Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On The Sacraments and "Reason": Differences Between Lutherans and the Reformed

I was sent an e-mail last week asking me about Luther's view of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Lutheran distinctive of the paradox of faith. I thought i'd share part of my response:

I realize there is chasm between Lutherans and the Reformed on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. I have had Lutherans in the past really tear me to shreds for not agreeing with their view, even telling me it wasn't too late for me to repent and be saved. My church does baptize infants, but we do not understand the meaning of that sacrament in the same way as Lutherans (I realize that the Lutheran view is not the Roman Catholic view-I wish Roman Catholics would grip this fact as well).

The Lord's Supper
In regard to the Lord's Supper, my view would be that of Calvin's. Some are probably familiar with Calvin's view, and know that it isn't a "memorial" like Zwingli's position. I did try to cover this on the blog a few months ago, albeit, with some over-simplicity:

Understanding Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (Part One)

Understand Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Lord's Supper (Part Two)

Understanding Luther, Zwingli and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (Part 3)

John Calvin's View of the Lord's Supper

Paradox vs. Reason
One thing I both admire and scratch my head over is the notion of paradox vs. reason in Lutheran theology. I admire Luther and his disdain for Aristotelian logic being applied to the Scriptures- and I have reached a similar disdain as well when I see writers or ministers attempting to make God "make sense" rather than simply "letting God be God." In my own Bible, I have little notes pointing out "Glory vs. Cross" or paradox when I find them in Scripture. Often I find something that seems "rational" in the Bible, is only so because i've read it so often that it has lost its depth of profoundness. One needs to step back at times and attempt to read the Biblical text with freshness. A good understanding of Luther's disdain for "reason" and his theological paradoxes can be a big aid for reading the Bible with freshness.

I also realize that the Bible teaches things like the Trinity, which no matter how human reason tries to figure it out, it never will. Same thing with the Deity and humanity of Christ. A great Lutheran book on this that I have is by Seigbert Becker, The foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther. If you don't have this book, it is one of the best treatments of the subject I've ever read.

On the other hand, I use the notion of paradox, or "beyond reason" only when Scripture demands it. Saying something is "beyond reason" or saying a biblical concept "does not fit into a logical system of theology" sometimes overlooks the fact that one must use reason to arrive at this point, and one also has to actually have an underlying logical system of theology by which to classify a particular biblical concept in such a way. I don't mean to caricature Luther or Lutheran theology- I realize that neither Luther or Lutheranism denies the correct use of reason or systematic theology. I often have to point this out to Roman Catholics when they attack Luther's comments on the "whore of reason".

Probably whatever differences I would have with the Lutherans would be on “what” characterizes a particular doctrine being “beyond reason”. Further, the differences would probably be on the interpretation of particular doctrines we would both find to be "beyond reason". for instance, I find certain aspects of the atonement "beyond reason", and most Lutherans do as well. But, given my discussions with Lutherans in the past, we would not agree as to what nuances of the atonement are "beyond reason". In many instances, simply by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and using the paradigm that the clearer texts interpret the "less-clear", one can come to an understanding of a Biblical concept, without stripping a doctrine of its mystery and paradox.

BaptismIn regard to Luther's view of baptism, I haven't done a lot of work in this area, but I have a cursory familiarity with his view, and the following comes from my seminary notes. Lutherans are welcome to correct me if I have not stated Luther's view correctly.

Luther held the sacraments are a form of the Word. Luther believed that the Word of God was oral, written, and sacramental. The Word comes to change our hearts, minds, reason, and will.

Luther said:

We shall now return to the Gospel, which offers council and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren expression of God’s love.”

Luther said,

He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” he was calling forth the faith of those who were to be baptized, so that by this word of promise a man might be certain of his salvation if he was baptized in faith.”

What this means is that if one is baptized in faith, they have received one of the promises that God will be their savior. It is His promise to us that he will save those with faith. Luther is showing that Word of promise is the power of God unto salvation, not works of penance. Baptism establishes that we are children of God.

Luther argued that the validity of the promise does not rest on faith. Faith is simply the response. It grasps and makes use of the benefits, but the promise of God is there. Christ saves, not faith. Faith only receives the salvation Christ gives. Luther believed that God, through the power of His Word, establishes the relationship with His people.

Luther also believed in infant faith. It is a mystery. The Word of God changes the hearts of adults who are ungodly, resisting His grace. If that Word can change the heart of conscious rejecting adults, then surely in can change the heart of an infant.

Luther believed there were historical arguments in favor of infant baptism. First, He cited examples from the early church. God therefore had used infant baptism in every age to sanctify his people. If God had done this in every age, he was certain He would continue.

Secondly, Luther admitted to no specific biblical command to baptize children, but he noted there was no specific prohibition to baptize infants (the biblical command to baptize “all nations, and “all households” factored into his thinking).

Thirdly, he also took the passage that said “we must be like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God” very seriously. This is the model of entrance into the kingdom of God that Christ chose. To enter the kingdom of God like a little child is to receive the kingdom of God simply as a gift.

As an aside, I recently read Luther's comments on baptism and his use of Mark 16 as a strong prooftext. I would argue that the last verses of Mark 16 are probably not Scripture, hence I would not base any theological opinion on them.


FM483 said...


Your comments regarding the authority of Mark 16:16 may have merit, but there are so many references to baptism in the Scriptures that it is not critical to the doctrine. I personally think that Mark 16:16 is consistent with the rest of Scripture because it says that only unbelief condemns, not the lack of baptism. Was the thief on the cross next to Christ baptized? Perhaps by John the Baptist but no one really knows. The fact is that Christ commanded that baptism is instrumental in making disciples of all nations, along with teaching(Matthew 28:19). My paper on the “Means of Grace” portray my understanding of Scripture on the Sacraments. My opening summary expresses my viewpoint:

“Most Christian denominations do not really believe that God is omnipotent. Although most adherents of Christianity profess belief in the Incarnation of Christ and the miraculous appearances and works of God in the Old Testament, they deny His Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper and salvific work in Baptism. Many understand that God communicates through His Word as contained in Holy Scripture, and yet deny that God could choose to convey His blessings of faith and forgiveness in any manner connected with physical elements.”

In my addendum to “Means of Grace” I included many Scriptural references to Baptism other than the Mark 16:16 verse:

- Water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word: a Promise(i.e. Gospel)
- forgiveness of sins and Holy Spirit given. Baptized for the forgiveness of sins – Acts 2:38-39
- commanded by Christ in the Name of the Triune God. Baptism and teaching are the primary means of making disciples – Matthew 28:19
- The person being baptized is immersed into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, confessing his faith without speaking a word or doing anything but merely receiving – God baptizes him. Baptism is God’s act upon a person through His Church. Faith and surrender is the baptized person’s response
- Christ said you must be born again of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven– John 3:5-6
- United with Christ in Baptism – Romans 6:3ff
- Clothed with the Righteousness of Christ in Baptism – Galatians 3:27
- Transferred from the Domain of Darkness to Christ’s Kingdom – Col 1:13-14
- Whoever believes and is baptized is saved – Mark 16:16
- Baptism saves by connecting you with Christ’s resurrection – 1Peter 3:21
- Baptism saves through washing of regeneration – Titus 3:5
- Christ loved His Church and died in order to sanctify Her by the washing of water with the word - Ephesians 5:26
- Baptism cleanses the conscience – Hebrews 10:22
- New Covenant Baptism prophesied: The Lord will sprinkle clean water on you, cleanse from filth, give you a heart transplant as an adopted child of God -–Ezekiel 36:25-28
- Even infants are brought into the Kingdom of God through Baptism. Jesus commanded that tiny infants(Greek “brephos”) be brought to Him(Luke 18:15-17). The entire Gospel is foolishness to the world and many fail to comprehend how God can create saving faith in a tiny infant. However, the things impossible with men are possible with God(Luke 18:27).

The major point is that God declares us Righteous on account of His Son: the Word of God is the essential point. This is also true in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Baptism it is the Word of God connected with simple water. The water by itself conveys nothing, but in connection with the Word of God there is a sacramentum, or mystery, whereby God once again creates and sustains faith by His Word. In Baptism we have Christ’s Word joined to water. Many people fail to understand that it is God Who does the baptizing, not man. The pastor involved with sprinkling water on the head of a tiny infant is Christ’s ambassador(2Cor 5:20). When a person is baptized, he is baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God is the One Who grafts the baptized person into the True Vine(John 15; Romans 6:4ff). In Baptism, God adopts us as His child. Many overlook the many references to “adoption” and “inheritance” as how God considers us in light of Christ. Many denominations which do not baptize infants have substituted the synergistic teachings of an “age of accountability” and even believe they can remember when they chose Christ and became a Christian. Of course this synergistic thinking flies in the face of Scripture, which says all have sinned and are dead in transgressions; Jesus said He chose us, not vice versa(John 15).

Many people perform baptisms because they believe that God commands it in a legalistic sense. However, by doing this they are “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power(2 Tim 3:5). Although it is true Christ commanded Baptism(Matthew 28:19), God does the baptizing and actually commits Himself to save you from your sins(1Peter 3:21). In Baptism we see how Christ chooses us,not vice versa(John 15:16). St Paul urges believers to not focus on their works but on those of the Holy Spirit::”[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, BY THE WASHING OF REGENERATION AND RENEWING BY THE HOLY SPIRIT”(Titus 3:5). Just as a human is passive in the birth process, in a similar fashion all men are passive as the Holy Spirit works upon them in their new birth in Baptism, washing away their sins. Jesus said ”Unless one IS BORN OF WATER AND THE SPRIT, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”(John 3:5). In John chapter 13 we encounter Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.When Peter objected to this seemingly humiliating action on the part of Jesus, He responded by telling Peter “IF I DO NOT WASH YOU, YOU HAVE NO PART WITH ME.”(John 13:8). Just as Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, He also washes you through the Holy Spirit in Baptism. The Holy Spirit washes away your sins in Baptism, giving new life and the forgiveness of sins. In Baptism you are connected to the death and resurrection of Christ(Romans 6:4). You donot serve God in your Baptism, but rather God serves you as He washes away your sins.

God’s clear statement: “Baptism now saves you”(1Peter 3:21) has become controversial in recent years. This wasn’t the case during the initial 1500 years of Christianity however. Baptism historically had been viewed as a powerful miracle of God by which the Good Shepherd actively seeks and saves men by grafting them into the True Vine, Christ Himself(John 15; Romans 6:4ff; 11:19ff). Lutherans stand almost alone among Protestants in believing and proclaiming what God Himself says: “Baptism now saves you”(1Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5).

Through the processes of precipitation and evaporation God ensures that the earth is continually nourished and renewed. In a similar fashion God daily uses a “Repentance Cycle” via Baptism. Since there is one Baptism for the remission of sins, this new birth is a non-repeatable, one-time act of assurance that we are adopted children of God and joint heirs with Christ. However, even though the Scriptures testify that those who are baptized have died with Christ(Romans 6:3; Col 2:20), the believer is in a continual cycle of death and removing the “old self with its evil practices(Col3:9).The Christian daily remembers his Baptism which produces contrition and repentance over his sin. As the Gospel comes, the believer is daily raised to new life In Christ. Each day the believer repeats this cycle of recalling his Baptism, repentance, and new life. In Psalm 39:9 we read that God is the “Fountain of Life”. In this life we understand “in part”(1Cor 13:12). The spiritual life of a believer can be viewed as a water wheel. Originally each man is dead in transgressions(Ephesians 2:1); the wheel is not turning. In Baptism, God’s Word comes upon you in His gift of Baptism, making you alive and commencing a life of repentance(Eph 2:1-5;Titus 3:4-7;1Peter 3:21). As the believer is nourished and feeds on the Word of God throughout his life, he is continually fed and washed by the Word. This originally occurred in Baptism and every time the believer hears or reads the Word of God he can have the assurance that his salvation is secure by remembering his adoption by Christ in Baptism and the cycle of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness repeats itself.

The Psalmist said: “I know my transgressions…my sin is ever before me”(Ps 51:3). Most believers have the idea that the forgiveness of their sins comes about by mentally recalling the historical event which took place on Calvary 2000 years ago. These people then continually look inward at their lives in order to measure whether they are becoming increasingly more sanctified and holy people in order to have the assurance of salvation. They can never have the assurance that they have received the forgiveness of sins and the absolute perfection required by God for eternal life. God’s method, as described in His Word, leaves nothing in question. In order to reassure His children of their adopted status In Christ, God delivers the product of the forgiveness of sins won at the cross through certain Means. Since God is aware of our connection with the physical universe, in addition to the spoken Word, He distributes Himself to us in the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. These are tangible physical realities we can see, smell, and taste. In conjunction with the promises of Christ these events become the Means by which God distributes His gifts won by His Son on the cross.

An excellent treatise on Baptism can be found in the dialogue between two men with opposing viewpoints on the subject “Infant Baptism”,by the Lutheran minister Uuras Saarnivaara available at

Infant Baptism

Frank Marron

James Swan said...


Thanks for a detailed reply. I'm very interested, from your perspective, if i've outlined Martin Luther's position correctly. I've often come across non-Lutherans who are befuddled by Luther's position on baptism. I'm hoping to at some point, to write on Luther's position, and particulalry, it's differences and similarities with the Roman Catholic position on Baptism.


FM483 said...

James, here are some of my notes from Martin Luther’s Large Catechism on Baptism:

Baptism is not our work, but God’s work. It is God’s commandment and institution. Baptism is divine. “Baptism is most solemnly and strictly commanded so that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved.”

Baptism is performed in God’s name, not the name of the one who is baptized. “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself.”

Luther makes the point that all the lifelong works of holy believers, such as Mother Theresa, do not begin to compare to the work of God in Baptism.

It is only ordinary water until it is connected with the Word of God and His promises. Then it becomes “ a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water.” Luther refers to Isaiah 55:10-11 where we read that the Word of God always accomplishes it’s objective, never returning void. Luther quoted St Augustine on the sacramental nature of Baptism: “When the Word is joined to the element or natural substance, it becomes a Sacrament.”

Luther scolds those who view Baptism as a mere external symbol. He makes the point that God’s Word and promise makes Baptism special. Luther makes te analogy with people: allpeople are similar physically, but God’s Word shows us we are to value some more than others – “Honor your father and mother”(Exodus 20:12). Therefore we are to honor Baptism as divine. God even confirmed the importance of Baptism with miracles: “Do you think it was a joke that, when Christ was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended visibly, and everything was divine glory and majesty(Luke 3:21-22)?”

In addition to the Mark 16:16 passage referring to Baptism, Luther mentions that Baptism saves(1Peter 3:21); delivers us from sin, death, and the devil(Colossians 1:13-14); provides access to Christ’s kingdom(John 3:5). It is the washing of new birth(Titus 3:5). Baptism brings victory over death and the devil(Romans 6:3-6); forgiveness of sins(Acts 2:38); God’s grace(Titus 3:5-6); the entire Christ and the Holy Spirit with His gifts(1Cor 6:11).

Luther admonishes those who claim that faith alone saves and therefore Baptism is not an important matter. He asserts that faith must have an object, something it clings to and grasps(2Tim 1:13; Titus 1:9) nd upon which it stands and rests(1Cor 2:5). Faith clings to the water and believes God’s promise, which results in salvation. Luther believes that God has given Baptism as an external object that we can appreciate with our human senses, thereby understanding so that our heart embraces the promise of salvation in the water. The entire Gospelis external, verbal preaching(Romans 10:17; 1Cor 1:21). God works as He wills through external means, such as Baptism.

Regarding Infant Baptism, Luther maintained that this is pleasing to God, that the Holy Spirit is received in Baptism as proven through the holy lives of believers through the ages who were baptized as infants(St Bernard, Gerson, John Hus,…). Luther reminded us that Baptism’s validity does not depend upon whether the person baptized believes and leads a holy life, but upon the Word of God connected with the water. In the Lord’s Supper, even unbelievers receive the body and blood of Christ(1Cor 11:27). We baptize infants in the hope it will believe and spiritually prosper(Luke 17:2; Eph 2:8), but the sole reason we do sois by the clear command of God in His Word, knowing God cannot lie(Titus 1:2).

Luther concludes that Baptism is the method instructed by Christ for entrance into the Christian Church. Luther maintained that Baptism is instrumental in the Sanctification of believers:”So a truly Christian life is nothing other than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. “ Luther maintained that a Christian daily remembers His Baptism and that failure to do so enables the old sinful nature within him to increase . On the other hand, be daily recalling his Baptism the Christian suppresses the old nature so that his new man can gain in strength. Daily remembering one’s Baptism is a constant life of repentance over sin, always pointing to our connection to Christ, so that we wear His Robe of Righteousness(Galatians 3:27)

Frank Marron

FM483 said...


I am not a Luther scholar as you. My contact with you has shown me a deficiency in my knowledge and that is one reason I read your posts - to gain more historical knowledge. I do recall reading something which Luther said that is interesting: "It is not lack of the Sacraments that condemnsa a person, but contempt for them." My understanding of this statement from a Law/Gospel point of view is that the man who rejects what God clearly says in His Word regarding Baptism and the Lord's Supper worships a god of his own imagination. The man who denies that God can both create and sustain saving faith through his Word connected with physical elements of water, bread, and wine, has unknowingly limited his imaginary god to behaving towards His creation in a specific, limited manner. If God came down in a meteor shower and instructed us to stand in a corner for 15 minutes each day in order to be saved,most people would initially agree and obey immediately. Given the Old Adam nature within each person would dictate that over time we would eventually disbelieve what God told us and institute a ratiionalistic version of our own creation as the OT nation of Israel did. Similarly, it is ownly in recent centuries that men have argued against the efficacy of infant Baptism and the Sacraments in general. Hence, the man with contempt for the Sacraments actually has a disdain and unbelief in the God Who institutes these Means of distributing His Grace and salvation won on the cross. Only unbelief condemns a person and such contempt is definately unbelief.

Frank Marron