Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sacraments (part one): Hashing out Baptism with Martin Luther

Turning from Scripture to the sacraments, a sacrament does not rely on the condition of the minister or the recipient; it is the work of Christ. Furthermore, a sacrament is a sign of God’s grace. The Catholic Church has seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage. It is argued by church fathers that there are different definitions of a sacrament and that it should or should not contain a physical element depending on the definition (Alister McGrath, Historical Theology). For the sake of argument, I will address two out of the three sacraments of the Lutheran Church; since, I agree with the Protestant definition that a sacrament is a sign of God’s grace.

The first sacrament up for discussion is baptism. In all honesty, baptism has never been a central issue in my personal theology, but I’ve avoided it out of irritation long enough and ought to address the subject – so bear with me as I work through this conversation. Baptism is one’s introduction to the church and body of believers. One must be baptized in order to be saved. Additionally, baptism is water combined with God’s Word and command (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism”). I can readily agree to Luther’s idea that baptism is an introduction to the church and that it is water joined with divine word and command. In spite of the fact that I have been baptized, I don’t like that it is contingent for salvation. As a consequence of this view, I remain in tension over the sacrament of baptism, but continue the discussion regardless of tension.

In Luther’s “Large Catechism,” he talks about baptism being the work of God and not a matter of works – that it is an element of the gift of faith. In review of Luther, the gift of faith makes believing in the promise of baptism possible; apart from the faith God has given us, baptism is meaningless. Baptism, like faith, is God’s work alone. Cognitive belief in the idea that baptism only works when it is joined to God is what allows the sacrament to function properly – again, one has to acknowledge that this gift comes from God and, only, God – faith understands the gift of baptism (Luther, “Large Catechism”). One can speculate that baptism is not justification in Luther’s eyes, rather it is sanctification, “But here in Baptism there is brought free to every one's door such a treasure and medicine as utterly destroys death and preserves all men alive” (Luther, “Large Catechism”). In retrospect, baptism appears to be a means of cleansing, also known as sanctifying, one who possesses faith.

By way of conversation with Martin Luther on baptism, I am drawing close to a comfortable position on baptism. First, I recognize that baptism signifies one’s initial belonging to the church. Second, it is the work of God that gives baptism meaning and sanctifies the believer who comprehends that baptism is the work of God alone. Third, I approve of the idea that baptism, like the cross, is a divine work given to those who receive faith as a means of accepting salvation. Fourth, I am apprehensive to support that the lack of baptism, by water, is able to condemn any person; instead, I’m inclined to think that baptism’s role in salvation is one way, but not the sole means of sanctifying the believer.

Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism, which not only signifies such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it. For therein are given grace, the Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new man may come forth and become strong (Luther, “Large Catechism”).

Fifth, baptism is equal to repentance and repentance is the sanctifying response of the divine gift of faith. Sixth, repentance is a return to baptism (Luther, “Large Catechism”). In closing the discussion on baptism, it is faith that prompts repentance and baptism is just the beginning of repentance in the life of one who has faith.

1 comment:

  1. In effort to clarify, early in paragraph two, I restate in my own words that Martin Luther believes one must be baptized to be saved (or so it would appear). Later in paragraph two and again in paragraph four, I state that I have a problem with baptism being a matter of salvation and that it is, "one way, but not the sole means of sanctifying the believer." I hope I've made it more clear that the idea of baptism being a, must, for salvation is a matter of contention for me.