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Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 2

Luther’s Limiting of Saving Grace to Baptism as Presumptuous

One of the ways Luther attempts to acquit himself from teaching salvation by human works, as we have seen, is to claim that baptism is not merely an act done by men, but is ultimately God’s act.  He answers the accuser like this: “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”[1]  Luther actually turned this accusation around by accusing those who claimed that salvation was by faith apart from baptism to actually be the ones who are trusting in human works instead of the work of God (baptism).[2]  This reveals a great deal about the way Luther drew his dividing lines between human works and God’s gift of salvation.  That salvation is “not of works” does not, for Luther, rule out the possibility of salvation being by works in any sense, but only rules out works done apart from the divine and supernatural empowering of God.  Since Luther limited God’s supernatural saving grace to the sacrament of baptism,[3] trusting in anything but God’s salvific work through baptism—including faith in Christ—is to be guilty of trusting in human works.[4]

Although there is in fact a great deal of truth in Luther’s words of defense, he assumes without argumentation that God’s saving work of grace is limited to the sacraments.  It is true that even our “good works” (such as obediently[5] submitting to Christ’s command to be baptized) are done by the power of God’s grace, and are thus ultimately God’s work.  It is the Arminian mentality which divides certain parts of our obedience from God’s grace.  Anything good we do at all—whether acts of the will, such as coming to Christ, or our bodily actions of obedience to God’s commandments—it is all by the power of God’s saving grace.[6]  Luther is correct in assuming that grace is not to be conceived in opposing distinction to all works, but rather to anything done apart from the power of God’s grace.  Therefore, that salvation is by grace and not of works does not necessarily mean that salvation and grace do not include works done by the power of the grace of God.[7] 

Thus, Luther’s mistake is not in his dividing lines between works done in the power of God’s grace (which Luther would say are ultimately God’s works) and works done apart from God’s work of grace (which are mere human works which profit nothing).  Rather, Luther’s mistake is in his limiting God’s saving grace to the sacrament of baptism, and as we have seen, this limitation is based on a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 which Luther fails to demonstrate and which rests finally on an overly simplistic hermeneutic which does not take into account the totality of biblical teaching.  As with his hermeneutic, Luther does not argue that whatever God effects he effects through the sacraments, he merely asserts it. 

Furthermore, the logic Luther uses here to clear himself from the charge of teaching works salvation ought also to prevent him from accusing his opponents of teaching a works-based salvation.  So long as his opponents hold that faith itself is God’s work, he can no more charge them with believing in works salvation than he can himself.  I can hear Luther’s opponents now, retorting back to Luther: “If those works which God does are not human works, and we hold that faith is a work which God does in us, then you cannot suspect or charge us with any belief in salvation by works just because we hold that faith comes apart from water baptism.”  When Luther limits salvific grace to the sacrament of baptism and therefore accuses anyone who thinks a man can be saved apart from water baptism as guilty of trusting in human works (works done apart from the grace of God), he fails to reckon with his own logic.  If his opponents do not assert that faith is a human work done apart from God’s work, Luther would have to consequently withdraw his accusation based on his own principles.[8]  His attempt to justify himself and yet condemn his opponents is based on an uncharitable double standard.  


[1] Luther, The Book of Concord, 441. 

[2] See footnote 15.     

[3] See paragraph 3 in “Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water.”

[4] See footnote 15. 

[5] I say “obediently” because it is possible to submit oneself for baptism without faith, and such an act would not be true obedience (Heb 11:6). 

[6] I say “saving” grace to distinguish from what is called “common grace,” which does not include the granting of true obedience. 

[7] In fact, I would even go beyond Luther and claim that when the Apostle Paul speaks of “not having a righteousness of my own,” (Phil 3:9) this does not by itself prove that the righteousness in which he wishes to be found on the last day is outside himself (an alien righteousness) or does not include good deeds done by the power of God’s grace.  That God’s gift of righteousness is “not of our own” does not necessarily mean it does not consist within us or our good works any more than Paul’s denial that it was him who “labored even more than all of them,” but rather, “the grace of God with me,” means that this grace did not include human labor (1 Cor 15:10, cf. Rom 2:4-16).  

[8] Luther also granted that faith was a work of God: “For faith is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 62.   


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