: of course, if they lived in the parish you wouldn’t have any choice in the matter. 😉

    I’m glad that there are Anglican evangelicals still teaching a higher view of baptism than I heard on Sunday. When I talk about the “Lutheran understanding”, this doesn’t mean I think that only Lutherans have got it right on this point; but Luther’s statement is hard to beat for its clarity and general “in-yer-face”-ness (to give it its technical theological term…)

  4. John H says:

    JRH: in a word: yes.

    In more than a word: the phrase “magic water” is the one that is bandied about in ACE circles (at least in my experience), which is why I used it here. And I suspect what underlies the use of that term is a concern (whether justifiable or not) that baptism is being seen as an automatically-efficacious means of salvation apart from the Word of God and faith.

    So my point was just to emphasise that we don’t see baptism as separate from the Word, but as one of the means by which the Word comes to us.

  5. Peter Ould says:

    of course, if they lived in the parish you wouldn’t have any choice in the matter

    Aaaahhh… you don’t know the canons of the Church of England quite as well as you think!! I refer you to the first part of Canon B 22, sect 4, beginning “save for the purpose…”

  6. John H says:

    Heh. And I refer you to sect 2, beginning “the bishop of the diocese, who shall…”, which I suspect is what would settle the matter if you tried that one, sunshine. 😉

  7. Peter Ould says:

    Oh no doubt he would, having first shown me clearly that being satisfied with my instruction (that might take a fair amount of correspondence…) he wanted to move forward with the baptism. At this point in proceedings, do you think the family would still want a baptism performed by myself? 🙂

  8. Peter Ould says:

    It really comes down to what you think an “undue delay” constitutes. More correspondence methinks to clarify that point.

  9. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Baptism: the waters in which we live

  10. If baptism is effective because of the faith of the one being baptized, why is there such an emphasis on infant baptism? The demands of infant baptism would seem to argue in favor of it being “magic water”.

  11. John H says:

    Joshua: Luther addresses this point in the Large Catechism. A key passage:

    Thus we do also in infant baptism. We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God. Why so? Because we know that God does not lie. I and my neighbor and, in short, all men, may err and deceive, but the Word of God cannot err.

    In other words, who are we to say that a child can’t believe (as John the Baptist believed in the womb), or rather that the Holy Spirit can’t use the Word in baptism to create faith? But in any event we don’t baptise on the basis of evident faith, but according to Christ’s institution.

    And it’s not that baptism is only effective where there is faith. The benefits are received by faith, but even if a baptised infant grows up completely ignorant of and rejecting God (a tragic outcome), that doesn’t invalidate their baptism.

  12. Tim Boerger says:

    “…any more than backwoods Latvian Lutherans leaving food out for the ‘little people of the woods’ represents Lutheran social teaching.”

    That’s the most awesome thing I’ve read all week. Since my congregation has adjoining woods, I’m definitely adding the “little people” to our social ministry. Not only do we get to serve our (magical) neighbors, but it’ll make cleaning up after pot-lucks considerably easier!

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    “…any more than backwoods Latvian Lutherans leaving food out for the ‘little people of the woods’ represents Lutheran social teaching.”

    They aren’t following Matthew 25:40?

  14. yemesrach says:

    What’s the evangelical view of baptism of the holy spirit?? i really what the answer urgently..

  15. yemesrach says:

    What’s the evangelical view of baptism of the holy spirit?? i really what the answer urgently..

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