Why I am Lutheran—Part II: Baptism

Last month I started a series on why I am Lutheran, explaining that I wasn’t raised Lutheran but drifted towards it while studying the Reformation and then fully embracing it after attending a Lutheran church.  In Part I, I described the importance of the liturgy and how it helps to enable me to worship God in Spirit and Truth.

In no way in this series am I trying to diminish any other Christian worship tradition or to suggest that they “do it wrong” or “don’t get it” or even that they don’t share some of the same elements, priorities and focuses as Lutherans.  I simply wish to examine why I am Lutheran both as a way of helping me to refresh my own faith journey and, hopefully, as a way to help others revisit and re-encounter their own.

When I first began attending a Lutheran church it didn’t take me very long to notice something quite extraordinary, and I don’t think anyone can worship in the Lutheran tradition for very long without realizing this:  Baptism is not seen as a one time past event but a living and on-going present reality.

Because we see the outward sign of the inner grace when a person is baptized, it becomes easy to see that sacrament as a one-time event and to see the Eucharist as a more frequent sacrament because we celebrate it weekly or bi-monthly or quarterly.  But not so!  Baptism, rightly understood and practiced, is a daily, even hourly, sacrament.

In Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, Jonathan D. Trigg explains that in Luther’s thought, “Baptism’s ‘present tense’ is central – its abiding force in the Christian’s life [is] ever available for an encounter with God.”  Luther insisted that Christian progress is not onwards “from” baptism, but a repeated return “to” it.

So removed in time, many people are unaware that the Reformation was a slugfest that would make today’s “culture wars” look like cotillions.  Luther’s biographer, Roland Bainton, once wrote that Luther would have been a “troubled spirit in a tranquil age,” and the Reformation was anything but a tranquil age, and much of the turmoil centered on the sacraments.

Luther struggled mightily with himself, his age and even other reformers to develop a view of the sacraments as mystery rather than magic and as means of grace rather than mere signs and symbols.  It was a hard balance to strike with the Catholic Church on one side and both other reformers and the Anabaptists on the other.  It was through this struggle that Luther developed a view of baptism that is complex and nuanced but quite scripturally sound and rich.  It can not be understood, let alone dismissed, in an instant.

To dismiss Luther’s view as “works righteous” as some other protestant denominations do (see Fred G. Zaspel’s 1988 “Baptism: A Reply to a Lutheran Catechism“) is to misunderstand that baptism is God’s act, a divine testimony to what “grace alone” really means, whereby He imparts the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

To exclude children is to misunderstand that grace precedes faith.  Luther argued against the Catholics that the sacraments did not work through some power of their own, but through faith.  “I may be wrong on indulgences,” Luther declared, “but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I recant.”[1]  That faith, however, is itself a gift of God, and there is no indication that He withholds it on the basis of age or that it is merely individualistic in nature.

Faith is both individual and communal.  We celebrate Holy Communion in community but not as community.  In the Eucharist we stand alone before God, each one eating and drinking, the faith of the individual, given as a gift from God in baptism, appropriating the further grace offered in the meal.

Baptism, on the other hand, is celebrated not only in community but as community.  Bainton called it the “sociological sacrament” which “links the Church to society.”[2] In baptism we have the baptized, the sponsors, the family and the local congregation all participating together as the called and gathered body of Christ.  Luther would argue that it was not only the unarticulated faith of the child, like that of the faith of a sleeping adult, but the faith of the community undergirding the child which is present in the sacrament, which is still exclusively the work of God.

And so the baptismal font is an integral and indispensable part of Lutheran worship every Sunday and every season.  Throughout the church year we return to it again and again, and not just when someone is baptized.  We also spend years preparing a child for confirmation, which is really the utterly miraculous moment when the child affirms her baptism, publicly professing his faith in Christ before others, literally confirming that the faith of the family, sponsors and congregation is now his and hers.

No where else have I ever been so continually reminded and aware of the joy and wonder of my own baptism and that of others as I have in a Lutheran church.  Thanks be to God!

  1. quoted in Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Pierce and Smith, 1950, p. 107 []
  2. Ibid, p. 110 []

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