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What is the Purpose of Baptism?

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Recently I had the privilege of working with one of our high school youths, Lauren Chumbley, in answering a challenge put to her about infant baptism. Lauren meets with a group of students at her high school for a Bible study and on one occasion a minister from a local church showed up and a debate about the baptism of infants ensued. The episode caused Lauren to do what any serious Christian should, which is to return to the Scriptures and study what God’s Word has to say on the matter. After consulting with me and researching the doctrine of Baptism, she responded to the minister with a thoughtful letter stating the Lutheran position and supporting it thoroughly from the Holy Scriptures. I am including a slightly edited version of her letter below (with all the changes clearly marked in brackets) and I commend it to you for your own study. You too may have been asked to defend this issue to your Baptist or other Evangelical friends and I think you will find much help in this letter to guide your thoughts. I hope studying it will also help you to grow in faith and understanding. Finally, I want to commend Lauren for her courage in speaking out and her serious commitment to God’s Word. I have not met too many teenagers willing to speak out and defend the Biblical faith like she did. Well done, good and faithful servant! -PrS 

Dear [Mr. X,]
What is the purpose of baptism?
According to [you church’s website,] “Baptism is like a wedding ring -- wearing a ring doesn’t make us married, but if we are married it lets the world know that our hearts belong to someone else. In the same way, baptism itself doesn’t change us, but it does let the world know that we’ve been changed by Jesus Christ and that our lives belong to Him.” Additionally, it says, “…the Bible teaches us that water baptism follows our own grown-up and personal choice to put our faith in Jesus Christ.” In regards to baptizing for the purpose of salvation, they note, “While some church traditions teach that the actual act of baptism has the power to cleanse people of their sins, the Bible makes it clear that only faith in Jesus Christ as Savior can cleanse us from our sins and give us a new nature. Baptism does not accomplish anything for us, rather, it celebrates what God has already accomplished for us through the sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son.”

Based on what you have informed me of your opinion on baptism, this would accurately describe your outlook. However, according to Martin Luther, “[Baptism] works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declares.” [Mark 16:16, Titus 3:5-8]

Obviously there is a huge difference between our views.  Let's start with the initial question:  According to the Bible what is the purpose of baptism?

Acts 2:38-39 says, “And Peter said to them, '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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far of, every one whom the Lord our God calls to himself.'”

Let’s break this passage up into two sections - the first being “...repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”

According to Google, the verb “repent” means, “Feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” To repent is to recognize that you are a sinner and to confess your sins, and finally to “be washed by God.” (Lutheran Study Bible). It doesn’t say to baptize to prove your commitment to God, but “for the forgiveness of sins.”

Baptism gives salvation freely to all who believe and are baptized (Mark 16:16). See also: Acts 22:16, John 3:5, Acts 16:30-31.

The second part of this passage says, “...and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord calls to himself.” Salvation is a gift and a promise. It is a gift because we, as sinners, can do nothing to achieve salvation. It is by grace that we are saved through faith, and that not of ourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off…” God doesn’t discriminate because of race or age, but rather, he offers this gift to “all who are far off,” or, in other words, sinners. Furthermore, it shows how God is in complete control by saying baptism is for those He calls to Himself. Notice the active and passive in this situation. We do not come to God, but rather, he calls us (See also: John 15:16). God gives the gift of salvation and we receive. Our baptism is not about our proclamation of faith, but rather, to be saved (Acts 16:30-31).

When, then, should we be baptized?  Some Christians believe that you should “be of age” before you can be baptized. However, Matthew 28:18-20 tells us to “...make disciples of all nations…” Infants and children are certainly a part of “all nations.” In Acts 16:15, Acts 16:31, Acts 16:33, and 1 Corinthians 1:16, whole households were being baptized. We cannot assume that these households contained no children. If the Bible warned us of an “age of consent,” surely it would say it here!  The Bible tells us that we must “Repent and be baptized.” How then, can babies be baptized if they cannot repent? A person of any age can repent when the Holy Spirit enters his heart. See: Ezekiel 36:25-27, John 16:7-13, Acts 11:15-18, Romans 2:4, 1 Corinthians 12:3, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 2 Timothy 2:25.

In the same way, infants and children can believe if the Holy Spirit is with them (Psalm 8:2, Psalm 22:9-10, Psalm 71:5-6, Isaiah 44:3, Matthew 21:16, Luke 1:15). Specifically, in Matthew 18:6, Jesus says “...if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin…” Also, while a mature faith involves knowledge and understanding, saving faith is ultimately trust in the heart.

Historically, infant baptism was commonly practiced in the early church. According to the church father Origen (ca. 185 - ca. 254 AD), the apostles themselves practiced infant baptism, which implies that they received it from the Lord.  In Commentaries on Romans 5:9, it states:

“The church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit.” (AD 248).

Ultimately, baptism a gift from God by grace to all nations to wash away their sins and enter the kingdom of God. Instead of creating a list of requirements to be baptized, we should rejoice in the gift that God grants to all those He calls. God works wonders in the waters of baptism. All the glory goes to God!

Lauren Chumbley

Common concerns about baptism and their responses:

(Paraphrased from Professor Steve Roberge and Pastor Joel Shaltanis)

“There is no explicit example of infant baptism anywhere in the Bible.”  Baptism of children is implied in the New Testament; however, there is no explicit or implicit example of children reaching an age of accountability before being baptized.

“There is no explicit command to baptize babies anywhere in the Bible.”
There is no explicit command to baptize adults anywhere in the Bible. Also, Romans 3:23. 

“Everyone should decide about Jesus Christ and baptism on their own.”  Christian parents are commanded to bring up children in the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

“Children are not accountable to sin until they reach the “age of accountability.”   “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). The fact that children die shows that they are subject to sin just like adults. The Bible never mentions an “age of accountability.” Instead, it teaches that “the whole world [is] held accountable to God.” (Romans 2:19) See also: Romans 3:23, note the word “all.”

“You have to want baptism.” Baptism is a gift, which means you can also reject it, so obviously you wouldn’t give it to somebody who is opposed to it. “Christ does not force the kingdom on anyone, likewise, His church does not force the Gospel on anyone.” (Pastor Joel Shaltanis). Children who are raised in a Christian home are perfectly capable to receive the gift of baptism. For example: Children aren’t asked if they want to be vaccinated. If they were asked, they would likely reject it. Nevertheless, when they are older and understand the benefits of the vaccinations, they are grateful for these gifts.

The Liturgical Year

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When people ask me what is unique about Lutheran worship, I will often respond by noting its Christocentric nature.  That is, everything about Lutheran worship points to Christ, whether in the hymnody, liturgy, texts, preaching, or the shape of the Sunday or the season. One of the ways in which this Christocentricity is manifest is through the liturgical year; beginning at Advent and ending with Pentecost, we not only recall but reenact liturgically the life of Christ, from the Old Testament  prophecies, to His birth, His revelation to the gentiles, Christ’s life and ministry, Holy Week and the resurrection, and finally His ascension and the establishment of the Church through the coming of the Holy Spirit. The church year is not simply a recounting of the events, but it is dramatized and given chronological structure which accords with historic events. The ancient Church Fathers called this active remembering “anamnesis,” which isn’t simply a passionless, passive, accounting of events, but a dynamic entry into the narrative, almost as if we were spectators or participants at the time. The increasing darkness of the Tenebrae service on Good Friday defies explanation—describing its character through each successive reading cannot convey the meaning of the service with its darkness coupled with the narrative of Christ’s suffering. To quote a cliché, “you just have to be there.” And this is how it is with the liturgical year. It communicates Christ’s life in a dramatic and chronological way.

This month brings us to Pentecost, the establishment of the Church, and Holy Trinity Sunday, which is technically not part of the church year established around the life of Christ, but the placement of which immediately following Pentecost provides for a convenient point to end the festival part of the church year—i.e., that part of the church year based on the life of Christ. The non-festival half of the church year, then, begins after Holy Trinity and deals with theological themes. The color of the paraments during this time is green, symbolizing the growth of our faith. Although there are some cycles, the readings each Sunday may not continue the thought from the previous week as they do during the festival, chronological half of the church year. Such is the meaning of Christocentricity—instead of just talking about how Christ is central to our Church and its teachings, we actually live and experience it.
Benjamin Kolodziej
Director of Music