Friday, November 23, 2012

Does baptism save?

Nicholas Leone

I was a Baptist, but after a study of the Scriptures, I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran position on Holy Baptism is the only Biblical one. Most people are offended at the idea that Baptism can save! . . . Baptism in the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from water Baptism. They happen simultaneously."

1 Peter 3:21-22

21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

I don’t usually criticize Lutheran theology. Since, however, a Lutheran commenter has thrown down the gauntlet, I’ll respond. Lutherans are, of course, welcome to criticize my Calvinism. I’m just pointing out that I didn’t initiate this debate.

Before discussing specific prooftexts, let’s make a few general observations:

i) This appeal reflects a naïve understanding of symbolism. I realize some Christians instinctively flinch at the word “symbolism,” as if that’s a weasel word. But this is a principled distinction.

For instance, Paul talks about how we are saved by the cross. Needless to say, he doesn’t mean we’re literally saved by a piece of wood. Rather, he’s using the cross as a symbol for Christ’s redemptive death at Calvary. It’s not the wooden cross that actually saves anyone, but what that stands for.

You can quote NT passages about the gracious efficacy of baptism, but that’s perfectly consistent with a purely symbolic understanding of baptism.

ii) In Acts, you can’t assume that the gift of the Spirit is equivalent to regeneration. Rather, it’s generally used in connection with the charismata. It’s a mistake to filter Acts through the lens of John’s Gospel or Paul’s epistles. 

iii) Lutherans subscribe to infant baptism. But in Acts, the specific baptismal candidates are believers or converts. Promises are made to them if they repent of their sins and believe in Jesus. And they submit to baptism in obedience to the apostolic kerygma. You can’t simply rip that out of its missionary setting and transfer it to babies, as if these are interchangeable parties. 

Keep in mind that I don’t object to infant baptism. But you can’t wrest these passages out of their embedded context and make them refer to something they don’t.

iv) In Scripture, water has three symbolic meanings: (a) a cleansing agent; (b) a destructive agent (e.g. flood waters), and (c) a source of life (e.g. drinking water).

Baptism trades on the natural, varied symbolism of water.

v) What Scripture sometimes attributes to the effect of water baptism, it elsewhere attributes to the effect of faith in Christ. Therefore, it’s logical to view the rhetorical effect of baptism as a picturesque metaphor for the actual effect of faith.

vi) Although it’s customary for Lutherans to prooftext baptism regeneration by citing Jn 3:5 and Tit 3:5, the baptismal referent isn’t a given. Mere aqueous imagery doesn’t single out baptism, for aqueous imagery is commonplace in Scripture.

vii) In Acts, there’s no normative sequence for water baptism and the gift of the Spirit.

viii) They are inherently separable. The Holy Spirit isn’t chained to a ritual. The Holy Spirit is a sovereign agent, free to act at his own discretion (Jn 3:8; 1 Cor 12:11).

To insist that the Holy Spirit must regenerate the baptismal candidate reflects a classically magical outlook. In pagan witchcraft, you can manipulate supernatural forces to do your bidding by saying the right words in the right order, or by doing the right things in the right order.

ix) To use 1 Pet 3:21 as a Lutheran prooftext for baptismal regeneration proves too much. For that would mean whoever is baptized is guaranteed salvation. Yet Lutheranism deems it possible for a born-again Christian to lose his salvation.

x) It’s important not to overload the word “save” in 1 Pet 3:21. This is not a technical term for salvation in the soteriological sense. Peter is punning. There’s wordplay between “salvation” from drowning (v20) and “salvation” by baptism. But “salvation” from drowning means physical deliverance. God rescued Noah and his family from watery death by means of the ark. The word itself doesn’t mean spiritual salvation. That turns on the larger context.

xi) Peter explicitly plays on the symbolic imagery of baptism. Where dirt represents sin, and washing represents forgiveness. In analogy with the flood, he also trades on the destructive symbolism of water. So the rite is emblematic.

xii) As his further qualifications indicate, baptism is a token (“pledge, appeal”) of faith in Christ, and the resultant effects of saving faith. 

xiii) Apropos (xii), Peter is clearly referring to believers or converts who submit to baptism, as an expression of their newfound allegiance in Christ. It doesn’t refer to babies.

BTW, I don’t object to infant baptism. But you must respect the context of your prooftexts. 

xiv) Like Jews who put their faith in the efficacy of circumcision or their physical lineage (e.g. Mt 3), there’s a constant temptation to substitute external rites for faith in Christ. That’s false assurance. There’s no substitute for trusting in Christ from start to finish.


  1. Thanks for your reply. I didn't mean to throw down a gauntlet, but is good for Confessional Protestants to have a healthy discussion on this subject.

    Just to clarify as I did on the last Baptism post, Baptism must be combined with the Word in order to save. We deny the ex opere operato view of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Lutherans consider Baptism to be Gospel in water form.

    1. And what you do mean when you say baptism must be combined with the Word in order to save? When you go on to say baptism is the gospel in water form, I don't see that you're combining baptism and the Word. Rather, you're treating baptism as a nonverbal mode of the Word. One thing rather than two.

    2. I mean that Baptism is not just the water but the combination of the water and the Word.

      I'll have to leave it to others to debate the issue further.

  2. You have yet to explain how they are combined. For instance, infant baptism is the norm in Lutheranism. Does baptism save infants? If so, how is that not ex opere operato?

  3. "Does baptism save?"

    If someone makes a credible confession and profession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but is not baptized prior to dying, do they go to Hell?

    1. No, they would be saved. More about that here:!/2011/06/luther-and-baptismal-regeneration.html

  4. Thank you for your answer to the question above.

    Is it possible for a baptized Lutheran to go to Hell? Or to put it differently, do all baptized Lutherans go to Heaven when they die, simply because they've been baptized, and per Lutheran teaching, baptism saves?

    1. It's possible for someone who has been baptized to fall away. So not all baptized individuals go to Heaven.

  5. Thanks Nicholas for your answers to the above questions.

    Per Steve Hays' blogpost title: "Does Baptism Save?" and from the ensuing comments, we have established the following:

    (1) One can be saved without being baptized.

    (2) One can be baptized without being saved.

  6. I've put up a blog post that goes into some detail about Martin Luther’s Understanding of Baptism.

  7. Baptists and evangelicals are absolutely correct...there is no SPECIFIC mention in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants. There are references to entire households being converted and baptized, but we orthodox cannot prove, just from Scripture, that these households had infants, and neither can Baptists and evangelicals prove, just from Scripture, that they did not.

    One interesting point that Baptists/evangelicals should note is that although there is no specific mention of infant baptism in the Bible...neither is there a prohibition of infant baptism in the Bible. Christians are commanded by Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations. No age restrictions are mentioned. If Christ had intended his followers to understand that infants could not be baptized in the New Covenant, in a household conversion process as was the practice of the Jews of Christ's day in converting Gentile households to the Covenant of Abraham, it is strange that no mention is made of this prohibition.

    So, the only real way to find out if Infant Baptism was practiced by the Apostles is to look at the writings of the early Christians, some of whom were disciples of the Apostles, such as Polycarp, and see what they said on this issue.

    And here is a key point: Infant Baptism makes absolutely no sense if you believe that sinners can and must make an informed, mature decision to believe in order to be saved. Infants cannot make informed, mature decisions, so if this is the correct Doctrine of Justification/Salvation, Infant Baptism is clearly false teaching. But the (arminian) Baptist/evangelical Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is unscriptural. Being forced to make a decision to obtain a gift, makes the gift no longer free. This is salvation by works.

    Baptism is a command of God. It is not a work of man. God says in plain, simple language, in multiple locations in the Bible, that he saves/forgives sins in Baptism. We orthodox Christians accept God's literal Word. We take our infants to be baptized because God says to do it. Our infants are not saved because we perform the act of bringing them to the baptismal font...they are saved by the power of God's Word pronounced at the time of the Baptism. Christians have believed this for 2,000 years!

    There is no evidence that any Christian in the early Church believed that sinners are saved by making a free will decision and then are baptized solely as a public profession of faith. None.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals