Let’s imagine you come from a Christian tradition that practices “believers baptism” over and against “infant baptism.”
You might say to your baby-baptizing sister in Christ, “Why does your church baptize babies? Our church waits till they’re old enough to believe. We don’t think baptism saves—automatically. The Bible says we’re saved by faith, not some ritual.”
Lutherans are among the baby-baptizing traditions. But perhaps to some Lutherans’ surprise, Martin Luther has a similar criticism against baptism used as a faithless ritual. Luther wrote,
“Without faith, baptism profits nothing … By allowing the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in a way that benefits you at all.”
Without faith, baptism is like a buried treasure.
Even if they don’t consciously think about it, most baby-baptizing Christians (Lutherans included) acknowledge this in practice. For example, they don’t go into the local labor and delivery floor with pail of water flinging droplets indiscriminately, “I baptize you, and you, and you …” They don’t baptize all babies within sprinkling distance, they only baptize some. They baptize babies who have Christian parents or guardians—people who will take responsibility for raising the child in a Christian home, bringing them into God’s house every week, nurturing them in the Word, allowing them to grow up in the Body of Christ.
If we baby-baptizers carried squirt guns and sprayed children in passing strollers (or did secret baptisms without Christian guardians), we would be treating baptism like a magic spell that does something simply by muttering words and waving a wand. But that is not what Baptism is. That’s why Luther said, “Where faith is lacking, [baptism] remains a mere unfruitful sign” (ibid., para. 73.)—a buried, and eventually, a lost treasure.
God saves us through faith in Jesus, not by empty rituals. But, faith needs something to believe in. How can we depend on Jesus if we don’t know what He thinks about us? How can we entrust ourselves to Him if we don’t know His plans for us? We need a sign. We need something to believe in.
Baptism is God’s sign. It’s a real-time, audio-visual promise given to each baptized person at a specific time and specific place. Whether it happened when you were a baby or an adult is not important. What matters is that it happened.
Think about how signs work in the context of a relationship. Take the average husband. He’s not too good at picking up on the signs of his wife. When they were dating, he tried harder at reading her signals. But even then, most of her non-verbals baffled him. “What’s she thinking? Is she happy? Angry? Bored? Amused? Tired?!” Ladies, you really need to spell it out for us guys.
If women are mysterious to men, then God is infinitely more so to humanity. We have presented and tested theories about God from the dawn of time. And we have yet to figure Him out. So how do we trust in our Creator if we don’t really know where we stand with Him? One moment He’s stirring our souls with a sunset, the next moment He’s eating us alive with the latest cancer. Is He benevolent, malevolent, impotent, or indifferent? If we’re ever going to have faith in Him, we need Him to spell it out for us. We need something sure to put our faith in. So where do we find it?
Some people tell you to “listen to your heart” and search for faith inside you. But the Bible says that when we look inside ourselves we will find confusion and fear, or maybe a false certainty based on our fleeting feelings. In place of this, God gives us something solid to build our lives on: His promise at our Baptism.
In this promise, God laid out His plans for us: He plans to bury us. He intends to put us to death. We have to die because we are sinners. There is no reforming a sinner. Dying is the only solution. But in baptism, God promises that we will not die alone. We die with Jesus. And “if we have been united to Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection” (Romans 6:4).
When God makes a promise, it’s not exactly like when you and I make a promise. God’s words actually do something—they begin to put the reality into effect. Through His promise at our baptism, God began destroying the old, sinful creature we once were. He also began creating a new, Christ-like person full of faith, hope and love. God will continue this work until it is complete.
At the same time, we possess a terrifying power to ignore God’s promise and turn back into our old selves. When this happens, says Luther, “baptism is not being used but resisted.” Then “the old creature is given free rein and continually grows stronger … Those who are outside of Christ can only grow worse” (Large Catechism, part IV, para. 68). When given free rein, sinners will always destroy themselves.
This is why we do not go about sprinkling newborns in all the area hospitals. We do not want to encourage faith in a procedure. Baptism is not like a vaccination. Baptism is a promise. For a promise to do its work, for the treasure to be delivered, it needs to be unearthed, announced, received, and trusted.
So why baptize infants? Because infants, like everyone else, are sinners. And sinners must die. We either die eternally without Jesus or we die with Him in baptism. Jesus came to destroy sin and to save sinners. He gave us this promise at our Baptism. Even if we fall away, we can always return to it. “We need not have the water poured over us again,” said Luther. “Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would not be more than one baptism” (ibid., para. 78). Young or old, God’s promise is always there to give us something to believe in.
The first image in this post is of a stained glass window installed at St Paul’s United Church of Christ, St Paul, MN (www.spucconsummit.org).
The second is from Epiphany Lutheran Church, St Louis, MO (www.epiphany-stl.org).
The last is from First Wayne Street United Methodist Church, Fort Wayne, IN (www.fwsumc.org).