An Examination of Baptism as Sacramental Theology and not merely an ordinance or ineffective rite of the Church.

Is Christian Baptism an ordinance – a law given by God to be observed – or a sacrament – a divinely instituted means of grace? While the nature of Christian Baptism can be hotly contested in the modern church context, by turning to the witness of the ancient church, the writings of the fathers, and examining the Scriptures themselves with a careful exegetical eye and consistent hermeneutic, one can see that Christian Baptism is a Divine Sacrament, instituted by God, and conferring on his church the gift of faith, the forgiveness of sins, and new life.

To begin with the end, Christian Baptism is a sacramental act.1 In order to understand this concept of Christian Baptism, one must first look at the view of Baptism within Holy Scripture. There is a specific pitfall here that must be avoided: The conflation of Christian Baptism with other, connected, but non-baptismal ideas, such as belief or faith. The Christian is often tempted to ignore the profoundly clear teaching of Scripture on Baptism because of an errant belief that these Scriptures, if taken at face, conflict with scriptures about faith or belief.

Jesus commands the disciples in the Gospel of St. Matthew to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”2 The first step in understand Christian Baptism is to understand the essence of this command.

The Zwinglian and more anabaptist view of this command is to take it as steps to be accomplished by the Christian. The first item on the agenda of Christian Evangelism is to make disciples. Once those pagan rebels are made to be followers of Christ, knowledgeable in matters of faith and doctrine,3 having had repented of their sins, and are able themselves to make a profession of faith,4 then at that point they are baptized.

Reverend Brian Thomas says that a better construction of the Words of Christ is to read them as causal rather than linear5. In this reading the subconscious injection of then is substituted by the subconscious injection of by. Rathan reading the words of Christ as saying, “Go and make disciples, [then] baptizing them […],” the words are read, “go and make disciples [by] baptizing them […].” To quote Thomas directly, “According to Jesus, disciples are made through baptism and catechesis.”6

Further, the view of Christian Baptism as strictly an ordinance must be renounced by any faithful Christian because the Scriptures themselves take a much higher view of Baptism than as a mere command. Saint Peter says in his first epistle that “baptism now saves you.”7 Lest his reader think that he’s being metaphorical, Peter goes on to say that Baptism is not a simple washing of dirt from the body, but actually clears the conscience before God.8

In an astonishing twist, Peter says that the Ark of Noah, a historical event that happened, is actually the metaphor and that Baptism itself is the literal event of Salvation for the believer! Why would He make such a bold claim about Baptism if it was nothing more than a “first act of obedience”? 9

It’s a truly amazing picture that Saint Peter here paints. Often the only way around the clarify of this passage to use the language of ‘sign and seal’, and to say that Peter is being rhetorical to clarify just how symbolic of the reality baptism is. Except that argument doesn’t make very much sense.10

If Baptism is a method whereby we are given a clean conscience before God, is this the only gift that Baptism gives to us? Further, if Christian Baptism confers no gifts to the Christian from God, then why would God command such an action?11 God plans everything with purpose and ordains events such that they work to the good of the faithful.12 Why, then, would Christian Baptism suddenly be different and not confer any benefit to the believer? God would not command a useless action.

Holy Writ also takes time to specify the method and manner that Christian Baptism is to be performed. We know that it is to be done with water 13 and we know that it is to be done in the name of Jesus.14 If God gives these specifics to His church for the mode and method of Christian Baptism, it would stand to reason that Christian Baptism is more than an empty ritual performed with no effect on the believer. It should be understood implicitly that if Christian Baptism is to be administered in a specific way and with specific conditions, that it must then confer some kind of specific grace or blessing to the believer. If it did not, then why would God be so specific in Scripture with the administration and application?

The astute believer will realize that these questions lead to some very specific ideas about the nature of Christian Baptism; that Baptism, if it is not pointless, is our divine entrance into the Kingdom of God. As Kristin Graff-Kallevåg so succinctly states, “baptism is a rite of drastic communal transition whereby one leaves all other cultures behind and enters into

this one true culture of God.”15 Baptism is our rebirth spiritually into a community of believers that act and behave differently than the rest of the world. And just as you can only be born of your mother the one time, so also, there is only “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” 16 as Christians have confessed since Nicea.

Though this leads the Christian to ask (and rightly): If we are saved by faith, why are we given this command of baptism to obey? What purpose must it serve if everything is accomplished through faith and the “sinner’s prayer”?17

The Christian must contend with modern ideas of faith, however, in this view of Christian Baptism. Specifically, he must contend with the view, coined first by that great and most esteemed of reformers, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, OSA, Sola Fide.18 That is, the Christian is saved by Faith Alone, and “not through works, that no one may boast.” 19 The natural conflict here is to assume that baptism is a work of the believer. Yet it is not. Baptism is always and everywhere in scripture a passive act done to the believer, and not an active work that the believer must himself do.

The Christian must understand that He is saved by faith through baptism. That is to say: Baptism is vehicle which delivers to faith and forgiveness of sin to the believer. St Paul himself, in his great sermon in Acts, recalls that he was baptized by Annanius specifically that his sins would be washed away. 20 As Doctor Das puts it, “[Saul] was to receive the desired forgiveness through baptism.” 21 If a homeowner were having friends over on Halloween, and having purchased some candy to pass out, instructed his guests to pass out the candy, they could not take credit for candy the children received. Likewise, neither could the children be credited as the active force in the candy-giving process. They mearly received passively the gift of candy from a representative of the home owner. So it is with baptism.

This dovetails nicely with scripture, in that, in Holy Writ, Christian baptism is always displayed as a passive act that is done to the catechumen, not by the catechumen. Such a distinction is helpful for the Christian considering this topic. It is not he who baptizes himself, but rather he who is baptized by another. And that Christian should never forget why he is baptized, as scripture points out, for the forgivenss of sins. 22

The efficient cause of Christian Baptism, then, is always understood to be God. It is not the priest that has such great power, that he can unilaterally declare your sins forgiven. Nor is it the water, that through some magic and unknown means, can wash away the unwashable. No, scripture clearly teaches that it is Jesus who forgives sins, 23 and that he does so through washing of regeneration,24 which is baptism. And He does so of His own will and participation, and not of the unbeliever’s will. As Francis Peiper puts it, “No one will for a moment doubt that God is the sole causa efficiens conversionis as long as he bears in mind what constitutions the forma conversionis.”25

The Christian understands, then, that baptism is not just a symbolic washing, but one of regeneration. It is not just that a Christian is symbolically buried with Christ, but that, in baptism, we are truly taking part in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. 26 Saint Paul plainly states in his letter to the Colossians that, “In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of your sinful nature, with the circumcision performed by Christ and not by human hands.”, showing that Christian Baptism is not a rite performed solely by some priests, but that it is a work of God Himself, the Godman Christ, who circumcises us through water in the spirit.27

In fact, when reading through the Holy Scriptures, the Christian should be careful to note that every passage that speaks of Baptism includes with it the promise of salvation. Moreover, one should note that there are many promises about regeneration that tie themselves to baptism using less obvious language, such as “washing of the water and the word,” 28 and “being born of water and the spirit.”29

This only makes sense when considered in view of the entire Biblical narrative. Throughout all time, God Almighty has worked through physical means. The Christian studying baptism would do well to remember the Passover, wherein a real lamb was really boiled and really eaten by real people; wherein Naaman was a real man with real leprosy who really dipped himself into a real river seven times; wherein Melchizedek was a real priest of the Most High God, who truly gave Abram a real meal consisting of actual bread and wine.

If the Christian is to truly understand the sacramental efficacy of Christian Baptism, he must not understand it in a vacuum, but rather must endeaver to understand it in its right and proper Biblical context. In the Bible real things happen with real people. They actually do things, eat things, participate in things! 30

When considered within the view of sacramental theology, one can see that baptism is passive participation in the act of salvation, that God alone delivers Himself to the Christian. It is through this Means of Grace that the Christian has faith delivered to him. It is to be understood that God alone delivers his own gifts to His Church in the manner and method in which He chooses, and that His Bride is not in a place to contradict or attempt to correct Him on the matter.

However the discerning Christian will note that there are often logical Trolley Scenarios in which one may perhaps be a Christian without receiving a Christian Baptism before an untimely death. Such ideas should be treated as the last vestiges of a dying anabaptist theology. The Christian understands that God can do what He wills, and save whom He wills, however He wills. His freedom, however, does not give the church license to act apart from His command. The church must always seek to meet God where He promises to meet her: In the Word and the Sacraments. When a person with strong Sacramental Theology states that “baptism saves”31, the hearer of such a statement should not automatically insert words into the statement. It is a downfall of the human nature to hear a phrase such as “Baptism saves” and interpret it as, “only baptism saves.” For it is understood by the Christian that the phrase “Baptism Saves” is shorthand for “God Saves through Baptism.”

However since God is the one doing the saving, it is ultimately up to Him to save how and where He wills. To wit: If God chooses to save someone without baptism, that is His prerogative. 32 This does not give license to the Christian, however, to assume salvation is and can and should be found outside of those means and methods promised in scripture.

The Christian should always look to find his salvation in the place that God has promised to bring it to him. Cheifly, the place God meets His Church is in the Sacraments. Individually, He promises to meet every Christian at the Baptismal Font, where He will give them new life, and a new name not known to anyone, 33 and seal them with a mark that identifies them as His own.34

When considered in the context of the entirely of scripture, the physicality of Salvation cannot be ignored. The Christian must then, necessarily, view baptism as more than a mere command. God would not command something that offered no benefit, just as He did not command Israel to paint lamb’s blood on their door posts for no reason. Neither would God give us something if it did not come with the gifts that He wanted us to have. The biggest hurdle for the Christian to overcome, in these matters, is the idea that faith must somehow be separate from the physical Means of Grace. On careful reflection the Christian will realize that physicality and faith go hand-in-hand unquestioned throughout scripture. It must be realized that it is the Devil who seeks to keep the Christian from understanding the blessings of Christian Baptism. 35

Baptism is a Sacrament of the Church of God that delivers to the Christian the forgiveness of sins, faith, and life everlasting. Therefore every Christian ought to be baptized, and every person ought to be baptized that they might become a Christian. “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt.”36

Calvin, Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1541. Translated by Anne Elsie. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Concordia Publishing House. The Lutheran Study Bible. Edited by Edward A. Engelbrecht. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Das, Andrew A. Baptized into God’s Family: The Doctrine of Infant Baptism for Today. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 2008.

Graff-Kallevåg, Kristin. “Baptism in a Secular Age.” Dialog 56, no. 3 (2017): 251-259.

McCain, Paul Timothy, W H T Dau, and F Bente. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Morales, Isaac Augustine. “Baptism, Holiness, and Resurrection Hope in Romans 6.” The Catholic Biblical Quartlery 83, no. 3 (2021): 466-481.

Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics Vol 2. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1951.

—. Christian Dogmatics Vol 3. St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.

Rosebrough, Chris. What the Bible Teaches About Baptism & How the Earliest Christians Understood These Biblical Texts. Oslo, MD, August 2013.

Schmid, Heinrich. The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961.

Thomas, Brian W. Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines That Divide. Irving, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2015.

Hippo, Saint Augustine of. “The Confessions, Book 10.” Logos Virtual Library: Saint Augustine: Confessions, X, 29. Logos Virtual Library, 1999. Last modified 1999. Accessed June 19, 2022.

  1. A sacrament is properly understood, according the Lutheran Confessions, as any element that is instituted by Christ, requires a physical means of conveyance, and offers for the Christian the forgiveness of Sins. The Confessions themselves list either two or three sacraments: Baptism, The Eucharist, and Confession & Absolution. The only one in debate is Confession & Absolution, where Lutherans often get into heated discussions about whether or not the voice of the pastor counts as a ‘physical element’. Likewise, Lutherans reject the remaining 4 or 5 institutions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as sacramental. While Marriage, Ordination, and other μυστήριο are certainly sacred in nature, they do not conform to the Lutheran definition of Sacrament, in that they contain no physical elements, and do not confer the forgivenss of sins, and so must be rejected as sacramental. ↩︎

  2. Matthew 28:19 ↩︎

  3. The true essence of μαθητής in such a context is not merely a believer, as St. Luke suggests in his biography of the Christ, but an active believer who knows and does things. ↩︎

  4. A phrase that appears nowhere in scripture. ↩︎

  5. Brian W. Thomas, Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines That Divide (Irving, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2015), 62. ↩︎

  6. Ibid. Emphasis added. ↩︎

  7. 1 Peter 3:20-22 ↩︎

  8. Ibid. ↩︎

  9. A phrase that appears nowhere in scripture. ↩︎

  10. The Reformation Study Bible, a reformed resource, explicitly speaks again and again about how Peter’s use of literal language here is done specifically to show just how symbolic he’s trying to be. Except that doesn’t make sense. Why would Peter risk the church misinterpreting that verse? Which, if he was being symbolic, the church did, in fact, do, for about 1600 years. Peter says twice the same verse, “Baptism saves you” (and later ‘it saves you’, with the referent being baptism). Yet the reformed position always seems to be to ignore the obvious statement in favor of language about signs and seals. ↩︎

  11. Such gifts will be discussed later in the paper. However, this author would hope the reader is given pause at these questions. Why on earth would God command us to do something that doesn’t do anything for us? What, then, is the point? If the point is simply a test of faith, it is redundant considering that Christ promised us we will face trials and persecutions. And the author of this paper would argue that, as a test of faith, it is the weakest and most easily faked. If the point is to be a confession of faith, then it would also seem to lack in real meaning. It is easy to be baptized at church in front of a gathering of people who want you to be baptized. It is much harder to stand for Christ when no one else around you is doing so. Surely confessing with your lips in the presence of pagans under threat of persecution is a better confession of faith than being dunked in front of multitudes of fellow believers who wish to see that very act. ↩︎

  12. Romans 8:28-29 ↩︎

  13. Method of aquatic application seems to be irrelevant. Βαπτίζω would indicate, according some, the necessity of submersion. However, we can see the word used in various other contexts of ritual clensing, including of household objects where submersion would be impractical (think: couches). Thus it is enough for this author to conclude that baptism simply refers to the act of Ritual Washing. That is, baptism is simply the ritual application of water, not the application of water in a specific method during ritual. ↩︎

  14. The name of Jesus, as specified in Acts 2:38 is widely regarded as Luke’s shorthand for the Trinitarian Formula. That is to say, “This does not negate the need to be baptized in the trinitarian formula.” (Concordia Publishing House 2009) ↩︎

  15. Graff-Kallevåg, Kristin. “Baptism in a Secular Age.” Dialog 56, no. 3 (2017): 253 ↩︎

  16. Paul Timothy McCain, Dau W H T., and F. Bente, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2006), 16. ↩︎

  17. A concept that is found nowhere in scripture. ↩︎

  18. The name of the author’s calico cat, funny enough. ↩︎

  19. Ephesians 2:9 ↩︎

  20. Acts 22:16 ↩︎

  21. A. Andrew Das, Baptized into God’s Family: The Doctrine of Infant Baptism for Today (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2008), 14. ↩︎

  22. Acts 2:38 ↩︎

  23. Mark 2:7, Luke 7:49 ↩︎

  24. Titus 3:5 ↩︎

  25. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics Vol 2 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1951), 457. ↩︎

  26. Colossians 2:12 ↩︎

  27. Colossians 2:11, This is such a great mystery for the Christian. Here we see that Christ clearly is the one doing the work. We see in the passage, if we read through to verse 12, that Paul here has baptism in view (“having been buried with him in baptism). Yet we often find it so hard to accept this spiritual thing because we understand Paul’s argument of a spiritual circumcision. So we are left as Christians to square the circle: How can a physical baptism enact a spiritual circumcision? This is a great mystery of God, that He has chosen to attach such a wonderful and incomprehensible promise to something so simple as water. ↩︎

  28. Ephesians 5:26 ↩︎

  29. John 3:5 ↩︎

  30. The source here is honestly the old testament. Moses didn’t consider the command to write the ten commandments on stone to be allegory. Neither did Noah simply paint a picture of a boat, or imagine a great flood, to understand the salvation of God! The Israelites didn’t pretend at the Passover. They actually coated their doors in literal blood! Salvation can very often be viewed as participation in the ways God has ordained for us to participate. It goes beyond the scope of this paper, but no one would say that Noah saved himself, yet no one would say that Noah did not participate in God’s act of salvation. There is a mystery here, wherein our will mingles with the divine in a way that we cannot comprehend. And yet it results in our benefit and works to our good. This is all to say: Why would the fulfilment be less than the shadow? God had Christian believers in the Old Testament participate in the sacramental acts of their salvation (the Ark, Naaman in the Jordan, etc). Why would God, suddenly, in the New Testament, not have any sacramental or salvific participation from His people? A shadow is less real than the physical form that casts it, and inversely the physical form has a corporeal realness that the shadow can never possess. If the Old Testament is shadow of the New, how can we expect the New to somehow be less physical? We simply cannot. ↩︎

  31. 1 Peter 3:21 ↩︎

  32. This author is reminded of a scene from the popular show Parks & Recreation, wherein Ron Swanson shows up to a park with a live pig that he plans on slaughtering, cleaning, and barbequing there in the park. A police officer confronts him and informs him that he can’t do that. Ron responds by providing a permit to the officer. The permit, it happens, is nothing more than a blank piece of paper on which Ron has written, “I can do what I want.” In this same way, when pose these sorts of ‘Trolley problem’ like situations to God, we are taking the role of the park police officer. God simply responds by pointing out that He’s God and He can do whatever He wants. ↩︎

  33. Revelation 2:17 ↩︎

  34. Revelation 9:4 ↩︎

  35. The devil seeks only to “steal, kill, and destroy.” Going about his way, he does whatever he can to blind the Christian to the comforting truth of the Gospel that can be found in baptism. Instead of “fruit checking” or wondering if you love the word enough to constitute election in your own eyes; instead of trying to figure out if you really meant it when you said the sinner’s prayer, Christian Baptism offers you an object reality outside of yourself to which you can look and know that, in those waters, God met you and washed you clean. Regardless of how you feel, what you’ve done, you can know for sure that God met you where He promised to meet you. It is the work of Satan to remove this comfort from the Christian life. ↩︎

  36. Hippo, Saint Augustine of. “The Confessions, Book 10.” Logos Virtual Library: Saint Augustine: Confessions, X, 29. Logos Virtual Library, 1999. Last modified 1999. Accessed June 19, 2022.↩︎

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