Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Have you stopped beating your wife? or…Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

When you testify in court for the prosecution, it is important to remember that the defense attorney is trying to discredit you. The better ones know how to back a witness into a corner without them realizing it. That’s why the witness should always remember, whenever possible, to give short, direct answers, which are unambiguous. Along with that, the witness should not immediately rush to answer the question. Defense attorneys will sometimes ask a series of short, simple questions, for which they want either a “yes” or a “no,” in rapid succession, in order to get the witness to feel comfortable answering quickly and without thinking. This is a set up for the last question in the series, which is a “gotcha.” Your name is Officer Klotz? Yes. Your badge number is 140? Yes. You’re working day shift now? Yes. You were working day shift when you stopped my client for speeding? Yes. You had your radar unit repaired before going out on the street that day? Um…

The scenario is awkward and contrived but serves to make the point. The question being asked isn’t really the question being asked. It’s like asking someone if they have stopped beating their wife. If you answer yes, you have just admitted to beating your wife. If you answer no, well, you are an actively abusive husband. It’s better not to assent to the premise of the question. In the scenario, that would be the time for the witness to pause and look to the prosecutor to raise an objection.

Is baptism necessary for salvation? [Pause]

Scripture and The Confessions say yes.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).

Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16) and that God’s grace is offered through Baptism (Titus 3:4-7). They teach that children are to be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God’s grace (AC IX).[1]

But first, I think we have to make sure we know precisely what question is being asked before we begin the discussion. What does the questioner mean when he asks, is baptism necessary for salvation? This, as does every question regarding baptism, boils down to what you believe baptism to be. Is baptism God's work, or man's? In other words, who is doing the baptizing? Is it God? Is it the minister? Is it the person being baptized? If baptism is the work of man, then it is by no means necessary. If baptism is done as a result of a man's decision, it is nothing more than a good work, and good works are not necessary for salvation. Indeed, we know that scripture teaches that it is impossible to earn our salvation through our own works. If baptism is, as scripture describes it, a life-giving water of regeneration that saves us by washing away our sins, then it is absolutely necessary. As always, most of these issues are made clear when we see who is doing the verbs.

So, does the questioner mean to ask, "Is baptism, which is a human work of obedience, done after making a decision by a man's will, necessary for salvation?" Or, are they asking, "Is baptism, which is a work begun and completed by God, as a means of delivering to man the gifts faith and forgiveness God has promised him, necessary for salvation?"

American Evangelicals mean the first thing when they ask this question. Confessional Lutherans mean the second. It is a little like comparing apples and asteroids, though. American Evangelicals see baptism as something they do. First, you are convinced to make a decision to accept Christ into your heart. After you have done that, you do the work of obedience of being baptized. Your baptism is a public confession of your decision to become a Christian. It is purely symbolic, and there is no supernatural aspect to it.

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper.[2]

Confessional Lutherans are diametrically opposed to this view of baptism. It is clear that Confessional Lutherans do not view Baptism as a human work. The men who wrote the Book of Concord and said that Baptism is necessary for salvation spent a lot of time explaining, from Scripture, how man is not justified by doing good works, and how good works, when connected with justification, are harmful.

A disagreement about good works has arisen among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession. One side uses the following words and way of speaking: “Good works are necessary for salvation; it is impossible to be saved without good works.” Likewise, “No one has been saved without good works.” They say good works are required of true believers as the fruit of faith, and faith without love is dead, although such love is no cause of salvation. The other side argued that good works are indeed necessary – however, not for salvation, but for other reasons. The expressions mentioned above are not to be tolerated in the Church. (They are not in accord with the form of sound doctrine and with the Word, and have always been and still are used by the papists to oppose the doctrine of our Christian faith, in which we confess that faith alone justifies and saves.) This is argued in order that the merit of Christ, our Savior, may not be diminished, and the promise of salvation may be and remain firm and certain to believers (FC SD IV 1-2).[3]

Baptism is not something a person decides to have done to them; rather, it is something God does to a person. Rather than being a reaction to conversion, faith, and repentance, it is the means by which those things are given to a person by God, because Baptism is a means by which God delivers his saving word. Scripture says that baptism is a life-giving washing of regeneration that imparts the Holy Spirit, and saves us by washing away our sins.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’…Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. 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...For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:1-8; 1 Peter 3:18-22).

Sure, one might say, babies don’t decide to be baptized. This is true. Isn’t that, however, what those people are doing when Peter tells them to repent? Aren’t they making a decision to turn away from their sin and accept Christ? Not quite. As Jesus instructs us, baptism and teaching go together.[4] So, if we are dealing with a baby, we baptize first, and teach for the rest of his life. If we are dealing with an adult, we begin teaching, and then baptize, and continue teaching for the rest of his life.

You see, faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.[5] It is the Holy Spirit, working through the word, which works faith and repentance in an unregenerate person. God, in his infinite wisdom, had provided multiple ways for that word to get to those who need it, e.g. all mankind, from infant to aged. We have pastors who preach the word. We have Bibles in which we read the word. Can’t read, or hear and understand preaching? We have Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper so that the word can be delivered to us and received by us in connection with physical elements – water, bread, and wine – since we are physical beings who live in a physical world. It is God who converts us. It is God who “repents” us.[6] It is God who gives us faith.[7] He does these things through the word, and He uses means to deliver that word to men.

If that is what Baptism is, then it is most certainly necessary for salvation.

What about the thief on the cross? Wasn’t he saved without being baptized? Yes, he was. He also had Jesus, the Christ, God in human flesh, hanging on a cross next to him, telling him, in person, that He would save him. What the thief on the cross had, is what Baptism delivers to everyone who didn’t have the benefit of hanging next to Jesus at their death. Moreover, Jesus had not instituted Holy Baptism yet. That would come upon his ascension into Heaven. As John the Baptist is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets, I look at the thief on the cross as the last of the Old Testament saints. He was looking forward to the promise of Christ’s death and resurrection, just as Abraham and all the other Old Testament saints did.

The issue here really isn’t one of a person dying after conversion, but before being able to be baptized. After all, Scripture teaches us that only unbelief condemns a person. The issue is can a person who claims faith in Christ, continue to reject Baptism. The explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism explains that faith cannot exist in the heart of a person who despises and rejects Baptism against better knowledge. But those who believe the Gospel, yet die before they have the opportunity to be baptized are not condemned.[8] I am put in mind of the Ethiopian eunuch who, after reading of the Messiah in Isaiah, and being catechized by Phillip, says, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”[9]

Finally, we must consider infants who die in the womb, or after being born but before being brought to the font. This is always a difficult subject because we have no scripture passage to which we can point, that says unequivocally, “Unbaptized babies automatically go to Heaven.” I must, however, rely on the fact that 1) God is love, 2) Scripture tells us that only unbelief condemns, and God is responsible for gifting man with repentance and faith, and 3) while God has bound us to the means of grace exclusively, he is able to do whatever he wants. In other words, God has commanded us to Baptize and to teach. He may save the unbaptized child in some other manner, but we have no promise in Scripture. It is certainly in His loving nature.

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. All people, from conception, need the new life God offers in Christ. Again, we go back to St. Paul, who writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.”[10] Adults who can hear and understand that spoken or written word receive the faith promised by the working of the Holy Spirit, when and where God wills. Praise be to God that he has also provided a means for his grace to reach all people, even infants, in the Sacrament of Baptism. For God has connected his promise of redemption in Christ with the waters of Baptism; Through Baptism, in a way that human minds cannot conceive, he delivers that word to infants, and to adults, by the same Holy Spirit. Baptism, as defined by Scripture, and not human reason, is certainly necessary for salvation.


[1] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[2] "Southern Baptist Convention." Southern Baptist Convention > The Baptist Faith and Message. Accessed August 01, 2017. http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp.

[3] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[4] Matthew 28:19-20

[5] So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

[6] And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Paul instructs Timothy to be patient and to teach, hoping that God would grant repentance to Timothy’s opposition. It is God who “repents” a person, not a person who decides to repent.

[7]  If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:17-18). Peter explains that God granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles; who was he to argue with God? The others then acknowledged that God granted the Gentiles the gift of repentance. Repentance, contrary to being something a person decides to do, is something God does to a person.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1986), 204-207.

[9] We can save the discussion on Acts 8:37 for a separate article.

[10] Romans 10:17