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An Excerpt from Letters to Lutheran Pastors

531186German theologian Hermann Sasse (1895–1976) was trained at the University of Berlin but became a convinced confessional Lutheran after discovering the writings of Wilhelm Löhe while studying in the United States. His professional career at the University of Erlangen was forever marked by Hitler and the Nazis. Sasse was a vocal opponent of the Third Reich and participated in efforts to prevent German Christian control of the state churches. Following the war, Sasse emigrated to Australia, where he served as a professor at Immanuel Seminary (now Luther Seminary) in North Adelaide. In the late 1940s, Sasse began more than 30 years of correspondence with Lutheran pastors around the world in his Letters to Lutheran Pastors, which addressed issues as varied as the Ecumenical Movement, the Sacraments, Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, and Scripture.

In this excerpt from an early letter on the prayer of the church, Sasse demonstrates his knowledge of church and liturgical history.

When the Lutheran Church against this position affirms the necessitas medii, the character of Baptism as a means of grace in the strict sense, it is naturally not in conflict with the old Catholic statement: “God is not confined to His sacraments.” That God may have other ways of saving people has never been questioned by our church, as the writings of Luther and the classical Lutherans on the fate of children who died unbaptized proves. But He has not revealed anything to us about that, and we are bound to what He has revealed to us. What we must be on our guard against is the tearing apart of Spirit and Word, of external and internal baptism. It is the water baptism inseparably connected to God’s Word of which Luther’s baptismal hymn speaks:

The eye of sense alone is dim
And nothing sees but water;
Faith sees Christ Jesus and in Him
The Lamb ordained for slaughter.
It sees the cleansing fountain, red
With the dear blood of Jesus,
Which from the sins, inherited
From fallen Adam, frees us
And from our own misdoings.[1]

How the marvel of the rebirth that is worked through Baptism relates to the fact that baptized people also are lost is hidden in divine predestination, about which the Gospel has revealed nothing to us. We shall understand that much better in the light of glory, as Luther says at the end of his Bondage of the Will. We cling to the Gospel and to the promises that the Gospel attaches to Baptism when we confess of Baptism as the washing of regeneration: “It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” (SC IV).

But what of the faith of the child to be baptized? With this question we come to the heart of the Reformed rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of Baptism. This rejection has its parallels in the Reformed world in the so-called Gorham controversy regarding Baptism a century ago when the denial of baptismal regeneration by the Evangelicals in the Church of England deeply troubled Anglicanism. If one stands for infant Baptism, then the following alternative seems to be inescapable: Either Baptism bestows forgiveness of sins and regeneration to eternal life apart from the personal faith of the child being baptized and his personal confession—that is the answer of the Catholic Church, which lets the faith of the church take the place of the faith of the child to be baptized—or forgiveness of sins and regeneration are detached from the administration of Baptism. In practical terms this opens several possibilities of viewing Baptism. One can with the majority of the Reformed retain infant Baptism, thereby seeing in it the New Testament sign of the covenant analogous to the Old Testament circumcision, referring to Col. 2:11. Or one can reject infant Baptism altogether as was done by the Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation and is done today by the “congregations of Christians baptized as believers” [Gemeinden gläubig getaufter Christen]. Or one can take a middle way with Karl Barth between those possibilities. He declares infant Baptism as valid but as a violation of the New Testament order of Baptism, a false ordering of baptismal practice that rests on the erroneous presuppositions of a Volkskirche and must be revised by ecclesiastical decision. We need not here pursue the fact that Barth himself came to recognize that none of the large Reformed churches is disposed to follow his advice and give up a custom of baptizing infants that has been firmly established since Zwingli and Calvin. We might just ask in passing whether the position of the Baptists is not the real consequence of the Reformed doctrine of Baptism and whether the retention of infant Baptism was not a compromise resulting from the power of a tradition that was a millennium and a half old and from their opposition to the Enthusiasts of the sixteenth century. For Baptism cannot be understood as the counterpart to circumcision, despite Col. 2:11, because circumcision lacks the very thing that makes Baptism Baptism. At the very least they are as different as the new covenant is from the old, as Israel according to the flesh is from Israel according to the Spirit. If one sticks to these parallels, then Baptism can never be more than a sign of grace. It can never be a means of grace in the fullest sense, even though the Reformed have tried to retain this term for Baptism.

As was often the case, Luther’s way was the lonely way between Rome and the Enthusiasts. Over against the Enthusiasts, among whom he lumped Zwingli and his followers, as he would also have done with the Calvinists had they been part of his experience, he firmly held to the Sacrament of Baptism and everything that belongs with it: infant Baptism, necessity for salvation, and regeneration. Over against Rome he firmly held to the sola fide: Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given only to faith. Just as in the Sacrament of the Altar only he receives forgiveness of sins and so also life and salvation who has faith in “these words,” that is, in the promise: “Given and shed for the forgiveness of sins,” so it is true of Baptism: “It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” And this is not talking about some future faith that is then confessed at confirmation, so that this would be a necessary completion of Baptism.

Bucer, who first introduced pietistic ideas into the church, brought an un- Lutheran element into confirmation, which has its own rightful place, an idea rooted not in biblical thought but in a sociological view of the church. This element ripened in the age of Pietism and rationalism. It is significant that in in Wittenberg in the eighteenth century confirmation was introduced into the synagogue, not the church, where they were content with first communion. At that time people could only conceive of the church as an “association,” a “religious society” that one joined by a voluntary decision.

Against all this for Luther the faith that is spoken of in connection with infant Baptism is not the future faith of children to be reared as Christians nor is it, as many a Lutheran in the nineteenth century thought, a faith that is like a seed awakened to life by the act of Baptism, but it is the faith with which the children come to Baptism, just as with adults, except that this faith of children is not yet a conscious faith that they can confess themselves.

In the Large Catechism Luther calls our attention to the fact that the faith of an adult also can never be the foundation of Baptism.

I myself, and all who are baptized, must say before God: “I come here in my faith, and in the faith of others, nevertheless I cannot build on the fact that I believe and that many people are praying for me. On this I build, that it is Thy Word and command.” Just so, I go to the Sacrament of the Altar not on the strength of my own faith, but on the strength of Christ’s Word. . . . We do the same in infant Baptism. 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. (LC IV 56–57)

And Luther bases this on the fact that all people can lie and deceive themselves, but not God, who has given the command to baptize. That God through His Holy Spirit can also give faith to a child, just as to an adult, cannot be questioned when we remember how Jesus blessed the children and presented a child to His disciples as an example. Yes, strictly speaking, even the faith of the greatest hero of faith, even the faith of an Athanasius or a Luther, is no greater than the faith of an infant.

Or when does the faith begin, on the basis of which we dare to baptize? Is it at the age when we nowadays have confirmation or when small children are able to make some confession of faith, as Thomas Müntzer wanted? We would be making a psychologically perceived fact out of the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit if we here set a temporal boundary on the sway of the Holy Spirit.

Here, too, Luther goes his lonely way between the hierarchical safeguards of Rome and the psychological safeguards of the Enthusiasts. It is the lonely way of the reformer, who heeds only the Word and God and counts on this Word for everything, even for what is humanly impossible. Only in this way can he and the Lutheran Church hold together the objectivity of the sacrament and the sola fide, whereby we do not forget that justifying faith is not the matter of a single moment, but the substance of our whole lives. Such faith is not some act of our commitment to God that is particularly perceived and experienced in some isolated moments of our life. Rather, it is the constant though always clouded reliance on the Gospel’s promise of grace. Repentance also, according to the Gospel, is not just a single act but goes on our whole life long. So also our Baptism is not an isolated act, but something that goes on in all our life. Being a Christian does not just mean that we were once baptized but that we live in the strength of our Baptism and again and again return to it. To the question, “What does such baptizing with water signify?” the Small Catechism gives the familiar answer: “It signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC IV). As we who are both sinners and righteous live by daily contrition and repentance, by the daily forgiveness of sin, so also the death and resurrection of Christ, that real though also incomprehensible anticipation of an eschatological experience that takes place in Baptism, is something that is intended for our whole life.

This is how Luther understood Baptism and the faith of those who are baptized over against Rome and the Enthusiasts. We do not simply grasp them in a moment, either in the moment when the Sacrament of Baptism is received or in the moment of confirmation or in any other moment of our lives that we might like to designate, but we grasp them, or should grasp them, throughout our whole lives, every day anew. Therefore Luther also knows no second sacrament that would have to complete Baptism, neither confirmation nor a repentance that would be anything else than a return to Baptism.

[1]Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book. St. Louis: Concordia, 1912. MH

This excerpt has been amended from Norman Nagel, trans., “Holy Baptism,” pages 62–65 in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume 1, ed. Matthew Harrison.

© 2013 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

To order Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume 1, please contact CPH at 800-325-3040 or visit www.cph.org. Also available from Concordia Publishing House is Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume 2. Volume 3 will be available in January 2015. 



Written by

Sarah Steiner

At CPH since 2009, Sarah Steiner was a production editor for the professional and academic book team. She worked on many academic titles, including coordinating the peer review books, and also helped out with Bible resource projects.


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