June 2021

June 2021

Does Baptism Really Save?

We Lutherans are one of the few Protestant church bodies that believe that Baptism actually saves, that is, in the words of Luther in his Small Catechism, “It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and give eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” We get this idea from many passages of Holy Scripture, in particular Mark 16:16, which Luther cites in support of his claim just made above: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” In Titus 3:5, St. Paul writes, “According to His mercy He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” At the conclusion of his Pentecost sermon, St. Peter urges his hearers, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). And shortly thereafter he adds, “Save yourselves [literally: ‘be saved’] from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). How is Peter’s audience saved from their crooked generation? By being baptized in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of their sins. Finally, it is St. Peter again who wrote the chief passage demonstrating that Baptism saves: “Baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21).

I think it’s fair to say, therefore, that our Lutheran position that Baptism saves is thoroughly biblical. Why, then, is that position so often denied? I once heard an entire half-hour sermon preached on 1 Pet. 3:21, “Baptism now saves you,” explaining why Peter doesn’t actually mean that Baptism saves you! Needless to say, the sermon was not preached by a Lutheran pastor. But it was preached by a believer in Jesus Christ who is committed to the authority of Holy Scripture. Why would he preach such a message? The answer is that he had many other passages in mind that ascribed salvation to something else, for instance, “One is justified [i.e., saved] by faith” (Rom. 3:28). “A man is not justified [i.e., saved] by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). “‘What must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe [i.e., have faith] in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’” (Acts 16:31). “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). The Scriptures are clear: We are saved by faith. The preacher I heard denying that Baptism saves was trying to uphold the clear biblical truth that faith is what saves us.

So who’s right? The preacher I heard, or Lutherans? Well, as I’m sure you know, we Lutherans also teach that faith saves us. In fact, we’re famous for what we call the “three solas”: We are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), as testified by Holy Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). How does Baptism fit into that? Are we saved by faith, or by Baptism? Or by grace? Or by Jesus? What is it that actually saves us?

Consider a drowning man. A rescuer comes and throws a life preserver to him. He grabs hold of it and the rescuer draws him to safety. What saved him? The rescuer? The life preserver? His own act of grabbing hold of the life preserver? All of them did! Each element saved him in a different respect.

With our salvation in Christ, you could say that God Himself saves us. You could say that God’s grace saves us, because that is the favorable disposition in God by which He resolved to accomplish our salvation. You could say that God’s Word saves us, because it is through the preaching of God’s Word that His salvation comes to us. You could also say that our own faith saves us, since it is by faith that we believe God’s saving Word. God is the rescuer. His Word is the life preserver. Our faith is what grabs hold of the life preserver. Each saves us in a different respect, but ultimate responsibility for our salvation lies with God alone.

Where does Baptism fit into this? Baptism saves only because God’s Word is joined to it. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, “Without the Word of God the water is simple water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism.” Indeed, it is not the water in Baptism that saves us at all, “but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such Word of God in the water.” So Baptism saves because it is the Word of God bound up with water. It saves in the same way as the Gospel itself saves, because when you boil it down, it actually is the Gospel, the promise of forgiveness and salvation for Jesus’ sake.

Martin Luther once said that if God told us we could receive the forgiveness of sins by picking up a straw, it would be so, not because the act of picking up the straw would be such a splendid, meritorious work, but because of the promise of God bound up with the straw. In Baptism, God’s promise of salvation is bound up with water, applied to us according to Christ’s command and institution.

So yes, Baptism saves us, which is to say that God saves us through His gift of Baptism. We are saved by faith in the Gospel promise that God makes to us in Baptism. Thanks and praise to God for the salvation He gives us through Baptism by His grace in Jesus Christ, received by faith alone!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf