Lutheranism 101

Session Six: Baptism


Lutherans are “sacramental” (as are Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Christians). Understanding such requires a solid understanding of the concepts of God as love and God as the active one, that God blesses us (see Session One).

“Sacrament” is a theological term loosely referring to any “means of grace.” A “means of grace” is whatever GOD uses to bring faith and power into our lives – a means to bless. When the Gospel message of the Bible is preached or read or sung or told – it becomes a “tool” of God, something God can use to give us the “gift of faith” and to guide and empower and bless our lives. Yes, our reading or listening or singing involves some “work” on our part but that’s not the point – GOD is using this like a carpenter using a tool to create something beautiful. While many things can be “means of grace” in this loose sense, historically Christians have especially referenced Word and Sacraments as the “Means of Grace.” They are “tools in the hands of the Carpenter” for the granting and strengthening of faith and life.

In and of themselves, they are rather powerless and benign. Like a hammer just lying there. But place that hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter and GREAT things happen! In the same way, the Bible may seem only like words, Baptism only like water, the Eucharist only like bread and wine. Ah, but they are in the hands of the Carpenter! Who wishes to BLESS us!

In the past 500 years or so, a small minority of Christians have replaced this concept of God blessing us with the opposite concept, something we do for God in obedience (often called “Ordinances”), a matter of Law rather than Gospel. The focus is placed on man to some extent, where man is the active and critical factor, the emphasis becomes less on God’s unmerited grace and mercy and more on OUR “obedience” and duty, God’s reward of our obedience to the Law, thus the redefinition as “Ordinances” (not something God does for us in love but something we do for God in obedience in hopes of reward); OUR jumping through hoops in hopes of pleasing God. Some Christians “talk past” each other on these points because of this different understanding of God and His grace/mercy.

“Sacrament” is a theological term; we define it as especially something instituted by Christ that utilizes some physical means in order to offer or seal His gift of faith and His power in our lives. Some define the word a bit differently. Lutherans don’t dogmatically number them, but historically we’ve spoken especially of two: Baptism and Holy Communion. These are gifts of God, means of grace, tools in the hands of God, means He uses to bless us.


The practice of Baptism actually began among the Jews long before Jesus, and there were several forms of it common in Jesus’ day. In a sense, Jesus adopts these, combines them, and fulfills them – making them more than something that points to a promise but actually grants that promise.

The word baptizo simply means “to wash.” It includes a concept of forgiveness and initiation. Baptism may be thought of as a Rite of Adoption, an embrace into the “Family of God” as well as a washing away of sins. Baptism can be thought of as “God’s way of adopting us.”

Jesus instituted the Sacrament in Matthew 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all people – Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”


There are many blessings associated with Baptism. Among them:

“Be baptized every one of you…so that your sins are forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38-39
“Be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Acts 22:16
“This water symbolizes Baptism that now saves you.” 1 Peter 3:21
“All of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” Galatians 3:27
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:13

Of course, the water is not effectual in and of itself (it is just water), but it’s in the hands of God! Just as a hammer does nothing in and of itself – but rather the skilled man using it, so water does nothing in and of itself – but rather in the loving, giving, merciful and giving hand of God. Luther stressed that the “power” of Baptism comes from the word and promise of God – not the H20 and certainly not in the pastor administering it.

What about Infant Baptism?

The Bible is silent on the matter of age.

Some note the very INCLUSIVE language associated with the Sacrament (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Acts 16:15, etc.) and the promise that children can believe (Matthew 18:6, Mark 10:13-15, etc.). They view the Sacrament as an ACT OF GOD, a blessing, and note that such doesn’t require our worthiness but only His mercy. Today, about 75% of Christians welcome children (it was 100% before the late 16th Century).

The Early Church Fathers also testify of the very early practice of infant baptism. Polycarp (69-155 AD), a disciple of St. John, states that he was baptized as an infant (that would be in 69 AD). Justin Martyr (100-166) states in 150 AD that Baptism replaces circumcision and should be given to infants. Irenaeus (130-200) in “Against Heresies” states that baptism is “given to infants and children.” The Council of Carthage (254 AD) which involved 99 Christian bishops, stated “We ought not hinder any person from Baptism and the grace of God, including infants and the newly born.”

Some parents reject this gift for their children because they want the child “to decide for himself.” However, parents often make responsible decisions for their children. Parents seldom do this in other areas of life; do they ask their child if the child wants to get his cavity filled at the dentist or wants to go to school on Monday morning? Some parents also misunderstand that Baptism is not joining a denomination or even a congregation, it’s being embraced into the Family of God. He or she will still need to ‘decide’ what church or denomination they desire to join (this is done at Confirmation – often in the teen years). We should not disobey God and withhold this blessing from our children any more than national citizenship or any other blessing.

Is Baptism Effectual or Just a Symbol?

There are no Scriptures that indicate Baptism is inert, ineffectual, just a symbolic ritual. There is nothing in Scripture to support the Anabaptist’s invented dogma of Baptism as “an outward symbol of an inner work performed by the recipient.”

But there are several Scriptures, that when taken together, that strongly suggest that God does something via baptism,or at least that this can be a “means of grace” – something God can use to convey His gifts. Let’s look at some…

“Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins” Acts 22:16

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38

“Baptism now saves you.” 1 Peter 3:21

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:3-4

Also see the following: 1 Corinthians 6:11, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:26-27, Ephesians 5:25-27, Colossians 2:11-12, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:18-22, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-12 and many others.

No single verse above is indisputable or perspicuous, but together there is a strong indication. And equally significant is that we find nothing that indicates that it is an inert, ineffectual ritual; only a symbol as our Baptist brothers and sisters insist.

We need to also consider that Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church gave great importance to this! Jesus places it alongside of (and seemingly equal to) teaching in the Great Commission. It seems less likely that it would be regarded as so very critical if it is an inert, ineffectual ritual that changes and accomplishes nothing at all. Jesus used the symbol of foot washing, for example, but that act was never given much importance and rarely practiced because everyone acknowledged it was a symbol of something inward. Baptism could not be more different.

What Did the Early Christians believe?

The Epistle of Barnabas (A.D. 130) “This means that we go down into the water full of sins and foulness, and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus and in the Spirit.”

The Shepherd of Hermas (A.D. 140?): “They descend into the water dead, and they arise alive.”

St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160?) “We have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all may equally obtain it.”

St. Irenaeus (A.D. 190?). “And when we come to refute them [i.e. those heretics], we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith.”

St. Irenaeus (A.D. 190?) ““Now, this is what faith does for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us. First of all, it admonishes us to remember that we have received baptism for the remission of sins in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became incarnate and died and raised.”

St. Clement of Alexandra (A.D. 215?) “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.”

St. Clement of Alexandra (A.D. 215?) “For it is said, “Put on him the best robe,” which was his the moment he obtained baptism. I mean the glory of baptism, the remission of sins, and the communication of the other blessings, which he obtained immediately he had touched the font.”


Sprinkling, Dipping or Immersing?

Scripture is silent on this point.

It’s likely that Jesus was immersed (of course, His was a Jewish/Old Testament rite) but there’s no indication that is the only acceptable or permissible means. We know that all forms of applying water was practiced and permitted as early as 110 AD. The great majority of Christians simply see this as a “non-issue.” For most, the issue of “how much” matters no more with Baptism than with Communion. However, there have been some since the late 16th Century coming out of the Anabaptist tradition that consider immersion to be required. Lutherans disagree. We see nothing wrong with full immersion, we just don’t see it as mandated; since Scripture is silent on this, so are we.

Is Baptism Necessity?

We argue that Baptism IS necessary in the sense that Christ commands it and it is a “means of grace” we should not reject. It is not essential in the sense that if we don’t receive this Sacrament we CANNOT have faith in Christ or be saved. We note in Luke 23:43 that Jesus promises the thief on the cross that he is saved but he was never baptized, but we also note the rebuke of the Pharisees that rejected baptism. We should not neglect or reject this Gift of God, but on the other hand, one can come to faith in spite of not being Baptized.

A Word about Godparents and Sponsors…

Originally, these “witnessed” the Baptism and promised to raise the child in the Lord should the child loose his parents (and usually all other close relatives). Today, this need rarely arises and the issue of raising children is now a matter of legal documents. So, today they continue to serve as witnesses but especially serve as encouragers – helping, supporting and encouraging the parents in the spiritual upbringing and education of the child. They are completely optional and need not be married or Lutherans, but they should be ACTIVE, strong Christians and should understand that they are making an 18 year long commitment to assist and support you in the Christian upbringing of the child.

  • The origins of “Godparents” rests in two things: the practical need to have someone to raise the child IN THE LORD should the parents (and relatives) all die (not at all unusual in earlier times!) AND in the role of sponsors. Sponsors also play a role in new employees, in AA and many “recovery” programs, etc.