That Baptism is not a human invention, but a divine ordinance to be observed until the last day, is plainly taught by Holy Scripture: Matt. 28:19, 20: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world;” and also Mark 16:15, 16: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Only if we hold fast the truth that Baptism is a divine ordinance do we recognize that in Baptism, though it is performed through men, God Himself deals with us.
To a real Baptism belong, as visible signs, water (Eph. 5:26: “the washing of water”) and its application to a human being. To substitute some other liquid for water is frivolous and makes the Baptism uncertain. The application of water may take place not only by immersion, but also by pouring or sprinkling, since the Greek word “baptize” in the usage of Scripture means not only immersion, but denotes every kind of washing, as is evident, for instance, from Mark 7:3,4 and Luke 11:37, 38. In Mark 7:3 the verb “wash” is used, for which in verse 4 the verb “baptize” is substituted (correctly translated in our KJV by the same English word as used in the preceding verse), and even “baptisms of tables” (better: “couches,” upon which people reclined at the table) are mentioned. In Luke 11:37, 38 the Pharisee marveled that Jesus had not first “baptized” before eating. This does not refer to any immersion or bathing before the meal, which was not a Jewish custom, but to the customary washing of the hands, as referred to in Mark 7:3: “The Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not.”
More important then the mode of applying the water is that which makes Baptism “not simple water only” but a Sacrament. That which makes the application of water a means of grace, a means of the forgiveness of sin, is God’s Word, that is, God’s command to baptize and the promise of the remission of sins connected therewith; or, as Luther puts it in his Small Catechism, “Baptism is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” In Eph. 5:25, 26 we read of Christ that He cleanses the Church “with the washing of water by the Word” (literally: “in the Word”). God’s Word is, as it were, the container (Luther’s “comprehended in” means “wrapped up in”), whereby the application of water becomes a purification from the guilt of sin. St. Augustine put this relation very simply when he said: “The Word comes to the element and it becomes a Sacrament.” Compare Luther’s answers, in the Small Catechism, to the two questions: “What is Baptism?” and: “How can water do such great things?”
In answer to the question as to which baptisms performed in other denominations we should recognize as valid and which we must regard as no baptism, we answer: Denominations in which the Word of God does not come to the element do not administer Christian Baptism. That is the case with all Unitarian bodies, since they deny the Holy Trinity (thus not only making their so-called “baptism” invalid, but definitely placing themselves outside of the Christian Church), and Baptism in the name of the triune God belongs to the essence of Baptism, Matt. 28:19: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” On the other hand, we recognize the Baptism of the Roman Church and of the Reformed Churches (unless they have succumbed to Unitarianism) as valid, since they confess the triune God. The errors of these denominations in the doctrine of Baptism do not concern the essence but the fruit and effect of Baptism.
We rightly hold fast to Baptism in the name of the triune God, with the express naming of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, since faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is that faith whereby the Christian religion is distinguished from all false religions. On the basis of Scripture we distinguish between natural and Christian knowledge of God. There is a natural knowledge of God, namely, that derived from the works of creation (Rom. 1:20) and from the Law of God which even since the fall is not entirely eradicated out of the heart of man, Rom. 2:15, 16. But the natural knowledge of God does not go beyond the knowledge that there is an eternal, almighty, and holy God, who rewards the good and punishes the evil; and the result of this natural knowledge of God is a bad conscience, since man becomes aware in his conscience that he has transgressed the Law of God (Eph. 2:12). The Christian knowledge of God, on the other hand, which is derived only from the revelation of God in His Word (from the Holy Scriptures), has as its content the truth that the one true eternal God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and the result of this knowledge is a good conscience, since Scripture not only teaches that in the one God there are three Persons, but also that the Father so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to be the Redeemer, that the Son refused not to give His life into death to cancel the guilt of men, and that it is the office of the Holy Spirit to work faith in the forgiveness of sins obtained by the Son of God. When we apply this to Baptism we must say that we have in Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost an expression of the faith and confession whereby the Christian religion is distinguished from all non-Christian religions. Therefore we hold immovably fast to the Trinitarian formula of Baptism given in Matt. 28:19.
“Baptism is a work, not which we offer to God, but in which God baptizes us, i.e., a minister in the place of God; and God here offers and presents the remission of sins” (Apology, Triglotta, p. 389, 18). That this statement of our Confession is Scriptural we see from Acts 2:38 and from the fact that Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is Baptism in the name of the God who is gracious to sinners. The same is witnessed by clear Scripture passages such as the following: Acts 22:16: Ananias says to Saul, whose hands are stained with the blood of Christians: “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins” — and this Baptism does, not only in individual cases, but to the whole Christian Church in general, Eph. 5:25, 26: “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word.” And as the Word of the Gospel by offering the forgiveness of sins also works faith and is thereby a means of regeneration (1 Peter 1:23), so is this also the case with Baptism, according to Titus 3:5. The reader may find it most helpful, as the writer has for many years past, to store in his memory, according to their Biblical sequence, the following eight proof passages for the important truth that Baptism regenerates and saves: Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal. 3:26, 27; Eph. 5:25, 26; Titus 3:5–7; 1 Peter 3:20, 21.
Because Baptism offers the forgiveness of sins, therefore it is also an instrument of the Holy Ghost for awakening and strengthening the faith of the Christians (John 16:14), for regeneration and renewal (Titus 3:5), for implanting into the Christian Church (1 Cor. 12:13), for the hope of eternal life (1 Peter 3:21). He who denies that Baptism is a means of the forgiveness of sins makes out of Baptism, so far as he is concerned, a human work. In itself it of course remains what Christ has made it, a true means of grace. But the denial of the divine efficacy of the means of grace always imperils the chief article, of salvation by faith in Christ, for it takes away from faith at least part of its foundation and robs the Christian of the comfort which the means of grace offer him.
What Luther and the Lutheran Church teach concerning the relation of faith to the means of grace we may summarize as follows: First, without faith there is no salutary use of Baptism. Secondly, he, however, who bases faith upon faith instead of upon the means of grace, thereby apostatizes from Christianity, because he holds God to be gracious not upon the basis of the forgiveness of sins which Christ gained for us through His vicarious satisfaction, but upon the basis of a supposed or real good quality in himself. In the case of infant Baptism, the faith which relies upon God’s grace bestowed in Baptism, is engendered by the Baptism itself.
Baptism is not to be repeated, but it is to be used throughout the Christian life for comfort (Gal. 3:26, 27) and for sanctification (Rom. 6:4). Particularly is the use of Baptism for comfort throughout the Christian life taught in 1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism doth also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.”
Both children and adults are to be baptized. Infant Baptism was the rule in the Christian Church from the beginning, since Baptism took the place of the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision, according to Col. 2:11, 12, where Baptism is called “the circumcision of Christ.” From this fact it is also clear why infant Baptism, like other self-evident matters (for instance, the admission of women to the Lord’s Supper), is not specifically prescribed. But it is implied in the record concerning the Baptism of whole families (Acts 16:15: Lydia and her household; Acts 16:33: the jailer and all his). The assertion that children do not believe, and therefore cannot be baptized, contradicts Matt. 18:6; 1 John 2:13; and especially Mark 10:14. There is no participation in the Kingdom of God without faith, but those who believe not are damned (Mark 16:16). In Luke 18:15 the little ones who are brought to Jesus are specifically called “infants.” The fact that Christ commands to baptize “all nations” (Matt. 28:19) is sufficient to prove that infants must be baptized, for we dare not make a restriction which He does not make. That we baptize adults only when they have been instructed and come to faith, is likewise done upon the basis of Scripture, Acts 8:36–38. Baptism of inanimate objects (bells, ships, etc.) is a mockery of Baptism.
Pastors administer Baptism as called public servants of the congregation of believers. But since all Christians are the original possessors of the sacraments, therefore, in case of emergency when the services of an orthodox pastor cannot be obtained, lay Baptism — also by women — is a right and duty. See 1 Cor. 3:21–23. That the command, Matt. 28:19, 20, concerns not only the Apostles but also the Church of Christ until the last day, is evident from v. 20b: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”
As to the necessity of Baptism, we must hold that only the contempt of the Sacrament damns anyone, not the mere lack or deprivation of it. This is so, because also through merely hearing and believing the Word of the Gospel, sin is forgiven and regeneration is effected, Luke 24:47; 1 Peter 1:23. John 3:5 relates to the despising of Baptism, as is evident from Luke 7:29, 30. Converts who desire to be baptized, or parents who desire to bring their children to Baptism, if life be suddenly cut off by an act of God, depriving them of the opportunity of Baptism, may take comfort in the mercy of God.
A final note on the Baptism administered by John the Baptist may be added, since some strange thoughts on this subject are current, as though this Baptism was essentially different from Christian Baptism. Also John’s Baptism was, according to Mark 1:4, a “Baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (and thus just like Christian Baptism, Acts 2:38), a means of the remission of sins and hence also a means of regeneration, as Christ Himself asserts in John 3:5 (“born of water and of the Spirit”), for there He is speaking of John’s Baptism. From this fact, it is evident that John’s Baptism, aside from its preparatory nature in pointing to a Savior who was immediately to appear rather than one who had finished His saving work, was essentially equivalent to New Testament Baptism.