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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.


Was Martin Luther Even a Christian? A Critique of His Defense of Infant Baptism

Some might say … based on his defense of infant baptism, that Luther didn’t really believe in the gospel.  

In a previous post where I summarized Luther’s doctrine of baptism, I gave a summary of each of his arguments for infant baptism as presented in the Large Catechism.  This post will take a close look at Luther’s logic for defending infant baptism.  If you have not been following the post series so far, it is important to at least realize this: Luther was a virtual Roman Catholic when it comes to the saving efficacy of the sacraments.  Luther did not believe in the same sola fide that D.A. Carson, R.C. Sproul, and many other modern Reformed evangelicals consider to be fundamental to the gospel.  By R.C. Sproul’s standards, Luther should be considered a non-Christian for not believing in his version of sola fide.  This is an inconvenient truth, for Sproul and many others with his position actually believe they are the modern champions of Luther’s doctrine of justification.  But get this: Luther assumes that baptism saves, period.  As we have seen, he attempts to avoid the accusation of believing in salvation by works by retorting that Baptism is the work of God, and therefore not salvation by works (so argues Luther).  Now we will critique his attempt to establish the validity of infant baptism.  This post will be especially pertinent for baptists. 

Luther’s Defense of Infant Baptism as Involving Logical Fallacies[1] 

                 The Historical Fallacy

Luther’s first argument for infant baptism (based on the fact that infants who are baptized later demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit) commits the historical fallacy known as post hoc, propter hoc (“the mistaken idea that if event B happened after event A, it happened because of event A,”[2]).  His proposal begs an important question: Are the fruits of the Spirit caused by their baptism?  Luther assumes his doctrine of baptismal regeneration to prove his doctrine of infant baptism, but the former, as we have noted, has not been demonstrated on sound principles of interpretation.[3]  His logic could be summarized like this: Since the only way you can possibly receive the Holy Spirit is through baptism (Luther’s assumption), if an infant who is baptized is later shown to bear the fruits of the Spirit, we can safely conclude that their baptism “worked,” and that God blesses infant baptism according to the promise.  Luther assumes the very causal relationship between baptism and salvation which his critics would not be willing to grant.  Surely those critics who opposed Luther on infant baptism were not ready to concede that God saved infants through baptism.  Here we see the very same assumption we have previously observed Luther take for granted in his other arguments against those who deny baptismal regeneration. 

The second argument Luther makes in favor of infant baptism begs the same causal relationship as his first argument.  Luther basically applies the same logic to particular people, namely, the entire history of the church—particularly the early church fathers.  They were baptized in infancy, and we know that God gave them His Holy Spirit.[4]  Therefore, Luther concludes that God has endorsed infant baptism in church history.  His further argument is that God would be in conflict with himself if he were giving the Holy Spirit to people who were baptized as infants if indeed the practice displeased Him.  With this line of argument, Luther continues to assume the causal relationship between infant baptism and the salvation of the church.  I might use this same logic to prove that God obviously blesses sin, since all Christians have sinned by practicing infant baptism and yet God has given them the Holy Spirit.  It may have been (and indeed, I would argue was) in spite of their practice of infant baptism that God gave these men the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, how would Luther ever be able to demonstrate that anyone who bore the fruits of the Spirit after infancy received the Holy Spirit at their baptism and not some time after their baptism?  Luther seems to be wholly unaware that his arguments will only work for those who share his assumptions about the sacramental limitation of saving grace in baptism.

Begging the Question 

When Luther starts arguing that baptism is valid whether or not faith is present in the one being baptized, it is more difficult to follow his reasoning but easy to see that it is flawed.  When Luther declares that a lack of faith does not “invalidate” baptism because “when the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid,” he is continuing to beg the same question he has been begging in every argument we have examined so far.[5]  His further argument that “Baptism does not become invalid even if it is wrongly received or used, for it is bound not to our faith but to the Word,” simply means this: Since God promised to save through baptism without exception, we must assume he saves through baptism without exception.  Again, this begs the important question.  That “we know that God does not lie,”[6] is not enough to prove his case, for only if we assume God promised salvation through baptism could we consider God a liar if baptism did not save an infant.    

Ambiguity and Equivocation 

However, when Luther expands on this idea through illustration, his argument is further complicated by ambiguity.  First, Luther does not make clear whether he is speaking of “validity” from the vantage point of the one who administers the baptism, or from the vantage point of those who receive the baptism.  The illustration of the deceitful Jew who tricks a minister into baptizing him fails to draw the distinction between validity from the vantage point of the dishonest Jew and validity from the vantage point of the administer of his baptism.  The latter would be blameless in the matter.  As far as the rules by which the sacraments are supposed to be administered, he has administered validly.  However, the deceitful Jew has not experienced a valid baptism, because he was not only being baptized for the wrong motives, but without any faith in Christ whatsoever. 

The major problem with Luther’s argument for the “validity” of baptism without faith, therefore, could be described as either ambiguity or as committing the fallacy of equivocation (equivocating the on the term “validity”).  Luther’s illustration is supposed to ground his argument that the sacrament is valid without distinction, but his illustration only proves that baptism can still be administered validly even when it is not received validly.  Because of this, his claim that infant baptism is valid, is either too ambiguous to be proven, or if we assume he means “valid” in an unqualified sense, his illustrations do not help to prove the kind of validity necessary to make a case against his opponents. 

Fallacy of False Analogy 

There is another flaw with the illustrative part of Luther’s defense.  Proving that the baptism can be validly administered to an adult who claims to have faith in Christ but does not (the Jew in Luther’s illustration), is incapable of proving the validity of administering baptism to an adult who does not claim to have faith, much less an infant who cannot even claim to have faith.  If Luther’s illustration cannot prove his claim that baptism should be administered whether or not the recipient has faith, much less is it able to prove the validity of infant baptism.  His argument simply has no particular relevance to infant baptism, in which case the infant is not even claiming to have faith.  Yet this is what Luther is supposed to be proving—that infant baptism is valid because baptism in general remains valid even when “wrongly received or used.”[7]  There is not enough legitimate parallel in Luther’s illustration to carry any weight towards defending infant baptism.  

When Luther attempts to compare the Anabaptist position (that baptism is only valid if faith is present in the recipient) to the position that Christ is only Lord when people believe him to be so, he argues against a straw man.  The differences between these two positions should be painfully obvious, and they consequently nullify Luther’s argument.  Luther’s argument assumes that if his opponents hold that the recipient of baptism must have faith in order for baptism to be valid, we must also grant that things other than baptism are only valid or genuine if someone has faith in them.  Luther is embarrassingly sloppy at this point.  To say that faith is a necessary ingredient for a baptism to be valid (from the perspective of the recipient) is very different than holding that faith is a necessary ingredient for anything to be genuine or valid.  Luther, therefore, although claiming simply to press the logic of his opponents to its absurd conclusion, is in fact pressing the position of his opponents beyond what their position logically demands.  Thus, Luther is guilty of caricaturizing his opponent’s position.  We might return the fallacy by using the same logic against Luther, and so argue that his position (that baptism is valid even without faith) requires him to hold that the whole Christian life might be lived validly apart from any true faith.

Incoherency Within Luther’s Own Position 

An important point to notice about Luther’s defense of infant baptism is the tension which results from his separation of faith from the moment baptism is administered.  On the one hand Luther holds that baptism is not efficacious unless it is “received by faith,” but on the other hand he holds infant baptism to be “valid” even when the infant does not have faith before, during, or years after the baptism.  The necessary inference which must be drawn, then, is that baptism is not always immediately efficacious.  Although, as we have already seen, Luther admonishes his readers to believe (“if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess”[8]), this does not resolve the tension between his holding to the efficacy of baptism on the one hand, and delayed effects of baptism on the other.  We might call this doctrine delayed efficacy, and it is a definite tension which goes unresolved in The Large Catechism.  If Luther holds out this possibility—that faith need not be present at the moment of baptism or even years after—then Luther would be wrong to say that baptism is efficacious in the normal sense of sacramental efficacy.  It would have been more logically clean for Luther to hold that infants receive faith through the baptism rather than holding out the possibility of infant baptism with a delayed efficacy.   

Another tension which is never resolved in Luther’s framework involves his warning about separating faith from baptism.  First of all, Luther himself is guilty of separating faith from baptism with his doctrine of delayed efficacy.  Secondly, his admonishment to others not to separate the two is out of place in his paradigm.  This second problem follows from the fact that real faith cannot exist apart from the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, who, in Luther’s paradigm, is received only through baptism.  In other words, if faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not received until baptism, then it does not make sense to admonish anyone to “receive” their baptism in faith.  It would make more sense to admonish them to receive their faith in faith, but this does not comport well logically either.

Furthermore, if faith must come through baptism (unless God is a liar who promised the Holy Spirit in baptism, with all his gifts)—that is, if faith cannot not be a result of baptism—what need is there to warn people not to separate faith from baptism?  Given Luther’s paradigm, there is no possible danger of separating faith from baptism, because faith is effectively produced in baptism by God himself.[9]  Yet Luther insists on not administering baptism when faith is not present: “Baptism helps no one and is to be administered to no one unless he believes for himself.  No one who does not personally believe is to be baptized.”[10]  Luther’s admonishments not to separate faith from baptism, then, are not fitting for two reasons: 1) He himself temporally separates the two from one another in infant baptism and 2) his view of efficacy makes such a separation impossible.  For these reasons, it is a logical headache to follow Luther in his incoherent attempt to justify infant baptism apart from faith.[11] 


[1] Luther was forced to use logic, because he admitted that there were no direct commands in the New Testament to baptize infants.  He thought that since the great commission was a simple command to baptize without any mention of faith as a condition, infant baptism was implicated in the command.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 361.

[2] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 133.

[3] Karl Barth believed that “Luther’s defense of infant baptism is sustainable once the presuppositions of his wider theology of baptism are admitted.”  Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 4.  This is precisely because Luther’s defense everywhere assumes his paradigm and begs the key questions.  

[4] It seems that Lohse misses this crucial part of Luther’s argument at this point.  Lohse summarizes this argument like this: “God would not have allowed something improper to be in force for so long.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  However, Luther’s argument was not simply that infant baptism had always been practiced, but that unless God was giving his Holy Spirit through those baptisms, there would be no church.  “…in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 441.  If baptism is the only way God gives his Holy Spirit, and the church members were all baptized in infancy not as adults—the Holy Sprit had to have been given through their baptism or else there would be no church.  Althaus first gives a similar summarization as Lohse, but sees Luther as giving two arguments instead of one.  The second argument he summarizes like this: “It also must be said that if infant baptism were false and contrary to God’s will, then there would have been no true baptism and thus also no church for more than a thousand years.  For without baptism there is no church.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 360.  Luther, however, never voices any such argument in the Catechism, but only speaks in terms of the Holy Spirit’s being present in the church.  Perhaps Althaus is aware of a passage that would shed more light on what Luther meant in the Large Catechism.  Otherwise it seems to be reading into the Luther’s argument.    

[5] Lohse rightly recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 302. 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 444. 

[7] Ibid., 443. 

[8] Ibid., 443. 

[9] “Yet even if they could establish that children are without faith when they are baptized it would make no difference to me … for faith doesn’t exist for the sake of baptism, but baptism for the sake of faith.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, 240-41.    

[10] Althaus quoting Luther, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364. 

[11] Althaus says in regard to the problem of making faith necessary and still seeing infant baptism as valid, “Luther’s thoughts about this are not always constant but are in a process of development.”  Ibid., 364.

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.   

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 1

Review: In our last post we looked at Luther’s doctrine of Baptism as systematically presented in his Large Catechism.  We noted that for Luther, baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word.”  By “God’s Word,” Luther has two very specific aspects of God’s Word in mind: 1) God’s commandment to perform baptism in the great commission, and 2) God’s promise to save those who are baptized.  Thus, for Luther, baptism is comprehensive in that it comprehends all of salvation—nothing less than God himself, along with all his gifts.  Baptism mediates all spiritual blessings.  Therefore, without it, no one can be a Christian.  Baptism does not merely symbolize salvation, it effects that which it symbolizes.  Luther counters the accusation that his gospel is works based by arguing that baptism is God’s work, not a mere human work.  He also accuses those who trust in faith alone apart from baptism as sufficient for salvation to be therefore trusting in something other than God’s work–human works.  Thus, for Luther, to trust in faith alone as sufficient for salvation (apart from the sacramental mediation of grace through baptism) is to trust in a false gospel of human works.  If you find this shocking in light of Luther’s famed reputation in Reformed circles as the one who defended sola fide, welcome to the enlightening world of theological research. 

We will now proceed to critique Luther’s view of baptism.  The critique must be broken down into three sections.  First I will show that Luther’s hermeneutic is unproven and therefore vulnerable.  Second, I will attempt to argue that Luther’s limiting of saving grace to the mediation of baptism is guilty of presumption.  Third, I will show that Luther engages in some logical fallacies when arguing for the rightness of infant baptism.   

A Critique of Luther’s Paradigm and Argumentation

Some of Luther’s arguments are valid.  For example, if Luther’s argument against those who say baptism is “of no use,” is interpreted to be directed at “some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century” who argued against practice of baptism altogether, his argument is simple but sound: “What God institutes and commands cannot be useless.”[1]  However, it is the burden of this series of posts to show weaknesses in his argumentation, both in his hermeneutics and his logic.  Therefore, we will only be focusing on those arguments which fit this purpose.   

Luther’s Basic Paradigm as Foundationally Flawed by a Wooden Hermeneutic

Luther’s paradigm of baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation) is based on the hermeneutical assumption that the promise in Mark 16:16 is to be taken at face value to teach that baptism is the instrumental cause of salvation.  Luther’s argument for baptismal regeneration, therefore, is very similar to his argument for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, where Luther also applies a wooden hermeneutic to Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26).  While this kind of interpretation often worked in Luther’s favor, in the case of his view of baptism (and I would argue, the Lord’s Supper) this hermeneutic led him into grave error.  Nowhere is this assumption more clear than in the following quote:

In the second place, since we now know what Baptism is and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn for what purpose it was instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings.  Nor can we understand this better than from the words of Christ quoted above, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  To put it most simply, the power, effect benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.  No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to “be saved.”[2] [emphasis mine]

It could be argued that Mark 16:16 demands a different interpretation on the basis of the sound hermeneutical principle to interpret the implicit in the light of the explicit.  This principle, along with the fact that as the narrative continues in Acts, the Holy Spirit is given completely apart from any water baptism, is enough to cast reasonable doubt on Luther’s prima facie interpretation of Mark 16:16.[3]  Furthermore, how is this passage in the gospel narrative of Mark to be squared with other gospel narratives and more didactic genre’s which seem to lay out the simple way of salvation without reference to baptism?[4]  Moreover, such a simplistic interpretation of Mark 16:16 seems to violently set itself against Paul’s mentality to the Corinthians: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor 1:17).  Any view of baptismal regeneration will have to see Paul’s comments here as a false dichotomy which, at best, confuses his readers about the relation of baptism to the gospel and to salvation. 

My point here is not necessarily to argue for a specific alternative interpretation of Mark 16:16 so much as it is to show that Luther never deals with the difficulties of his literal interpretation, nor does he argue for this interpretation.  Rather, he simply assumes this interpretation based on an overly simplified hermeneutic.  Most of his paradigm and argumentation from this point on, unfortunately, is based on this unchecked interpretation of Mark 16:16.  This places the rest of Luther’s teaching in The Large Catechism on a vulnerable foundation.      

While Luther’s assumption of a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 can be seen as a lack of hermeneutical discernment, it can also be considered as a logical fallacy.  After this point in the catechism, Luther everywhere assumes his particular interpretation of this passage to argue against any view which does not see baptism as salvific.  In doing so, Luther commits the fallacy of question begging,[5] assuming what he has set out to prove.

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. … Now these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. … We have here the words, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’  To what do they refer but to Baptism, that is, the water comprehended in God’s ordinance?[6] 

Here Luther accuses those who say that faith saves apart from water baptism as being guilty of separating faith from its object of belief.  How does this argument work in Luther’s mind?  If baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word, and this means that it is water comprehended in God’s promise of salvation, then faith in God’s Word includes believing God’s promise of salvation through baptism.  Thus, for Luther, a faith which does not include faith in God’s promise of salvation in baptism is not saving faith.  Faith must include faith in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”). 

Basically, Luther’s logic could be summarized like this: Since God promises to save through baptism, anyone who separates saving faith from belief in this promise has stripped faith of its content.  As should be obvious, this entire argument is begging the million dollar question, for Luther’s opponents obviously do not agree with his assumption that God has promised salvation through baptism.  Luther’s argument begins by assuming what he has set out to prove—that baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation in baptism).  If God has not promised salvation through baptism, then to deny baptism of salvific power would not involve separating the water from God’s Word.  In fact, as many would want to argue (myself included), to add such a meaning to baptism is to distort the totality of biblical teaching about salvation and thus shroud God’s Word of promise.

Luther’s ill conceived paradigm of baptism as “water comprehended in God’s Word” accounts for all the radical things he teaches about baptism in the catechism.  When Luther says God’s commandment and promise are “added to” the water, he means the same thing as when he says baptism is water “comprehended” in God’s Word.  Likewise, when Luther says that God’s Word is “attached” to the sacrament, he has both the command to baptize and the promise of salvation in mind: “For the nucleus in the water is God’s Word or commandment and God’s name.”[7]  It is also on the basis of God’s Word being “attached” to the sacrament that Luther makes his claim that baptismal water is not just water, but divine water.

It is nothing else than a divine water, not that the water in itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it….This shows that it is not simple, ordinary water, for ordinary water could not have such an effect.[8] 

Hence it is well described as a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water, for through the Word Baptism receives the power to became the “washing of regeneration,” as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3:5.[9] 

It is on the basis of God’s command and promise that water becomes a divine sacrament. 

From the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament.… This means that when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament, that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.[10]   

When Luther says that baptism “contains and conveys all the fullness of God,”[11] he is best understood as meaning that through it we receive God’s work of salvation which includes nothing less than God himself—the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit gives inner renewal (regeneration), the granting of faith in Christ, and the granting of repentance, which Luther speaks of in terms of being delivered from the bondage of sin.  This gift is nothing less than eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Given this paradigm, it is difficult to think of anything which is not comprehended in some way by Luther’s doctrine of baptism. 

To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.… To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.[12] 

He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Sprit with his gifts.  [It is] priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.[13]

Any and all spiritual blessings whatsoever which are able to be experienced in this life are received immediately through water baptism, which blessings secure those eternal blessings which are still to come.  To be baptized, then, is to do nothing less than receive God and inherit the world with Christ.  In fact, “even the traditional description of baptism as a ‘means of grace’ is a less than felicitous phrase because it suggests the presence of something other than God himself.”[14]  It is no wonder that when Luther was in the midst of spiritual assaults (whatever those were about), instead of claiming the alien righteousness of Christ for himself, he “relied on baptism.”[15]   This is not the poster boy Luther of Reformed Orthodoxy’s rhetorical propaganda, but it is the real Luther.

In our next post, we will see that in addition to Luther’s vulnerable hermeneutic, his sacramental limitation of grace is guilty of presumption.



[1] Luther, Book of Concord, 437.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] See esp. Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48.

[4] See esp. Acts 10:43, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22, 10:9-13, Eph 2:8-9. 

[5] Or by Carson’s categories, we might call it the fallacy of mere emotional appeal.  D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House Co., 1996), 106-07.  Luther’s appeal (“these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that…”) is similar to the example Carson gives of Prof. Smith.  “Sometimes a mild case of emotional abuse occurs when one writer responds to another with some such phrasing as this: ‘Astonishingly, Prof. Smith fails to take into account the fact that. . . .'” 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 440.  Luther has intentionally prepared his readers to be ready for this argument by  emphasizing the necessity of not separating the water from the Word.  “I therefore admonish you again that these two, the Word and the water, must by no means be separated from each other.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 439.     

[7] Ibid., 438. 

[8] Ibid., 438-39.

[9] Ibid., 440.

[10] Ibid., 438. 

[11] Ibid., 438. 

[12] Ibid., 439. 

[13] Ibid., 442. 

[14] Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 31.

[15] Ibid., 24. 

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.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts, pt. 2

Before I make any remarks about my mixed feeling at T4G (a conference which is by now old news to most bloggers), I want to express a few words of gratitude.

I stand on the shoulders of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mark Dever, and John Piper especially. These men have been examples to me over the years of Christ-centered ministry, preaching, and teaching. Their teachings are invaluable to me. It would be a difficult task to attempt to measure the impact of their faithful ministries on my own life, let alone the hundreds of thousands. I’m agnostic about where I would be today if it weren’t for these men (certainly not at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY). These men have fed my mind and heart with the things of God for many years. I don’t want to become arrogantly ungrateful by biting these hands that have been feeding me without good reason. Nevertheless, it is also these men who have taught me discernment and frankness in the midst of controversy and disagreement. They model for me how to raise issues to those who you respect when you may disagree with them. These men speak out when they have genuine concerns about trends, practices, beliefs, or attitudes in evangelicalism they see as “not so edifying.” Following their example then, I also have developed some concerns over the years that won’t go away, and out of the concerns of my heart, my mind churns, my mouth speaks, my fingers type, and my blog post’s.

Together for the Gospel or Together for Calvinism?

In my last post, I talked about how deeply Mark Dever’s point about not confusing the gospel with non-essentials resonated with me personally. When I first became a Calvinist, I became acclimated to the Reformed flavor of preaching and teaching. I have been a member at churches that regularly bashed other Christian churches on a normal basis from the pulpit as a matter of habit. After attending for a while, I was infected myself and began to think of our Reformed communities as something like the only true remnant of uncompromised and reverent Christianity that took the Bible seriously. Everyone else was entertainment based, man-centered, and unbiblical; influenced either by liberalism or the world. Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact. In disbelief I have listened to devastated church members tell me about how painful it was to see their once tight knit community divorce themselves from fellowship. It can be a whole lot like a family feud: ugly, painful, leaving scars, bitterness and disillusionment.

This is why I said in my last post that I think Dever’s words were most significant. It’s because the context I come from tends to major on the minors and allow non-gospel issues to be great points of contention, even to find their identity in the Reformed tradition rather than in the gospel. Once our affections become more exercised over our particular church’s or denomination’s traditions (yes, that includes Reformed teaching about Calvinism, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the Regulative Principle, Church Membership, Tongues, Preaching Style [expositional preaching vs. topical, etc.], Worship Style [is drama ok? are multi-site churches ok? short sermons? alter calls? etc.], views about women in ministry [egalitarian vs. complementarian]—and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on—than over the gospel, our hearts are out of whack. Though many of these things can effect the nuances we add to the gospel, they cannot be confused with the gospel itself. Though important, they are not the dividing lines between those who believe the gospel and those who don’t.

Unfortunately, I thought T4G revealed a blind spot in this area. Though the banner of the conference is “Together for the Gospel,” John MacArthur’s message was all about total inability (i.e. Calvinism). Now, I would have been more comfortable if his message demonstrated sensitivity to this distinction. Perhaps his message could have been introduced something like this: “I strongly believe that the doctrine of total inability is a strong safeguard for the gospel. Therefore, although we have come together for this core belief, and although I love my brothers and sisters who do not believe in total inability, and recognize them as co-equals together in the gospel, I would nevertheless like to spend my time commending this doctrine because I think it helps protect our basic beliefs in the gospel.” But rather than anything even approaching this sort of sensitivity, I was disappointed to hear just the opposite. As he was waxing eloquent on total inability, he compared it to other “false gospels” as if he understood the doctrine of total inability to be the “true gospel.” To make matters worse, Mark Dever of all people (just before his message about not referring to non-gospel doctrines as “the gospel”), commends MacArthur’s message, referring to it as an wonderful exposition of “the gospel.” Surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed this apparent inconsistency.

I found Mohler’s message on substitutionary atonement, for example, more appropriate for the theme of the conference. Or take R.C.’s message about the theme of cursing—this is also at the heart of our gospel (Christ became a curse for us). Not everybody at T4G was, by my sensitivities, off key with respect to the common cause.

In a context when 1) Seminary students are splitting churches over Calvinism, 2) recent rumors spread about the SBC possibly splitting over Armenian vs. Calvinism issues just before the Calvinism debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson (who wisely spent much time in that debate demonstrating their unity in spite of their differences), 3) close friends of mine are finding it sadly curious that I would go to a church that wasn’t “on board” with all the stuff we are learning in seminary, 4) Pastors are finding their churches identity more in Calvinism than the gospel (speaking from my own experience here), the T4G seemed to me to be perpetuating this unfortunate confusion between Calvinism and the Gospel. Note: I’m not saying that John MacArthur would say he didn’t think Norman Geisler was a Christian, but it’s safe to say that he thinks Norman Geisler, in some sense, has a “false gospel.” I wonder how a guy like John Wesley would have felt if he were to enthusiastically volunteer his support of a “Together for the Gospel” conference, only to find the preachers more interested in propagating the younger ministers with Calvinism.

At another point during the conference, I was walking by the booths set up along the side of the bookstore. As I stumbled upon a booth with an eager man representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I began to question him whether his organization was for all evangelicals. “Certainly,” he replied with great enthusiasm. But as I questioned further, he seemed to get a little tongue tied. “So …” I asked casually, ” … does your organization try to reach, encourage, and include Arminian churches also, or is this more for Reformed types?” My question seemed to catch the man off guard. He replied something like, “Well … you don’t have to agree with us about every point of doctrine to support our organization or give money to it.” (notice this does not really answer my question) As I looked at the back of the promotion magazine, I noticed that all the names of the council members I recognized were Reformed. I read one of the articles of faith that represented the alliance. It’s doctrinal statement exalted the Reformation and bashed the present day church at large for being worldly and having everything wrong. It summed up all these things like this: “The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable.” I wondered whether such an alliance was something like an “Alliance of the Confessing Reformed” moreso than an inclusive alliance of all those who confess the common gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (whether or not they are “Reformed”).

Relevant Truth: We should never call any church that believes the gospel “shallow” in its theology, unless we wish to imply that the gospel, which they hold to and teach, is itself shallow.

Unfortunate Casualties in the “Truth War”

There also seemed to be an agenda at the conference to stamp a WARNING label on what is known as The Emerging Church. What I have to say here will be briefer than what has come before.

Several attempts have been made to distinguish between different streams of the Emerging Church, so as the distinguish the Reformed and conservative types (like Mark Driscol, Darren Patrick, and others) from those who are apparently (and I stress ‘apparently’ because even Driscol, who is friends with Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and all the big wig names [with the exception of Rob Bell], isn’t sure what their official stance is on certain controversial doctrines) taking liberal stances on issues thought to set the boundaries for historic Christianity. The former are called “Emerging,” and the latter “Emergent.” Nevertheless, some evangelicals who are eager to warn Christians of the liberal streams of this movement have not taken care to protect the faithful gospel ministry of the conservative gospel-centered streams of this movement. Harsh things are said about the “Emerging” movement. They are still lumping them all together under the label without taking note of the features of this complex movement. At T4G, if my memory fails me not, Dr. Mohler quoted one of the authors who supposedly represents the “Emergent” crowd (the apparently liberal crowd) on their teaching about the atonement. Steve Chalk, I think, was his name. Chalk apparently called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, “divine child abuse.” After quoting this author, Mohler, if I’m not mistaking, made a comment about how this is the kind of theology coming from the “Emerging” church, and that the “Emerging church” was a threat to the very central tenants of the Christian gospel.

When John Piper invited Mark Driscol to speak at his Desiring God conference a few years ago, Piper testified to receiving harsh criticism over it. It attracted hostility and spawned a bit of controversy. After Mohler’s comments, those not up on the debates and distinctions would have left the T4G conference with the impression that the Emerging Church was basically liberal theology on the comeback. Since, however, faithful gospel ministers also labor under the Emerging tag, such comments will be sure to perpetuate the hostility against their ministries that is due to precisely the kind of stereotype comments about how the “Emerging Church” is bad news.

I think we should not only point out bad theology, but also, in light of a T4G banner, to go out of our way to protect from malignment our faithful brothers in Christ who labor for the same gospel we do—and perhaps are laboring harder than us (given the growth spurts of the movement).

Thoughts not limited to but of a similar nature as these caused me to leave T4G wondering whether our “Gospel” is too exclusive; whether we Reformed types are further isolating ourselves from non-Reformed gospel-believing evangelicals (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I left wishing evangelicalism wasn’t so polarized, and wishing our T4G conference did not, in addition to its strongly edifying potential, consciously or unconsciously contribute to the polarization effect between different “camps” of evangelicalism. I left with mixed feelings.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts

Prescript: I really didn’t want to post about T4G until I had plenty of time to go back and quote from the actual words spoken at the conference. Because of major time restraints, I’ve decided to just post based on my memory instead. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase and loose quote, but if my account is off, feel free to let me know.

Helpful in Many Ways

The Celebrity Mystique – Never has a conference held so many of my own hero’s who have shaped me as I have listened to their messages and/or interviews and/or lectures: John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. My own convictions have been shaped more by these men than by all my college and seminary professors over the years. T4G was intended to draw a large crowd by it’s “celebrity” impact. Mark Dever joked about this at the beginning of the conference. He said they knew they could draw a large crowd this way even though they disagree with the whole “celebrity” mentality. (I won’t take the time to speculate on what he means by that)

Dr. Mohler brought the heat by defending substitutionary atonement against certain recent attacks. His message was probably more fitting for a classroom lecture than a conference message (based on the responses I heard from some friends of mine who were not able to follow him, and based on C.J.’s comments afterward during the panel discussion). Nevertheless, I was able to follow and enjoy his critiques of modern attacks against this doctrine. His defense was timely and wholly appropriate to the theme of the conference, for Paul considered it among those things which are “of first importance” in the passing on of apostolic gospel proclamation, along with the resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4ff).

John MacArthur basically walked us through the proof texts for a doctrine of “total inability.” I’m an 8 point Calvinist, so I nodded my head a great deal of the time, but this was nothing new.

Thabiti Anyabwile (pronounced by my own phonetic conventions as: thuh.bee.tee ahn.yah.bwee.leh). He challenged us to think of the whole category of “race” as both unhelpful and unbiblical. His definition for “race,” however, seemed to be one that most people do not at all intend by the use of the term. As he was speaking, I looked in my back-of-the-Bible concordance to see if the word “race” was used in the Bible. Sure enough, it occurs in the Bible several times. I thought it was unfortunate, since the Bible is our final and ultimate authority, that Thabiti did not address this apparent tension with his call for us to think of the category of “race” as unbiblical. Have the translators got it wrong all these years?

Dictionary.com shows that the most common definition for “race” is this: a group of persons related by common descent or heredity. According to the same source, the most common understanding of “heredity” is the following: the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring. These genetic differences might be as superficial as skin and hair color, as bothersome as unattractive physical traits, or as serious as trends of certain health problems.

Although one might quibble with the way Thabiti defined “race,” I heartily agreed with the spirit of the message. “Blacks” and “Whites” are not different species with biological categories of their own. There are more commonalities (“like me’s”) between all races within the humanity than there are differences. Or, if you like, we are all one race: the human race. I can walk into a group of people from India or Africa or wherever and still say, “Sinner, like me.” “Needs Christ, like me.” “Bear’s God’s image, like me.” “Human, like me.” We all descend from Adam.

Within the human race, there are ethnic cultures which defy any of the superficial “race” categories. Therefore, I agree with Thabiti that the category of ethnicity, which is a more fluid idea, is more helpful than “race,” for most people. I used to hate being told that I was “trying to be black,” just because all my closest friends were black and because I was immersed in the thug-hip-hop culture (baggy pants, Ebonics with slang words for everything, twisted caps, etc.). I was no more trying to be black than I was trying to be purple. It wasn’t about skin color. It was about culture. Thabiti has done us all a favor by helping us see that the category of ethnicity goes deeper, by reminding us that humans are more like each other than we are different from each other (we all bear God’s image), and finally, by reminding us that racism can show up in subtle ways (like where you sit and who you decide to talk to in a room full of people). His admonition for us to go out of our way to show unity across cultures was edifying and enriching to the atmosphere of T4G.

Note: I thought it was one of the more ironically humorous moments when just after Thabiti’s message about why “race” is not a helpful category, we sang a hymn that went something like this: “Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race….” I wish I could’ve seen Thabiti’s face and lips during that hymn (did he sing along?). lol!

John Piper gave a vintage message about how our ministry should be radical and sacrificial. He based this message on the passage in Hebrews, which he basically said was like the punch line of the whole book: “So, let us go out to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb 13:13). The panel discussion following his message brought out a pleasant surprise (for me anyway). When asked what this radical sacrifice looks like for pastors who “aren’t going anywhere” (as C.J. put it) because of long-term commitments to their churches, Piper talked about normal day to day stuff. He didn’t talk about being sawed in half or being beaten to death in some Muslim country. He talked about enduring mistreatment as a pastor, suffering yourself to be confrontational with your kids, and other related areas of common obedience. This was unusually helpful for me. When I hear Piper preach, I often get the sense that he has something much greater in mind by “sacrifice” and “suffering” than the day-to-day stuff I experience. Sometimes I walk away from hearing Piper speak with a sense that I haven’t even begun to suffer or sacrifice the way he calls for in his messages. But after his clarification of what his exhortation “looks like” for a normal pastor, my eyes began to twinkle. Maybe I understand him after all.

I actually thought Mark Dever’s message was most significant. He encouraged us to make a distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and what we think are the implications of the gospel on the other. Much of his comments regarding this distinction encouraged us to be more gracious to our brothers and sisters in Christ who might have different opinions than we do on things not related directly to the gospel itself. Although he realized that some would criticize him as though he were trying to be reductionistic, he rightfully grounded his distinction as a way to actually protect the gospel. This distinction has the potential to overcome divisiveness in the church by fostering unity among all Christians who believe a common gospel. It’s easy to get caught up in our differing opinions about what we think the implications of the gospel are. Dever’s message was refreshing because of it’s potential for greater unity among Christians who believe in the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection and messiahship/lordship of Jesus Christ and yet, unfortunately, differ on almost everything else. Skizmatics are the worst of heretics, as Augustine liked to say.

Postscript: In this post, I have discussed only some of the ways in which T4G was very helpful. In my next post, I will share the grounds for some mixed feelings I experienced at the conference.

Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship (Part 2)

Bonhoeffer’s book on Discipleship is basically an attack against cheap grace using unqualified contradictions, eisegesis, a literal hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful advise. In my last post, I began my critique with a look at his doctrine of the situational precondition, and noted that it was an unqualified contradiction. In this unusually long post (at least, unusually long for me), I will attempt to ground my bold criticism of Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Although I agree that grace is not cheap, and that discipleship should be radical, I don’t think Bonhoeffer has led us in the right direction. Rather than giving us a dependable paradigm of costly grace, I’m afraid Bonhoeffer bamboozles his readers with confusing rhetoric.

Hermeneutical Creativity: Convenient Eisegesis

Because Bonhoeffer is so eager to denounce cheap grace (which he associates with mere confessional Christianity and abstract principles) he finds a way to link almost every passage to this topic. At several points he simply reads too much into the text in order to create an occasion to scorn his arch enemy: cheap grace. He believes the solution to cheap grace is his doctrine of the situational precondition (see previous post). He sees support for this doctrine in many of the texts. In other places his motives are not clear, but the fact that he sees something in the text which is not there is obvious enough.

For example, Bonhoeffer believes that one of the main points of Mark 2.14 is that the disciples followed Jesus without having any previous relationship with him (57). He believes Mark intended to underscore this very point. According to Bonhoeffer, these disciples followed Jesus before they really had “faith” in Him as the Christ: “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus” (57). He makes the following conclusion from this misinterpretation: “It was not as though they first recognized him as the Christ and then received his command. They believed his word and command [for them to follow] and [then] recognized him as the Christ—in that order” (226, emphasis mine).

While it is true that this text itself does not give an account of any such “confession,” (Levi does not recite the Chalcedonian or Nicene creed as the climax of the encounter) this observation should not lead us to any of Bonhoeffer’s brash conclusions. Both the horizontal and vertical contexts to Levi’s following not only imply that Levi, at that moment, put his faith in Christ—but it demands it. The disciples did not follow Jesus out of ignorance but confident expectation. It is true that some followed for the wrong reasons, but such is not the context in this passage.

The similar accounts in John’s gospel reveal that the following of the earliest disciples is based on their understanding of the identity of Jesus. It was when the disciples “heard” John the Baptist’s message about Jesus that they began to follow him (Jn 1.37). Though it is not made explicit in verse 36 that the disciples followed because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah (the text only emphasizes John’s proclamation of him being “the Lamb of God”), verse 40-41 reveals that this is exactly why they followed him. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah‘” (Jn 1.40-41, emphasis mine).

The same connection is made with respect to Phillip. In the account of Phillip’s initial following, there is not necessarily a “confession of faith in Jesus,” but the next verse reveals that Phillip followed precisely because he believed Jesus to be “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1.45). The confessions seem to become more explicit in each account of Jesus’ first followers. Just a few lines later, Nathanael confesses, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (Jn 1.49). Perhaps Levi had never met Jesus in person before, but there is no reason to believe he had not heard of the testimony of John the Baptist.

There is no reason to believe that Levi—in contrast to all the other accounts— followed out of something other than faith in Jesus as the Christ. The way Bonhoeffer camps out on his point that Levi followed merely “for the sake of the call” is misleading in this regard (58). He makes this same mistake when he notes concerning Mathew 10.1-4 that “it is not a word or a doctrine they receive, but effective power, without which the work could not be done” (204). He fails to comment, however, that in the following verses Christ indeed gives the disciples commands to preach doctrine: even the word of the kingdom (Matt 10.7, 14, 20). It is not either/or (either word or power) but both/and (they receive both the word of the kingdom and the power to demonstrate its authority).

Moreover, confessions of faith have a place of prominence in the scriptures (Mt 10.32, 16.13-20, Jn 20.31, Phil 2.11, 1 Jn 4.3). Our “confession” of Jesus as Lord goes hand in hand with our believing in him in our hearts (Rom 10.9). Our “confession” of Christ cannot be separated from and pitted against “acts of obedience.” Confessions can be a means of proclaiming the gospel and thus a vital part of fulfilling our commission. Not only is Bonhoeffer’s downplay of confessions and abstract principles reactionary and unhelpful in this regard, but his commentary proves to be the result of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Wanting to remedy cheap grace with his doctrine of situational precondition (ironically, itself an abstract doctrine), he sees things in the gospels which are far from the original intention of the authors who wrote them.

The “Literal” Hermeneutic

Not only is he hermeneutically creative in his approach to the text, but in addition to this, Bonhoeffer’s “literal” hermeneutic is exceedingly crass. He believes that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all his goods must be applied to all Christians. He calls this the “literal interpretation” (84). Any other interpretation does violence to the scriptures “by interpreting them in terms of an abstract principle” (84). His best textual support is to suggest that this is an implication of the disciples question, “Who then can be saved?” (85).

The author’s crass approach to interpretation especially sticks out in his comment on Luke 10.29. He concludes that asking questions is wrong (77-78). Why? Because that is what the lawyer did who was trying to justify himself. He interprets Jesus’ parable as Jesus’ way of saying “You must not ask questions—get on with the job!” (78). He gives further unqualified application to the reader: “Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions” (78). This position hardly seems to be the point of the parable.

This crass approach is common to all the author’s interpretations.

He thinks Christ condemns anger without qualification: all anger is wrong (127). What about Jesus’ anger when he drove the people out of the temple? What about Ephesians 4.26?

He also takes “literally” the command of Jesus in Matthew 5.29-30 to tear out our eyes and cut off our hands if ever we find ourselves using them to lust (132).

He believes it is wrong for a Christian to participate in any governmental retribution because of Jesus’ commands to resist evil (143). What about Paul’s endorsement of the government’s God-given right to execute precisely this kind of retributive justice (Rom 13.1-7)? Bonhoeffer lands contrary to the New Testament when he argues “there is no inner discord between private and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all” (148).

Also, according to Bonhoeffer, we are not to rejoice in any of God’s “good gifts” to us if they are not spiritual “because the world and its goods make a bid for our hearts” (176). In addition, he argues that anytime we use our possessions “as an insurance against the morrow we are dethroning God and presuming to rule the world ourselves” (178-79). What about the example of Paul who sold tents so that he might have money to live without being a burden to the Corinthians?

The author does not seem eager to test his conclusions by the analogy of faith.

In short, Bonhoeffer ultimately gives a serious indictment against all whose approach to the scriptures do not apply the call of Christ given to people in the New Testament in this literal way (225). If one does not see all Christ’s imperatives—regardless of context—as imperatives for every Christian, then Bonhoeffer beleives such a person actually denies that Christ is still alive (225). For him, there is no such thing as discerning which commandments were contextually specific. As far as the author is concerned, all such hermeneutical principles are based on “a complete misunderstanding of the situation of the disciples” (227). However, through and through, Bonhoeffer’s approach lacks clear bridges from the text to his specific interpretations—from which come all his confident conclusions. His “literal” interpretations and creative insights help him to preach against cheap grace, but they do little to help the reader get a grasp on the actual intent of the biblical author. To summarize, one might coin his approach as contextually insensitive, systematically uninformed, and implausibly crass.

Legalistic Standards and Unhelpful Advice

The author is also often guilty of his own harsh criticisms. For example, he tells us that the “third would-be-disciple” in Luke 9.57-62 thought that “certain conditions” must be fulfilled in order to be a disciple—as when people say “first you must do this and then you must do that” (61). He criticizes this as a way of reducing “discipleship to the level of the human understanding” (61). Ironically, he insists on the very next page that “if we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps”! (62). He then proceeds to give us the first step and tells us how we might make discipleship possible! In another place he criticizes anyone who would place a chronological gap between faith and obedience: “If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other,” yet he does precisely this with his doctrine of the situational precondition (64)! The only difference is that he reverses the chronological order, making obedience a chronological prerequisite to learning faith (63,75).

These unqualified contradictions abound throughout the book.

Men are called to “decide” to follow Christ “willy-nilly,” “and that decision can only be made by themselves” (94). Yet, somehow this “willy-nilly” choice which they must make only “by themselves” is at the same time “no arbitrary choice” nor is it a “choice of their own” (94-95). Huh?

He is not concerned with “ideals, duties or values,” but he is, on the other hand, concerned with the “virtue of discipleship” and the “quality” of being “extraordinary,” (96, 153, 159, 190).

Obedience to God and obedience to the OT law were never meant to be “divorced from one another,” yet following God in the person of Christ might demand the neglect of obedience to the law since Christ emerges as an opponent of the law (61, cf. 60, 121-22, 125).

Bonhoeffer expresses his pre-meditated plan of action for true discipleship—which is nothing more than that all his actions be “un-premeditated” (159-60)! All our prayers are to be unpremeditated and entirely spontaneous, yet he helps us pre-mediate the very words which we are to pray, namely the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer (163, 165)!

It would be “pseudo-theology,” not to take Jesus’ imperative for the rich young ruler as “literally” applying to all who wish to follow Christ, but at the same time “Jesus does not forbid the possession of property in itself” (84, 174). Can someone say Hermeneutical schizophrenia?

In addition to incoherency and bad hermeneutics, much of Bonhoeffer’s teaching and advice are unhelpful. He creates many false-dichotomies. For example, Bonhoeffer defines self-denial as “to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us” (88). Though we are to make it a priority to follow Christ down a certain road, we can never focus our attention on that road. Though disciples are to make it a priority to be “extraordinary” people, the moment one would try to reflect on what all this extraordinary lifestyle might include, Bonhoeffer’s says “he would no longer be following Christ” (159). This is because “if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path” (190-91).

On the contrary, it would seem that where a certain “road” or lifestyle (such as an “extraordinary” one) overlaps with following Christ (since he is the one who commanded such roads and lifestyles) it is not only helpful to focus on such particulars, but it indeed becomes necessary. Bonhoeffer seems unaware at this point that his whole book has just this aim: to help us focus on what discipleship really is, and what specific things it might entail! Even his doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is an in-depth analysis of the initial stage or “road” of discipleship. His advice to follow the road but never look at it, or to be “extraordinary” but never focusing on the “extraordinary” is unhelpful because it is impractical and impossible. If we are not to focus on the “extraordinary” why does he set apart so much of his book to get us thinking about it? I could imagine how Bonhoeffer would feel if he were to find me pitting his focus on “discipleship” itself as only a distraction from focus on Jesus and his will alone.

In a similar fallacy, Bonhoeffer teaches what I would call the doctrine of oblivious discipleship. What Christ means by our making sure we do not display our righteousness “before men, to be seen of them” is that we are to hide our good works from ourselves (158). In fact, this includes our being unaware of our good deeds: “We must be unaware of our own righteousness” (158). All of our good deeds must be “entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated” (159, emphasis mine). We are to be “unreflective” in all our actions (160). For Bonhoeffer, just the concept of faith “excludes all reflection and premeditation” (163, emphasis mine). Bonhoeffer seems unaware that his doctrine of oblivious discipleship is self-contradictory, for in the very act of teaching us that all our works must be done in this specifically defined way (in a state of oblivion) he has caused us to pre-meditate a grand plan for discipleship! It seems obvious that he has spent an unusual amount of energy thinking, reflecting, and pre-meditating about this himself, as he gives much of his book to this theme of oblivious discipleship.

Bonhoeffer also continually juxtaposes all standards of Christian living and patterns of righteousness against single-minded obedience to Christ. There is no “standard of living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever” (184). The Christian duty is “not some eccentric pattern of Christian living, but simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ” (153). Similarly, he forbids us to interpret or apply any texts of Scripture because we should rather do and obey them (197). “If we start…offering interpretations, we are not doing his word” (197). In this manner, he sets interpretation along with any textual reflection against obedience: “The word we had was not Christ’s, but a word we had wrested from him and made our own by reflecting on it instead of doing it” (197, cf. 225-226).

The author remarks that people are not converted through “unquenchable longing for a new life of freedom,” but rather by that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ (231). However, it is my conviction that part of repentance (which is necessary for conversion) is a longing for Christ and a longing to be delivered from bondage to our sin. Our conversion is part of that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ—and this would include our faith and repentance. This is an important truth which his false dichotomy undermines.


In conclusion, though I sympathize with his desire to present a radical paradigm for the Christian life, I found Bonhoeffer’s five pronged attack on cheap grace to be unhelpful. There were two reminders in Bonhoeffer’s book which stand out to me as worth reading. The first was a reminder that suffering is part of the Christian life—even of the essence of Christianity (90-92). The other was his description of conversion as a relinquishing of all our assumed rights (95-96, 141-42). Apart from these two reminders and several miscellaneous one-liners, Bonhoeffer’s book was frustrating. Most of his book is full of self-contradiction, hermeneutical hyper-crassism, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. In general, though his book presents a challenging and radical paradigm for the Christian life, it was surprisingly disappointing.

Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen and R.H. Fuller, Revision by Irmagard Booth, New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995. 316 pp. $13.00.


One does not need to read between the lines in order to see the chief concern of Bonhoeffer’s popular book, The Cost of Discipleship. He is transparently determined to convince the reader to abandon the cheap grace mindset and to embrace the more radical paradigm of costly grace. The message of the first chapter, “Costly Grace,” sets the tone for the entire book. All that comes after this chapter is in a sense an echo of or a working out of this main thesis: grace is costly.

The Chief Concern: To Attack Cheap Grace

Cheap grace is discipleship-less, cross-less, and Christ-less grace (43). Cheap grace is justification of sin rather than justification of the sinner, but costly grace is a grace which causes men to commit themselves unreservedly to a life of cross-bearing discipleship. His discussion and summary of church history is basically a lament of the church’s abandonment of costly grace for cheap grace (46-53). He gives away the overall intent of his book in this brief treaties of church history and the Lutheran tradition: “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task [of regaining costly grace] because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship…although our church is orthodox. … We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship” (55). To this end he labors in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, attempting to show that grace includes a
radical commitment of obedience to Christ and is not merely an abstract belief which has no demands on the life of the believer.

His fivefold method of defacing cheap grace is a combination of his doctrine of the situational precondition, eisegesis, a “literal” hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. All of these chosen weapons are given exclamation since the author couches them in sharp rhetoric.

The Chief Weapon of Attack: The Situational Precondition for Faith

Bonhoeffer sees a dichotomy between doctrine and discipleship. Discipleship and abstract doctrine are mutually exclusive: “An abstract Christology…[and] religious knowledge…render discipleship superfluous…[and] exclude any idea of discipleship whatever” (59 cf. 62, 248). His pessimism with regard to abstract doctrine helps set the stage for his paradigm of the situational precondition for faith. Bonhoeffer hopes to convince the reader that he or she must simply obey the commands of Jesus—whether they have “faith” or not.

The author finds in his exegesis a unique paradigm for conversion. This paradigm is based on his distinction of a situation in which faith is possible verses a situation in which faith is not possible. The call of discipleship, he teaches, is a call for one to “go out of his situation in which he cannot believe” and “into the situation in which…faith is possible” (62). This is the call of discipleship (or at least it is the first phase of the call). He calls this situation “the road to faith” because only through this situation can one learn to believe (63). He says of one whom Christ commanded to follow, “If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe” (62). This is why he must follow Christ: to learn how to believe by means of this “situation.” I have referred to this “road” of followship as the situational precondition for faith, since, according to Bonhoeffer it is a “situation” (in which faith is possible) and a necessary precondition for faith (if he does not follow, he will never even enter the possibility of learning faith). The situation he speaks of is that situation in which the person is following Christ. One must be obedient to the call of Christ to follow because without obedience to this command one never enters into this necessary situation in which faith is possible.

This first step of obedience is not faith, however, but “the road to faith” (63). This step “can never be more than, a purely external act and a dead work of the law,” and it does not have “any intrinsic worth or merit,” though the call of Jesus justifies it (65, 63). “Last, but not least, the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63). From this “last” description of the situation comes Bonhoeffer’s well-known summary of this doctrine, “only the one who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (63). As I will show, this paradigm which he sets up early in his book works as the primary hermeneutical filter in Bonhoeffer’s exegetical attempts throughout the book.

Critical Evaluation Part I

The Situational Precondition Is An Unqualified Contradiction

It must be said at the outset of my evaluation that Bonhoeffer’s chief doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is self-contradictory. Bonhoeffer’s paradigm collapses logically due to a serious violation of the law of non-contradiction. To the question “How do we get faith?” he would answer, “By first obeying the voice of Christ to follow Him so that you might find yourself in the situation in which faith is possible.” This is why he says to the reader, “If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same, for you are bidden to take it” (67). Elsewhere, however, he tells us that one cannot take the first step without faith because the “situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63, emphasis mine). “In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ…unless he obeys, a man cannot believe” (66).

Here it seems to me that he falls into a fallacious line of reasoning. One must obey with action in order to then learn how to believe—but he can only do this with faith. His exhortation is like counseling a man with no means of transportation to drive to the Honda dealership and buy a car. This reasoning seems similar to the circular reasoning of the scientific theory of spontaneous generation: the world exists before it exists in order to create itself. Only with this author, faith exists before the possibility of faith exists because faith is the necessary means to achieving the situational possibility.

Thus Bonhoeffer’s famed summary statement of this doctrine of the situational precondition is actually a self-contradiction when interpreted in light of the context in which he originally expressed it, for what he means is this: only the one who first believes has the ability to then obey, and only the one who first obeys will ever believe. In a nut shell he is arguing that one must first have faith before he is able to obtain it. His chief doctrine and famous saying is thus an unqualified contradiction which teaches that the one who does not have faith obtains faith by means of faith before he or she ever has faith. This discovery thoroughly frustrated me and made me wary of his whole book. I was especially frustrated as I progressed through the book with this caution, finding that many of his arguments fell victim to similar logical incoherency. This discrepancy made much of his book unhelpful to me in regard to the purpose for which it was written. For Bonhoeffer discipleship is costly, but for me, Bonhoeffer made discipleship confusing.


More to Come…

My next post will be entitled “Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer, Part II” and will look at more of Bonhoeffer’s 1) hermeneutical creativity, 2) literal hermeneutic, 3) legalistic standards, and 4) unhelpful advice. It would be good for the reader to bear in mind that I am by no means critical of Bonhoeffer himself; only his attempt to articulate a biblical and helpful theology. I happen to greatly admire Bonhoeffer, and I would recommend biographies on his life more than his own writings. Whatever I might say about his book, his life would put my petty picking at his ideas to shame.

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