Saturday, July 14, 2012

Luther's Assurance of Salvation: Baptism

I came across an interesting article, Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin by Phillip Carey. I have to admit to not reading all of this article yet, but I found the article at least food for thought whether one agrees with it or not (I have initial reservations of some of his points in regard to Calvinism). One thing Carey does helpfully frame is the assurance of salvation in Luther's thought:
Luther’s Syllogism
Major premise: Christ told me, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and HolySpirit."
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).The major premise here is based on a Scriptural promise (Matt. 28:19)
I think there's still a problem with the epistemology of assurance here (with similarities to that which Carey charges to the account of Calvinism), but that's something for another time. The purpose of this little blog post is for my Reformed brethren. Luther, more often than not, links the assurance of salvation to baptism. Note the following from one of his most important writings, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
Now, the first thing to be considered about baptism is the divine promise, which says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16]. This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever else man has introduced, for on it all our salvation depends. But we must so consider it as to exercise our faith in it, and have no doubt whatever that, once we have been baptized, we are saved. For unless faith is present or is conferred in baptism, baptism will profit us nothing; indeed, it will become a hindrance to us, not only at the moment when it is received, but throughout the rest of our lives. That kind of unbelief accuses God’s promise of being a lie, and this is the greatest of all sins. If we set ourselves to this exercise of faith, we shall at once perceive how difficult it is to believe this promise of God. For our human weakness, conscious of its sins, finds nothing more difficult to believe than that it is saved or will be saved; and yet, unless it does believe this, it cannot be saved, because it does not believe the truth of God that promises salvation.

This message should have been impressed upon the people untiringly, and this promise should have been dinned into their ears without ceasing. Their baptism should have been called to their minds again and again, and their faith constantly awakened and nourished. For just as the truth of this divine promise, once pronounced over us, continues until death, so our faith in it ought never to cease, but to be nourished and strengthened until death by the continual remembrance of this promise made to us in baptism. Therefore, when we rise from our sins or repent, we are merely returning to the power and the faith of baptism from which we fell, and finding our way back to the promise then made to us, which we deserted when we sinned. For the truth of the promise once made remains steadfast, always ready to receive us back with open arms when we return. And this, if I mistake not, is what they mean when they say, though obscurely, that baptism is the first sacrament and the foundation of all the others, without which none of the others can be received.

It will therefore be no small gain to a penitent to remember above all his baptism, and, confidently calling to mind the divine promise which he has forsaken, acknowledge that promise before his Lord, rejoicing that he is still within the fortress of salvation because he has been baptized, and abhorring his wicked ingratitude in falling away from its faith and truth. His heart will find wonderful comfort and will be encouraged to hope for mercy when he considers that the promise which God made to him, which cannot possibly lie, is still unbroken and unchanged, and indeed, cannot be changed by sins, as Paul says (II Tim. 2[:13]): “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” This truth of God, I say, will sustain him, so that if all else should fail, this truth, if he believes in it, will not fail him. In it the penitent has a shield against all assaults of the scornful enemy, an answer to the sins that disturb his conscience, an antidote for the dread of death and judgment, and a comfort in every temptation—namely, this one truth—when he says: “God is faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23; 11:11], and I received his sign in baptism. If God is for me, who is against me?” [Rom. 8:31].

The children of Israel, whenever they turned to repentance, remembered above all their exodus from Egypt, and remembering turned back to God who had brought them out. Moses impressed this memory and this protection upon them many times, and David afterwards did the same. How much more ought we to remember our exodus from Egypt, and by this remembrance turn back to him who led us through the washing of regeneration [Titus 3:5], remembrance of which is commended to us for this very reason! This can be done most fittingly in the sacrament of bread and wine. Indeed, in former times these three sacraments—penance, baptism, and the bread—were all celebrated at the same service, and each one supplemented the other. We also read of a certain holy virgin who in every time of temptation made baptism her sole defense, saying simply, “I am a Christian”; and immediately the enemy recognized the power of baptism and of her faith, which clung to the truth of a promising God, and fled from her.

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 men: 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 clone without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit [Eccles. 1:2, 14]. Luther, M. (1999, c1959). Vol. 36: Luther's works, vol. 36 : Word and Sacrament II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (36:58-60). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
We as Reformed people need to understand the weight to which Luther places on baptism, and in my own experiences in Reformed circles, Luther's emphasis is not the current Reformed emphasis.  Carey certainly is correct pointing out how important Luther considered baptism in his overall theology. Sometimes we as Reformed people know nothing other than Luther's pummeling of free will in the Bondage of the Will. I'd say this is a one-dimensional view of Luther, and Lutherans have a correct concern as to whether we really understand Luther or not.


Bruce said...

I'm a regular listener to the IssuesETC broadcast, and because of it, I have grown in my understanding of Lutheranism. Shouldn't criticize what you haven't spent any time studying.

I have both grown in my appreciation for Lutheranism, I have grown in my (Reformed) understanding of baptism, because both traditions have a common root, and I also have grown in my appreciation for why I am and shall remain Reformed.

Read the Confessions and non-Lutheran Reformers (like Calvin) with Lutheran dogma ringing in your ears, and you can hear both the harmony and the dissonance with greater clarity. You may understand the meaning of some Confessional statements better, and not simply the parts that repudiate certain Lutheran formulations, but positive statements of doctrine as well--statements that were meant to harmonize with the Lutherans.

All in all, though the distictions between us remain fixed and probably irreconcilable this side of heaven, I am richer for having become acquainted with Lutheran theology and practice.

Daniel Casey said...

Thanks James for posting this. Have enjoyed this blog for some time.

Bruce, it's funny you mentioned Issues ETC. It was that show ( among other things ) that caused me to leave the Reformed behind. I'm not confessional Lutheran.

But, like you, I still read, listen and admire Confessional Reformed in many regards.

David Brainerd said...

Using baptism as assurance only really works for credobaptists. How can someone who can't remember their baptism and didn't choose it derive any assurance from it? They cannot. Especially since scripture says "Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins" and therefore, knowing that they were not baptized scripturally will give them the opposite of assurance of salvation. How can baptism assure one of salvation? I think Tertullian explains it, howbeit accidentally, in explaining his view of the power of the keys, as I explain here: Calvin’s papistical power of the keys versus Tertullian.