Holy Baptism — Divine Doctrine, Not a Theological Opinion

Recently I mentioned that though I was raised Lutheran, in my early adult years (until about 38) I was closely yoked — theologically — with my Baptist friends and other evangelicals. Differences on the Sacraments were often a topic of conversation. On the subject of Holy Baptism, their reasoning made sense to me. Over time, I found myself aligning with their confession of faith. I fully knew that this confession was in conflict with what Lutherans believed, taught, and confessed, but frankly, I was more interested in keeping my friends, instead of grappling with what is true.

It wasn’t until I began to wrestle with the LORD’s call on my life to be a pastor that I realized the matter of Holy Baptism (and the other Sacrament) had to be settled.

St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3:27-29) references Abraham and how Holy Baptism not only clothes us with Christ but in Baptism we are made descendants of Abraham and heirs according to the promises. Further, the language in this passage points us to Colossians 2:11-12, where St. Paul explicitly identifies Holy Baptism as a Divine action that is, in point of fact, “the circumcision of Christ.”

In Colossians “the circumcision of Christ” (2:11) is equated with “being buried with Him in baptism…” (2:12). This linking of Baptism with circumcision makes several significant theological points. Let me note one, where conflict often arises with Christians of differing theological persuasions; the conflict that centers around the issue of “infant baptism”:

Under the Old Covenant Abraham was circumcised, along with his household (Gen. 17:23-24). From then on God called Israel to practice the Sacrament of “infant circumcision” on the eighth day of their life, for all males born within the community of God’s people (Gen. 17:11-14). If other nations came to acknowledge Israel’s God as the one true God, regardless of their social status, they and their entire household (infants through adults) were to be circumcised in order to join the community of Israel (Ex. 12:43-49). As a Jew, St. Paul was intimately acquainted with this practice. But now that we are under the New Covenant, Paul identifies the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as “the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11). So it’s  reasonable to assume that the same pattern of dealing with infants would be followed under the New Covenant.

While no passage in the New Testament mandates Baptism explicitly for infants, at the same time, no baptismal passage of Scripture ever excludes anyone on the basis of age, nor forbids or even discourages infant Baptism. On the contrary, the plain sense of the texts regarding Baptism is to encompass everyone regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, and status; especially when we realize that Baptism is how people are joined to Christ and how we are made part of the faith community. Jesus’ Great Commission, for example, our Lord commands baptism for “all nations” — infants and women are part of all nations — (Mt. 28:19), and on the day of Pentecost St. Peter declares that Baptism is for “each of you” and “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:38–39).

Just as eight-day old infants were circumcised under the Old Covenant, bringing them into the community of God’s people, so babies of the New Covenant are Baptized bringing them into the community of faith; all by the action of God on their behalf  (see: Lk 18:16–17; Acts 2:39; 16:34; 1 Cor. 12:13). This is regardless of the child’s ability to comprehend what’s happening; it is the work of the Holy Spirit, passively received. Moreover, “Adoption” — something of which I am intimately acquainted because of my own — is an analogous earthly example of an action whereby a child’s relationship with his or her parents changes decisively without regard to the baby’s action or awareness. Likewise, the New Testament utilizes that same metaphor in order to speak of how we have been adopted into the family of our heavenly Father because of God’s action on our behalf. In Gal 3:26–29, St. Paul identifies the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as the means by which we are adopted as “sons of God” and therefore become “heirs according to promise.” Paul also refers to our reception of the “Spirit of adoption, in whom we are crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Rom. 8:15).

It is always helpful to reflect on what we believe, teach and confess. Are Christians drifting away from their biblical moorings, confusing Law and Gospel, replacing what Jesus has done with what we do? Many new theological concepts have been introduced within the last 200 years, and in reality, they have no real support from Scripture. Moreover, anything that requires us to “try harder” or “do better” shifts faith from Jesus’ glorious and comforting cry, “It is finished,” to “Get after it” (Has American Christianity Failed, pg. 141). In a way, this is what Martin Luther was concerned with 500 years ago at the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.

There is nothing we can do to be saved or to increase our holiness. No work of ours can undo God’s wrath against us. No amount of prayer can make us right before God; not even responding to an altar call can apply the benefits of the cross to your life. The Bible says we need repentance and Baptism (Acts 2:38), and the Lord will forgive all your sins. Ananias knew this when Saul (Paul) came to him after the Lord knocked him to the ground on the road to Damascus; Ananias said to him, “Get up and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16).

In truth, I am not a better Christian now than I was ten years ago. All I have is a better awareness of how bad I am and how gracious Jesus is; knowing this is refreshing. My theological drifting of the past is very shameful to me. But now I see the Baptismal font and remember that I am Baptized. When the trials and tribulations of life come at me, remembering that I am Baptized is refreshing. Clinging to God’s promises and His action upon us is refreshing. And, hearing that we are forgiven of all our sins is the most refreshing thing of all.

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