Martin Luther on Holy Baptism


Rev. Daniel Preus has been and continues to be a champion of confessional Lutheran theology around the world. To honor his contributions to the church, Luther Academy is preparing a Festschrift in Daniel's honor entitled Propter Christum: Christ at the Center.

For a list of authors, and to take advantage of the pre-order discount ($24.99 instead of $34.99), visit the LOGIA web store by clicking here. This volume will make an excellent addition to any Lutheran's library.

To give you a taste for the fine articles included in the book, here is an excerpt from President Matthew Harrison's contribution, a Luther sermon on Holy Baptism. Keep checking BLOGIA in coming weeks for more excerpts from articles.

MARTIN LUTHER ON HOLY BAPTISM: The Catechism and the Von der Heiligen Taufe Predigten (1534)

—Matthew C. Harrison

Between 18 January and 22 February 1534, Martin Luther preached a series of six sermons on Holy Baptism. The following year these sermons were edited and published in Wittenberg. The editor rather freely arranged these sermons into one extensive sermon,1 entitled Von der heiligen Taufe Predigten.2 Luther, by providing a preface, expresses his approval of the printed version.

In the preface Luther notes his pleasure at presenting a sermon "for the honor of Holy Baptism, which at our time has many enemies." He complains that the Anabaptists are taking up their attack on the sacrament anew, but alas, this is no surprise. They rage against it with the "antichristian, old arch-Anabaptist," the devil himself. And they are "desperately storming dear Holy Baptism on all sides." While eagerly awaiting the return of Christ, by such sermons Luther hopes-though not without injury-that the field might be held for "poor, nichtige Christ Jesus" against the devil and all his (SL 10:2054.1–2055.4).

The time of Epiphany, says Luther, is certainly a very important and appropriate time to preach on the "honorable sacrament of Holy Baptism," which is to be acknowledged and treasured by Christians as their "greatest treasure on earth." Matthew 3:13–17 is the appointed text for the day. Why preach on baptism? So that the people be "well instructed that they do not so poorly regard their baptism." This had been the case thus far, preached Luther, because there had been no preaching and teaching on the sacrament. The result was that baptism had been forgotten and human works put in its place. Indeed, a "shabby monk's cap" was regarded more highly. The devil had worked hard "to remove the right, pure doctrine from the pulpit and place his lies and deceptions in its place." And in this regard the devil has the willing help of the world, which regards what God speaks and does as nothing but "holds and lifts up what the devil says and does as something quite valuable." The goal for the preacher is to present God's "word and work" aright so that Christians learn to esteem it aright. Indeed, baptism is not dressed up in great display, pearls, pure gold; nor is it distributed by powerful, great, highly honored lords and princes. Oh, the world thinks nothing of dipping a child in water or sprinkling it with the hand. "Is this water any different than that which a man uses to wash his feet?" The world, in short, wants its eyes and ears filled, or it holds a thing worthless (SL 10:2056.1–2057.5).

This is certainly an appropriate preface for our consideration of Luther's doctrine of baptism for our time. The following is a summary, translation, and condensation of Luther's "Sermons on Holy Baptism" preached in 1534, printed in 1535. I have collated it according to the various questions on baptism in the Small Catechism. Thus it is really the mature Luther on the catechism's doctrine of baptism. …

This sermon is delightful, vintage Luther. It is blunt. It is forceful. It is to the point. And it is full of comments and commentary eminently useful for preaching and catechesis on baptism today. …

An attack upon the power of baptism—as though it were mere water—is really akin to an attack on the divinity of Christ. For how can a mere man help me in the face of sin, death, and devil? But such words are sub-Christian and tear away something from the entire person of Christ, namely his divinity. Such people will answer to God for making baptism into a "dog-bath" (SL 10:2061.13, 2062.15).

Others are not so coarse. They quote Augustine: Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum. "The word comes to the element and makes a sacrament."3 But they think merely speaking the word is enough, like one speaks a blessing over some creature. Here are some of the great teachers among the papists (SL 10:2063.17).

Some want to be still more subtle and keep the first two parts (water and word) but take away God's command and institution. For this third part they substitute faith so that where a man does not have faith the baptism is regarded as no baptism-as though God's word and work must receive its power from us! "You are baptized, yet since you were baptized as a child and did not believe, therefore your baptism is nothing, etc. This is as much as to say: If you do not believe, God's word and sacrament are nothing; but if you do believe, it is something." Even Cyprian had made a similar error (SL 10:2063.18–2064.20).

But baptism does not belong to the one who baptizes or the one who receives baptism. The words of Matthew 28 and Mark 16 are God's words. In baptism God speaks (SL 10:2065.21). ["Though performed by men's hands, it is nevertheless truly God's own act" (LC IV, 10).] Thus there is to be no rebaptizing of anyone. "Yes, it makes no difference whether I should ever believe at all, baptism is still right and complete; for it depends not upon my belief or unbelief, rather on God's order [Ordnung] and institution." This is so even in the case of a sneaky person who should be baptized though not believing. It is as Paul says (Rom 3:4): "Let God be true and every man a liar" (SL 10:2072.34)….

We do not deny—as do the Anabaptists—the papal baptism, when administered according to the correct command of God. Rather we chastise their doctrine, which destroys faith and right use of the sacrament. "We preach and fight against their blasphemous and cursed doctrine, but we do not deny the baptism we have from them." In fact we do the very opposite, that their "work-baptism" might be replaced by the right use. The Anabaptists cannot separate papal doctrine from the baptism of Christ and so end up damning papal doctrine and baptism. But we do separate these two especially by distinguishing our work and God's work. Baptism is God's doing, faith is our response. "In sum, these two, say I, baptism and faith, should be separated as far as heaven from earth, and as far as God and man are separated from each other" (SL 10:2101.102–2103.104).

God's works remain no matter how they are misused. What we do is uncertain and can serve as the basis for nothing. Thus, in order that baptism be certain it must not be grounded upon our faith, because this is uncertain and can even be false. It is grounded rather on the word of God and his order, so that it has to be truly his and remain and be nothing less even though faith not be there. Thus baptism-contra Cyprian4—is valid even though administered by an unbeliever (SL 10:2103.105–106).

We are not concerned with the hand that administers. For we have here another hand, the hand of Christ himself, "which is entirely pure and holy and makes everything it touches pure and holy." If divine things depended on the holiness of the one doing them, no one could preach, teach, comfort, or rule. "I will not ground baptism on my faith, but rather my faith is grounded and built upon baptism" (SL 10:2104.108–2105.111)….

  1. The macaronic transcriptions of the sermons are found, interposed with other sermons preached during these weeks, in WA 37:258–304. The Weimar Edition numbers them as sermons 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 13 of 1534. For comments on the relationship between these sermons and the printed version summarized in this article, see WA 37:xxix–xxx, xliii–xlv.
  2. SL 10:2054–113; WA 37:627–72; Kurt Aland, Hilfsbuch zum Lutherstudium, 4th ed. (Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag, 1966), reference 713.
  3. Augustine, Tractate 80, on John 15:3 (MPL 35:1840; NPNF¹, 7:344) which reads accedit; LC IV, 18. Luther quoted this saying of Augustine frequently.
  4. Cyprian, “Epistle LXXII. To Jubaianus, Concerning the Baptism of Heretics,” ANF 5:379–86.