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Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, the Large Catechism

The Large Catechism

 Our study begins with The Large Catechism for at least three reasons: 1) it is Luther’s explicitly systematic approach to the doctrine of baptism, 2) its brevity makes it more fitting for this short post series because it enables a more detailed treatment, and 3) The Large Catechism was written well after the initial controversy of the Reformation and thus can be representative of the “older” Luther.[1]  One cannot begin to understand where to start a critique of Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism unless one first comprehends his basic framework for understanding the nature of baptism—namely, that baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word and commandment.”[2]  Once Luther argues for this definition of baptism in The Large Catechism, he bases most (if not all) of his varied polemical argumentation squarely on this foundation.  He uses this view of baptism against non-salvific views of baptism, against those who deny the validity of infant baptism, against those who would require faith before baptism, and against those who would desire a rebaptism under any circumstance.  Therefore, it is crucial to understand Luther’s teaching on the nature of baptism in order to appreciate and evaluate his polemical argumentation. 

Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water

 Luther begins his treatment of baptism in The Large Catechism by giving a strong statement about the importance of having a good grasp on the two sacraments: “because without these no one can be Christian.”[3]  His treatment is intended to be systematic, including all things necessary to know concerning baptism.[4]  As we might expect from Luther, his teaching begins by quoting in full the two verses on which the rest of his teaching in the catechism is virtually a commentary—namely, Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16.[5]  These two verses contain God’s commandment as well as God’s promise, both of which demonstrate the opposite of the teaching of certain “sects” who were teaching that since baptism is an external thing, it is “of no use.”[6]  Since the Lord has both commanded it (“go and baptize,” Mt 28:19) and has promised to save us through it (“whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Mk 16:16), baptism is water “comprehended in God’s Word and commandment and sanctified by them.”[7]  That baptism is to be performed “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” means that “to be baptized…is to be baptized not by men but by God himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”[8]  Thus baptism is to be distinguished from human works and achievements to which we tend to attach “greater importance.”[9] 

The fact that God’s Word (the promise of salvation) is attached to baptism is sufficient (in Luther’s mind) to defeat the skeptics who say, “How can a handful of water help the soul?” (i.e. anyone who would deny baptismal regeneration).[10]  Here Luther spends most of his catechismal energy.  Not only are those who claim that baptism is merely an external sign having no spiritual effect “so foolish as to separate faith from the object [Gods Word] to which faith is attached and bound,” but Luther argues that they miss the point that God’s grace has been limited to being distributed only through the external sacraments.  “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation.  In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.”[11]  Therefore, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,”[12] faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work.[13]  Such faith is just as shaky ground for salvation as any other human work.[14] 

The Comprehensiveness and Permanency of Baptism 

Since baptism includes nothing less than all of salvation and God himself, Luther concludes that in the teaching about baptism, “every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.”  Luther considers all sanctification and repentance as nothing more than a “walking in Baptism,”[15] and “a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued.”[16]  Thus, when we find ourselves spiritually weak, having fallen into sin, or having pangs of conscience, we simply need to “draw strength and comfort from” our baptism, and “retort, ‘But I am baptized!'”[17]  “When this amendment of life does not take place but the old man is given free reign and continually grows stronger, Baptism is not being used but resisted.”[18]  With this logic, Luther is ready to concede that penance is sufficiently entailed in baptism and forever rid the need of separating these two as separate sacraments.[19]  

Justification for Infant Baptism[20] 

Luther’s teaching that through baptism we receive “perfect holiness and salvation”[21] raises a question in his catechism about infant baptism which leads him into a lengthy defense of it.  The question is whether “children” [and by this he means infants[22]] also believe, and is it right to baptize them?”[23]  Luther’s first line of argument is from the effects of baptism as seen in those who were baptized as infants.  Since only through baptism can one receive God’s Spirit and new life, when those who were baptized as infants live a life that attests “that they have the Holy Sprit,” they prove that God was pleased to bless their baptism and that infant baptism is pleasing to Him.[24] 

The next defense is an argument from church history.  Since infant baptism has been practiced and received by even all the early church fathers and through the ages and God has gifted these men and the church through the ages with the Holy Spirit, therefore God obviously is pleased with the practice, “for he can never be in conflict with himself, support lies and wickedness, or give his grace and Spirit for such ends. … For no one can take from us or overthrow this article, ‘I believe one holy Christian church, the communion of saints,’ etc.”[25] 

The nature of validity is Luther’s next argument for infant baptism.  He argues that the “validity” of baptism does not depend on faith because its validity depends only on God’s Word, and God does not lie.[26]  “When the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be lacking.  For my faith does not constitute Baptism but receives it.”[27]  Even if baptism is “wrongly received or used,”[28] this would not make it invalid.  Luther illustrates this with a hypothetical case in which a Jew who does not really believe in Christ pretends that he wished to become a Christian and allows himself to baptized by the church.  Would the baptism then be “invalid”?  Obviously not, Luther thinks.  If we admit that the way one receives a sacrament has the power to nullify its validity, we would have to say that those who take the Lords Supper unworthily do not receive the “real” sacrament.[29]  Luther attempts to press the logic of the dissenters into absurdity: “Likewise I might argue, ‘If I have no faith, then Christ is nothing.’  Or again, ‘If I am not obedient, then father, mother and magistrates are nothing.'”[30]  Finally, the reformer attempts to reverse the objection that lack of faith makes a sacrament “invalid,” based on the “saying” that “Misuse does not destroy the substance, but confirms its existence.”[31]  While arguing that the validity of baptism does not depend on faith, he revealingly urges his readers, “Therefore, I say, if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess, ‘The Baptism indeed was right, but unfortunately I did not receive it rightly.'”[32]  To urge the importance of faith for all who are baptized is necessary, but to hold that the validity of baptism depends on faith is, to Luther’s sensibilities, quite absurd.    

Baptism as Symbolic 

Although baptism is not merely symbolic for Luther, it does signify the very grace it imparts to the faithful recipient.  That is, it signifies nothing less than death to sin, and the resurrection of the new man, “both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long.”[33]  Baptism, therefore, both signifies and conveys salvation to the recipient who receives baptism in faith—regardless of whether this receiving in faith takes place at the actual administration of baptism or later in life.

In our next post we will critique Luther’s view of Baptism.


[1] Trigg argues that most studies done on Luther focus more on the younger Luther at the expense of the older Luther, and that this is especially true with regard to his view on Baptism.  Jonathan D. Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (New York, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), 9.  Although Trigg specifically mentions a neglect of Luther’s theology of baptism after 1530, we might safely assume that if Luther’s catechism was never revised, and no further data demonstrates a significant change in his view, his teaching in the Large Catechism thus represents fairly the view which he held until the day of his death.  However, because we are dealing with the late Luther, we will not be engaging his arguments for infant baptism which include arguments concerning the faith of sponsors.  According to Althaus, this was an argument which Luther eventually quit using anyway.  Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1966), 364.     

[2] Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 438.  By “comprehended,” Luther means something like, “seen from the vantage point of,” or “empowered by.”   

[3] Ibid., 436.   

[4] “In order that it may be readily understood, we shall treat it in a systematic way and confine ourselves to that which is necessary for us to know.”  Ibid, 436.  

[5] The command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).  The promise: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who had disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mk 16:16). 

[6] Ibid., 437.  It is not completely clear whether Luther has in mind sects who teach that baptism is of no use for salvation, or of no use whatsoever.  Since he later argues against the former, I am inclined to think this is who he has in mind here.  The editor leaves the following footnote: “This was an argument used by some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century.”  But this does not tell us which radicals he had in mind. 

[7] Ibid., 438.  As we will see later, this basic paradigm accounts for all the radical things Luther says about baptismal water, the utter reliability of baptism even if the recipient has no faith, the efficacy of baptism, and baptism as conveying more than just grace, but God himself.   

[8] Ibid., 437.  Herein also is Luther’s response to those who accuse him of believing in salvation by works.  “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”  Ibid., 441. 

[9] Ibid., 438. 

[10] Ibid., 438.  Here Luther more clearly does not have in mind those who say that baptism is “of no use,” whatsoever, but anyone who would deny baptism to be a work which literally saves the soul.  That is, since God has commanded baptism and promised salvation through it (Mk 16:16), that is enough to silence any critic who would ridicule the notion of baptismal regeneration.  “Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it.” [emphasis mine]  Ibid., 440.   

[11] Ibid., 440.  Later, I will refer to this in terms of a sacramental limitation of saving grace. 

[12] Ibid., 440.  “God’s works [such as baptism], however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith, for without faith they could not be grasped.  Just by allowing the water to be poured over you, you do not receive Baptism in such a manner that it does you any good.  But it becomes beneficial to you if you accept it as God’s command and ordinance, so that, baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation.  This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it. … Actually, we insist on faith alone as so necessary that without it nothing can be received or enjoyed.”  Ibid., 441.  

[13] Tranvik argues that Luther saw pre-baptism faith as a human work, not the work of God, and thus he considered anyone who believed faith came before baptism to be in the same heretical camp with Rome, trusting in human works and denying the gospel.  “Therefore, one dare not base his baptism on his faith.  For who can be sure if he really believes?  The Enthusiasts’ stress on subjectivity, like the late medieval view of penance and monasticism, troubles Luther because it put the question of salvation back into the hands of a frail and doubting humanity. … From Luther’s perspective, the dispute with the Enthusiasts is not merely about the nature of material things and whether or not they can be mediums of the divine.  Rather, the gospel itself is at stake.  … In his conflict with enthusiasm, Luther suspects that faith itself is being idolized, the very faith that is subject to the vagaries of human moods and emotions.  Faith simply cannot bear that burden and remain salvific.  Again, as was the case with Rome, Luther believes the enthusiasts are shrouding the life-giving promise.  God must move from the external to the internal.  To reverse the order is to make faith a work and set up a pernicious ordo salutis based on law.  What Luther did was expose the essential nomism of the Enthusiasts.” Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 32-33.  “And he most sharply rejects the attempt to determine whether or not an adult believes, particularly in the form in which it was practices by the Baptists.”  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil.  “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.           

[14] “I say the same thing about the baptized one who receives or grounds his baptism on his faith.  For he is not sure of his own faith….Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can maintain his position, for both are uncertain of their faith, or at least are in constant peril and anxiety. … For the verse does not say, ‘Whoever knows that he believes, or, if you know that anyone believes,’ but it says, ‘Whoever believes.’ Who has it, has it.  One must believe, but we neither should nor can know it for certain.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 240-41. 

[15] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445.      

[16] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[17] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[18] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[19] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[20] Although Luther did argue elsewhere that “Children must believe for themselves and must believe at the time of baptism,” he does not make this argument in the Large Catechism.  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Althaus’ summary, however, is helpful to understand Luther’s argument that infant baptism does not depend on faith but on the Word of promise: “Children are to be baptized not because it can be proved they believe, but because infant baptism is scriptural and the will of God. … He is certain that children believe because infant baptism is right and valid—and for no other reason.”  Ibid, 365. 

[21] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[22] In the beginning of the next paragraph he uses the word “infant” as a synonym: “But if you wish to answer, then say: That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from his own work.”  Ibid., 442. 

[23] Ibid., 442. 

[24] Ibid., 442.  “Now, if God did not accept the Baptism of infants, he would not have given any of them the Holy Spirit nor any part of him: in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Ibid., 442-43.    

[25] Ibid., 443. 

[26] “I myself, and all who are baptized, must say before God: ‘I cannot build on the fact that I believe and many people are praying for me.  On this I build, that it is thy Word and command.’  We bring the child with the purpose and hope that he may believe, and we pray God to grant him faith.  But we do not baptize him on that account, but solely on the command of God.  Why?  Because we know that God does not lie.”  Ibid., 443-44.  

[27] Ibid., 443.  Although Lohse says that “Luther gave centrality to the duality of ‘promise’ (promissio) and ‘faith’ (fides),” he actually gave more prominence to promise and command, since he held that baptism depended only on these, and therefore is “valid” though faith “be lacking.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.    

[28] Luther, The Book of Concord, 443. 

[29] Ibid., 443.  “Similarly, those who partake unworthily of the Lord’s Supper receive the true sacrament even though they do not believe.”   

[30] Ibid., 444. 

[31] Ibid., 444. 

[32] Ibid., 443. 

[33] Ibid., 445.


Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, intro

The next several posts will be about Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  The point is to critique his doctrine and show that by the standards of many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy, Luther didn’t really believe the gospel.  This is because Luther didn’t really believe in sola fide, which many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy think is the essence of the gospel.  Of course, I think Luther believed the gospel.  But that’s because my understanding of the gospel is more basic than notions of the gospel that developed during the polemics of the Reformation. 

Although teachers from Reformed traditions tend to venerate Luther as the great reformer who rescued the church from a sacramental understanding of salvation to an understanding of salvation by faith alone apart from any external “works,” [as understood by today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy] this caricature could not be further from the truth.  On the one hand, Luther scratched five of the seven sacraments off the sacred list.  On the other hand, when it came to a sacramental paradigm, Luther was virtually Roman Catholic.[1]  Of course, as one might expect, in his polemics against Rome he emphasized the need for faith.  Nevertheless, as we will see, in his polemics against certain protestant sects, Luther both denied the need for faith during the administration of baptism and boasted in the efficacy of the sacrament as conferring nothing less than the fullness of salvation.  While in different polemical contexts, Luther’s teaching on baptism had radically different emphases, his basic understanding of baptism never underwent a substantial change.[2] 

This blog series is an attempt to survey the great reformer’s most basic teaching concerning baptism in The Large Catechism in order to orient the reader to his basic sacramental paradigm for baptism, demonstrate that this framework of thought for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism in The Large Catechism is foundationally dependent upon an unproven hermeneutical judgment and that Luther’s defense of it is entangled in a number of logical fallacies.  In the conclusive post, I will make a brief suggestion concerning what significance Luther’s view of baptism bears on the interpretation of the Reformation slogan attributed to him—sola fide.       

[1] Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.”  Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303.  Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Ibid, 302.  

 [2] Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 24.

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