Well, now that I have your attention…
Through a series of connections and through the marvel of Facebook, I became personally acquainted with a Baptist thinker and blogger I have admired for some time. During an introductory phone conversation with ample teasing about the peculiarities of our historic confessions, I mentioned that I did evangelism to college students in our congregation’s neighborhood. Sometimes we hand out flyers for a class; sometimes, I sit at a table with a sign on it inviting the students to either “convince me to give up Jesus” (if they are unbelievers) or “convince me to become Christian” (if they are believers.) He then asked me, “Oh, so what is your goal with those college students? To get them baptized?”
The question gave me pause. As I try to be deliberate in my thought and speech, I pondered the question and all of the possibilities that could flow from it. Given that these are mostly 20-something college students and Lutherans baptize infants, I first thought, “Well, if they have already been baptized, then no, it wouldn’t be my goal to baptize them but to catechize them or ‘confirm’ them if that was needed and desired.” My second thought was, “Well, if a nonbeliever comes to me and has never been baptized, then, you bet!” Baptism of an adult convert is certainly a joy, the kind of thing pastors feel good about amidst the difficulties and failures of their call.
But soon, it became apparent that he was reacting to an article he had run across in a Lutheran theological journal of some kind, I believe published by Concordia and thus on the “conservative” side of things. I don’t know what article it was, but it certainly sung the praises of baptism from an orthodox Lutheran perspective. One way or another, right or wrong, good or bad, it left that Baptist with the sense that Lutherans had too high a view of baptism and had elevated it almost to a point of idolatry. While we have worked hard since 1939 to rid of “cheap grace” (thanks Dietrich!), that was exactly what he heard from that Lutheran in talking about the gifts of baptism.
I know the exact feeling he had. I’ve had it myself. Indeed, there were two seminal moments when I began to privately get irritated at how Lutherans taught and spoke about baptism. The first was during seminary when I was discussing the ordination of practicing homosexuals with a gay friend and classmate of mine. (This was pre-2009, when openly gay pastors were not yet welcome onto the ELCA roles, and yes, this was an ELCA seminary.) My friend essentially argued that by virtue of his baptism, there were no serious distinctions any more that would preclude ordination. “Neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free”… etc. etc.
In other words, while Lutherans do not limit baptism to merely a rite of Christian initiation, the ontological aspect of it, whereby we are saved and we are made children of God, came to be a vessel for cheap grace and a lack of discipline in the church for other rites, like ordination, consecrations, etc. Baptism became the lever by which the scripture could be turned in on itself. I decided then that if that’s what Lutherans thought baptism was, we had it all wrong. Of course, this argument (or this kind of argument) won the day in 2009 as discipline and biblical authority went out the window on the back of such pious language.
The second moment was with the publication of the “cranberry” hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Much ink has already been spilled about the shortcomings of that hymnal, notably the option of being “thankful” for your baptism rather than confessing your sins. It was just grace, grace, and more grace because God is good and we’re all good, too. I’m not the first person to ask what it is that we’re thankful for if our own sin isn’t first acknowledged and confessed. (And describing in the sermon the various “isms” that plague society – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – doesn’t cut it when we’re trying to connect our sin and our baptism. It just makes the pastor the worst kind of virtue signaler of our day.)
So as a confessional Lutheran who was baptized at under 2 years of age and is in regular contact with Baptists, I wanted to know how to defend baptism without these weak and pious-sounding slogans that theological liberals have adopted. This forced me to consider why Luther held such a high view of baptism in the first place and to think about the differences between his context and ours.
It seems to me that Luther was not arguing for baptism being any kind of permission slip, but he was arguing the for the grace it really did benefit the Christian who was oppressed under Rome’s never-ending sacramental cycle. Because Rome’s refusal to agree with Paul and Luther (among others) that man really could be justified by faith through grace alone, Luther had to stress the real ontological change that took place in baptism (1 Peter 3:21) so Christians could be comforted by this good news. He had to destroy the need for purgatory, indulgences and whole system that Rome perpetuated. And baptism was his key to doing so. So yes, Luther loved baptism for all of its precious benefits, but also because, at that time, it was his chief weapon against Rome’s “anti-Christ”-like refusal of grace to God’s people.
But like Paul with his fictitious accuser in Romans, Luther would say “God forbid” if baptism came to be seen as cheap grace rather than an entrance to the faith that would still require daily repentance on the part of the believer. (Hello, first of the 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Did you hear that ELW?)
To bring it all home, then, am I doing outreach to college students to get them baptized or what? The short answer is, if they have not been baptized and if they repent of their sin and trust in the Lord Jesus, after appropriate Bible and catechism instruction and support from my council, then “Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes!”. But if there is a decided lack of repentance, my answer is, “Hell no.” (Literally.) John was a preacher of repentance. Jesus was a preacher of repentance, too. How dare we be any different!
No matter how exalted our view of baptism is as Lutherans, we still do believe in repentance, right? For the Christian and the non-Christian alike, right? No matter how great baptism is – and it is indeed great – it is great for the repentant. But do we dare say it benefits the non-repentant? Its benefits are available to the non-repentant, sure. But not received, and therefore are of no benefit.
It seems to me we had better be clear about that in our preaching, teaching, public writings and conversations with our Baptist brothers. I realize a preacher of true grace sounds antinomian from time to time and we should be accused of cheap grace from time to time. But we shouldn’t actually teach cheap grace.
Let us as Lutherans remember the context in which Luther lifted up baptism! It was to an oppressed, overly-religious people caught in a non-biblical system. In our context, we will meet individuals in a similar system. But more often than not, we meet those who are way too self-assured. And before we offer them baptism like “cheapjacks’ wares”, we should call them to repent and believe in the good news of Christ. I mean, it is okay if Lutherans do that, right? Right?