Luther’s Catechism Series: The Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism is a wonderful gift from our good and gracious God. It is the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit by which we are made the children of God, given the gift of faith, forgiven our sins, and claimed for all eternity. Read Luther’s insights on Baptism from Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper below.

Luther insists on the importance of emphasizing that Christ instituted the sacrament; on the one hand, he follows the nominalism of the late Middle Ages and, on the other hand, he anticipates the way the issue is framed today. The question about the historicity of the command by the Resurrected One to baptize is obviously never discussed. For Luther, it was important that one would have a genuine confidence in the faith that our Baptism is not from human beings but that it stems from God’s own self-revelation. That he still presents his argumentation in a “naïve, unhistorical” way can be seen in how he makes reference to the Ten Commandments, the Creed and Lord’s Prayer, and also in his view on temporal ordinances; all such have been “revealed and given by God Himself.” The critical and historical sense is still bound up in the concerted effort to establish the biblical foundation of the sacraments.

Words of Institution for Sacraments

Luther follows the theologians of the Middle Ages when he differentiates what the sacraments really are from the way they were administrated sacramentally in the Church, by turning to how Christ instituted them. God’s Word and God’s creatures are certainly bound together in the actions of blessing and dedication, but in all such activities one finds no command of the Lord that is clearly stated. Since the reformer sharpens the issue about what has a Word of Institution, the listing of seven sacraments is evaluated on the basis of a critical assessment from Scripture.

As regards Baptism, Luther admittedly stays within the confines of insights offered by Scholasticism. Nor is Luther satisfied with limiting himself to the Words of the Commission in Matt. 38:19f. to establish the foundation; he also pays attention to the historical development of Baptism. Such insights are only indirectly intimated in the Small Catechism, in the words: “What then is this particular Word of God?” He unfolds them programmatically in the Large Catechism by linking Matt. 28:19f. and Mark 16:16 together and by referring at the same time to Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan.

The Baptism of Christ: A Real Historical Event 

Luther additionally views the instituting of Baptism by the Resurrected One as the crowning conclusion to a real historical event. He takes up the insights from the early Church era in his “Flood Prayer” in the Little Baptismal Booklet and formulates it in such a way as to state that God used the Baptism of “His beloved child, our Lord Jesus Christ, to sanctify and set aside the Jordan and all water for the blessed flood and rich action of washing sins away.” In his Epiphany sermon on Matt. 3:13–17, he interpreted Jesus’ Baptism as His consecration as Messiah and as the onset of His public office. In the baptismal hymn “Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam” (1541), by means of Jesus’ entrance into the water, he lets John’s call to repentance be fulfilled with regard to the coming judge and Savior by referring to the gracious presence of the triune God that has the power to save and to provide comfort. …

The Elevation of Baptism and Communion

Along with the tradition, the reformer also considers that Christ’s Baptism (Matt. 3:13–17 par) and the Resurrected One’s command to go forth (Matt. 28:16–20), along with His sacrificial death (John 19:34; 1:29; 1 John 5:6), root both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Christ’s death on the cross and in His resurrection and that these sacraments become effective only with Jesus’ “elevation” on the cross and elevation back to His Father. “This holy Baptism is acquired for us by means of the same blood, which was poured out on our behalf and which paid for the sins. The blood, and its effect and power, He placed into Baptism, so that one may acquire it thereby.”

Post adapted from Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Baptism and Lord’s Supper copyright © 2012 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

To read more commentary on Luther’s insights into Baptism, order Albrecht Peters’s Baptism and the Lord’s Supper from the Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms series below.

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