Debating Infant Baptism with Martin Luther: Part I

Interviewer: Dr. Luther, thank you for being with us today. While the majority of Christian churches—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and your name’s sake, Lutheran—practice infant baptism, there are many churches (Baptists and Pentecostals, for example) that dismiss the practice as unscriptural. I know this is a subject you feel very strongly about. What is your main line of defense for saying infant baptism honors God?

Luther: I would begin by saying that the reality that infant baptism pleases Christ is evidenced by the fact that God sanctifies many of them who have been thus baptized, and has given them the Holy Ghost. We can point to men and women, baptized in infancy, who can now explain the Scriptures, and evidence by their life that they know Christ. Look at St. Bernard, Gerson, John Hus, and others. If God did not accept the baptism of infants, he would not give the Holy Ghost or any of his gifts to those who had been thus baptized. This is indeed the best and strongest proof for the unscholarly and unlearned.

Interviewer: But surely you’d agree this doesn’t settle the issue. Detractors can point to multitudes of men and women, now entirely unreligious altogether who were baptized in infancy. They can also point to men and women who, believing their justification to be entirely sealed via their baptism at infancy, felt free to, from that point on, go on with their lives, unconcerned with maturing in godliness. In fact, some would say that telling a child that their sins were forgiven and they are now regenerate, thanks to their baptism which took place in their infancy, actually encourages children to pursue godliness no further. It’s like being told to pursue something they already have attained.

Luther: God in his wisdom allows many who start the race to stumble and fall before the race is over. Just because one can find a man or woman who has since renounced their baptism, this doesn’t mean that the baptism didn’t at the time accomplish what it was intended to accomplish—namely, the salvation of the infant’s soul. We maintain, however, that the fact that many who were baptized in infancy grow up to become mature in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, proves that God endorses the manner in which they were baptized. God can never be opposed to Himself, or support falsehood and wickedness, or for its promotion impart His grace and Spirit.

Interviewer: But again, detractors would say that God could well save children, who were baptized in infancy, not because of their paedo-baptism, but in spite of it. It’s obvious that godly and spiritual men and women through the centuries, who didn’t know better, submitted to the Pope as Christ’s Vicar on earth. You would say that the godly in the Church of Rome were saved in spite of Rome, not because of her. Couldn’t one use that same line of reasoning with infant baptism?

Luther: Someone who uses this line of reasoning is at a fundamental disagreement with us concerning the nature of baptism. We maintain that all humans, however old, the elderly as well as the infants, are in need of the grace that is available in Holy Baptism. It is wrong to withhold the sacrament of baptism from infants because they, like everyone else, need their sins forgiven.

Interviewer: But this begs the question—He that believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, the apostles tell us. Can infants, in your opinion, believe?

Luther: We are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid; but everything depends upon the Word and command of God. If an adult deceitfully receives baptism under false pretenses, this does not invalidate the baptism itself, in the same way that someone receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily doesn’t alter the fact that it is truly the Lord’s Supper he or she is receiving.

Baptism is nothing else than water and the Word of God in and with each other. That is, when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith is wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it.

Interviewer: But does a child have the faith to properly receive Baptism?

Luther: All humanity is enslaved to sin and unable, apart from the Holy Ghost, to take hold of Christ. A grown man, with impressive mental faculties is no more capable of receiving Christ on his own that a child fresh out of the womb. Whether infant or adult, the grace to receive the benefits of Baptism comes from the gracious hand of God.

We bring our children for Baptism in the conviction and hope that he or she believes, and we pray that God may grant the child faith. But we do not baptize them upon that, but solely upon the command of God. Why? Because we know that God does not lie. I and my neighbor and, in short, all humans, may err and deceive, but God’s Word cannot err.

Interviewer: But what command of God, what Scriptural warrant, is there for saying that an infant should be baptized, or for saying that an infant can comprehend and believe the gospel?

Luther: Christ’s command to go and baptize “all nations” excludes no one under heaven, and certainly infants are included in this. There are numerous examples of household baptisms in the book of Acts, and we say that surely some of these households had infants within them. Furthermore, the ancient tradition of the Church testifies to the validity and legitimacy of infant baptism. There is documented evidence that infants have been receiving baptism since the earliest days of the Church. One can find second century grave stone inscriptions, listing the day a baby was born, the day they “received grace” or “became a child of God”, followed by the day they died.

Interviewer: But you would agree that the Scriptural case to be made for infant baptism is based on implicit, not explicit, instructions to do so? Detractors say that we’ve no reason to assume that infants were included in any of the household baptisms. When the jailer in Acts 16 was baptized with his family, the text says he and his household all believed the gospel. Which brings us back to the original question—where does Scripture say that infants can believe?

Luther: Was not John the Baptist filld with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb? Conversion is all God’s work, and he can accomplish it regardless of how old someone is. We could ask for a proof text, showing that God cannot regenerate infants. In the absence of such a text, what right have any of us to limit God?

Interviewer: Baptists say that one cannot, while sticking to a strict “Sola Scriptura” principle, defend infant baptism since there are no explicit commands or examples of it in the New Testament. They would say that the baptism of infants was, itself, simply a carry over from the mideival corruption of the Roman Catholic Church–a superstitious human tradion, with no Scriptural warrant. Some detractors would go so far as to say it is a harmless tradition, one that is commendable, as it has such a long history in the Church–however, they would say that, while it can be defended as a benevolent tradition, it must never be held up as a Scriptural essential, binding a Christian’s conscience. Some churches that practice infant baptism–Methodists, for example, and some Anglicans–themselves basically hold infant baptism to be a human tradition. They still practice it, but don’t insist that Scripture demands it.

Luther: Such reasoning makes it sound as if the Baptism of infants were merely optional, rather than expected by God. This does damage to the importance of baptism.

Interviewer: But, in the absence of any explicit commands in Scripture about infant baptism, can one really say it’s sinful for parents to not baptize their children? If this was that important to our Father, wouldn’t it be spelled out more clearly in Scripture? Can an essential doctrine be based entirely on deductions, assumptions, and Church tradition?

Luther: If a couple fail to baptize their child, and that child should die, they can hope, but have no certain assurance that their child has been received into Heaven. However, if I baptize that child, and he or she should die, I can know, on the authority of God’s promises about Baptism, that the child is in Christ’s presence. Surely withholding from a child the gracious means by which they are received into Christ’s kingdom is sin.


* Based on Luther’s Large Catechism

Author: Daniel Townsend

Daniel Townsend is an Examiner from Jackson. You can see Daniel’s articles on Daniel’s Home Page.


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