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Brothers, Let us Embrace Heresy!

I am through critiquing Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Now I am going to draw some implications from our post series that will conclude something that in the prima facie will certainly seem quite absurd … namely, that we should embrace heresy.  How would I ever come to such a conclusion?  Well … the short of it is this.  The Reformed Traditions (at least in our day) have set up Luther as having recovered the gospel in his understanding of sola fide, and anything that contradicts sola fide is considered heresy to many protestants.  The problem is, sola fide must be defined historically according to what the major Reformers actually taught in their doctrine of sola fide.  As we have seen in our series on Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration / justification by baptism / sacramental mediation, Luther’s sola fide should be rejected.   

In short, if orthodoxy if defined by the Reformers, then I’d rather be a heretic (given Luther’s soteriology).     

Luther’s arguments reveal something potentially shocking about his understanding of grace, salvation and faith which have important implications for how we understand the reformation slogan sola fide (justification by faith alone) which has been accredited to Luther.  Although it is far from the scope of this paper to present Luther’s doctrine of justification, a fair summary of it can be given.  Luther supposedly believed that justification was a forensic declaration  in which a sinner is declared to be righteous on the formal basis of an alien righteousness through the instrumentality of faith.   

The part of sola fide which needs to be re-examined in Luther’s theology is the concept of instrumentality.  Many Reformed traditions held faith to be the sole instrumental cause of justification.  That is, one is justified by faith alone—only faith and nothing else.  Luther is mistakenly thought to be the champion of this sola fide doctrine which is thought to be wholly disjunctive with any “Roman Catholic” view of sacramental mediation of saving grace.  

For example, in a relatively recent treatment (2001) of doctrine throughout church history, John D. Hannah misrepresents Luther as believing in sola fide in such a way as to rule out sacramental mediation of saving grace.[1]  His misunderstanding is rooted in a misinterpretation of Luther’s phraseology of baptism as God’s Word.  Since Luther denies that water all by itself saves, but rather asserts salvation through the Word which is attached to the water and faith which receives it, Hannah concludes that Luther did not believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.  “The sacraments, then, have a subjective function as a witness to faith in God’s generosity; they do not have an objective function of being the actual means of acquiring God’s grace.”[2]  However, as we have seen, a quick overview of Luther’s teaching in the catechism reveals that when Luther emphasizes God’s Word in baptism, he does not have in mind the gospel per say, and faith which receives the gospel before baptism.  Rather, he has in mind water baptism as God’s promise of salvation (God’s Word of promise) and faith in that promise.  Although this is clear from what we have already observed, the following quote from The Babylonian Captivity makes this connection in Luther’s mind more obvious.

Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would, he could not lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe.  For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone.  All other sins, so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because he cannot deny himself if you confess him and faithfully cling to him in his promise.  But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction, along with all those carefully devised exercises of man: if you rely on them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before.  For whatever is done without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit.[3] [emphasis mine]    

The “truth of God” in this passage is God’s promise to save through baptism.  “Unbelief” is unbelief in this promise.  Perseverance is maintained only for those who “faithfully cling to him in his promise” [emphasis mine].  Hannah seems to be completely unaware of Luther’s basic paradigm for baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word.  It is hard to understand, if Hannah has read Luther on baptism, how he could possibly miss Luther’s constant emphasis on baptism as the cause of all saving grace, and therefore the cause of justification.[4]  Although Luther did not believe that baptism could save unless faith is present, with faith present (whether before or after baptism), the sacraments are “‘effective in the sense that they certainly and effectively impart grace where faith is unmistakably present.”[5]     

We know that wherever there is a divine promise, there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be effective apart from the other.  For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed.  But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. … Thus Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”[6] [Mark 16:16, emphasis mine]. 

When Luther says “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added,”[7] he is often misinterpreted (as with Hannah) as teaching a pure sola fide which rules out baptism as efficacious for salvation.  This is a typical case of Reformed bias reading into Luther’s theology what is not actually there.  The Reformed tradition will have to look elsewhere for a pure sola fide champion hero in the Reformation.  Luther’s view of justification in the context of his theology of baptism can only be viewed as heretical in many Reformed traditions today.  Likewise, the modern Reformed traditions which hold to a sola fide absent of sacramental mediation were considered heretical to Luther,[8] and he considered faith in baptism as salvific as part of saving faith.[9] 

Hannah is also guilty of not reckoning with Luther’s distinction between baptism as a work of God and not a work of human effort, which leads him to conclude that Luther could not have seen baptism as being an instrumental cause of the forgiveness of sins and of the removal of moral inability: “For Luther, water baptism does not cleanse the guilt and inability inherited through original sin.. … Thus, any notion of causative cooperation, even a gracious cooperation, is impossible because humankind has no merit to commend itself to God.”[10]  Luther, however, as we have seen, did not see baptism as man’s work, but God’s work.  Therefore, he did not see baptism as human merit commending itself to God, but as an act which “brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”[11]  In these two areas, Hannah reveals his bias by misrepresenting Luther.  

As should be blindingly unambiguous from reading Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism, Luther believed in a sacramental mediation of all saving grace, and therefore the grace of justification would also be mediated by the sacrament of baptism.  Luther not only allowed for “works” (baptism) to be an instrumental cause in saving grace, he demanded it with a passion, indicting anyone who opposed him as opposing God’s Word.  Since the slogans of the Reformation are usually attributed to Luther, this has implications for how we understand the doctrine of sola fide in its historical sense.  Is there really a singular “Reformed” position on the doctrine of sola fide?  Do we understand it as the sola fide of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or some other Reformer or Reformed Tradition?  This study also has implications for the ect debate over sola fide.  Are those evangelicals who signed the ect documents compromising sola fide because Rome believes in a sacramental mediation of saving grace?  Are those who remain “faithful” to the Reformation the ones who rule out sacramental mediation or demand for sacramental mediation?  It seems that if we are going to define the Reformation by Luther’s doctrine of sola fide, the latter would be the case.[12]

Although the conclusions I have drawn may seem provocative and controversial, they simply flow from a study of Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Reformed traditions have invested so much energy making Luther their Reformation hero, their ranks who defend sola fide can hardly stand to read Luther for what he actually taught about baptism, and the implications it has for his doctrine of justification.  Instead, they paint him with a biased brush for the sake of ecclesiological and theological expediency.  Luther’s views of baptism and his argumentation for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism demonstrate a lack of hermeneutical discernment in Luther as well as a lack of logical discernment.  While we can credit Luther with many good things, such as his emphasis on faith, repentance, and piety in an age of ritualistic notions of the sacraments that did not include sincere inner spirituality,[13] we should be very careful about defining orthodoxy and heresy based on the so-called “Reformed position.”  If Luther’s position on justification is the orthodox view known as sola fide, then Reformation orthodoxy must be rejected and heresy must be embraced.[14]       



[1] John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 227-229.   

[2] Ibid., 229.  In the same vein, Hannah represents Luther has having a view in which “the symbol has no efficacy.” Ibid.  Lohse tries to correct this false interpretation of Luther’s “sign” language (pardon the pun).  “When Luther at times used the word ‘sign,’ particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms.  Luther never intended the term to be merely ‘symbolic.'” Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.           

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 60. 

[4] “Luther thus places baptism in the center of the Christian life.  His understanding of baptism exactly expresses his doctrine of justification.  Through the sacrament of baptism we are ‘sacramentally’ or ‘because of the sacrament,’ made completely pure and innocent in God’s gracious judgment, that is, we are ‘children of grace and justified persons’. … His doctrine of baptism is basically nothing else than his doctrine of justification in concrete form.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 356.  

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 67.  

[6] Ibid., 67. 

[7] Ibid., 66. 

[8] Lohse recognizes that Luther accused the Anabaptists, for example, of “works-righteousness and even idolatry.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 305. 

[9] Faith in the Word of God in the context of Luther’s theology of baptism means faith in baptism. “This is why Christ immediately adds, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ even though he is baptized, for it is not baptism, but faith in baptism, that saves.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364.  

[10] Hannah, Our Legacy, 227.   

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

[12] Leonardo De Chirico, however, understands the ECT project to be guilty of a lack of systemic awareness for upholding agreement over justification by faith on the one hand, and baptismal regeneration on the other.  Leonardo De Chirico, “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogue,” Evangelical Review of Theology 27 no. 4 (2003): 346. 

[13] Luther’s doctrine of baptism must be seen as reactionary to prevalent medieval notions of ex opere operato which “tended to ritualize and desiccate baptism.  In essence this Latin formula meant that the sacraments infused grace simply form the use of them, apart from any act of the soul. … Second, in the development of the medieval sacramental system, baptism tended to be associated only with the beginning of life, its chief role being to wash away the guilt of original sin.”  Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 25. 

[14] Another important feature to Luther’s arguments for infant baptism, which I did not have time to focus on, but which is probably almost as important is this: Luther held an extremely high view of tradition.  Althaus points out the fact that although church tradition “is certainly not Luther’s last word on the subject…it is certainly his first.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 359.  In Althaus’ estimation, Luther had a “high evaluation of the universal tradition of the church,” and used similar argumentation on other occasions.  Ibid, 363.



  1. Ricky Love says:

    Interesting. What made you want to study Luther’s doctrine of baptism?

  2. Bradley says:

    Because of they way my questions about his doctrine of baptism as it relates to sola fide were handled in class.

  3. Ricky Love says:

    Why what do you mean?

  4. Bradley says:

    Dr. Wright didn’t exactly seem eager to talk about the nature of Luther’s doctrine of baptism, but kept emphasizing how important FAITH was to Luther, and basically following the same approach as Hanna does in the textbook (see post). I wanted to expose Luther’s baptismal regeneration for what it was, and figure out the implications of that for understanding his doctrine of justification—which, in class, by the way the lectures went, you might have thought that Luther and R.C. Sproul had the same doctrine of sola fide, which is far from the truth.


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