For the longest time, I bought into this theologizing hook, line, and sinker. Of course all that is necessary for salvation is faith, right? After all, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” or so the Blessed Apostle says in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He doesn’t say “by grace through faith in Baptism.” Or does he?
In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul says that we were “ buried with Him in baptism, in which [we] also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God.” So Baptism is the Means by which we are buried and raised with Christ through faith. But isn’t it possible to have faith outside of Baptism? After all, Holy Writ cites a number of examples where people believed in Christ and later asked to be baptized, not to mention the fact that in earlier days the Church waited to baptize catechumens for a significant period of time, presumably long after they came to believe in Christ as their Savior. Surely these people would be saved if they died prior to the Holy Bath.
If we look at Christ’s words in the Holy Gospel according to St. John, His message is very clear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Of course, this is what Christ REALLY meant: "one can enter the kingdom of God in extraordinary circumstances where the birth by water and the Spirit is not available." Right?
This is what many theologians would have us believe. And it surely is a comforting thought. I would love to say that the many infants who die without Baptism are saved. I would like to think that the millions of indigenous people who were brutally slaughtered by European colonization might be saved. But is that what the Lord says? “I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He does not seem to leave much room for ambiguity.
This leads me to a WELS Q&A Article that was recently brought to my attention, with which I am in full agreement. I will reproduce the question and its answer here:
If a baby dies before it is baptized, what happens to that baby's soul?I think the first paragraph is the most important part to keep in mind when considering whether or not Baptism is “absolutely” necessary. Christ says “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” We should not venture beyond these clear Words. Can God create faith in a heart without Baptism? Well, God can do anything. But consider the Blessed Reformer’s words in his Large Catechism:
Please allow me to share one of the major principles that we follow in our faith-life: if the Bible is silent on a particular subject, we resolve not to manufacture an answer and offer it as God's Word. Although it may be frustrating, we sometimes do not have an answer that satisfies our interest or curiosity because God has chosen not to reveal sufficient information on a particular subject.
This is what we know. The Bible clearly teaches that ALL people, from conception on, are sinful and have inherited guilt in addition to a sinful nature that rebels against God. By nature we all stand under God's judgment. The Bible also teaches that only God with his divine love and power is able to rescue us from that horrible situation of alienation from him. He provided a Savior or Rescuer from sin and guilt, namely, his Son Jesus Christ. And he gives us the gift of faith (trust, reliance) in Jesus that personally receives the blessings Jesus earned for us. The Bible also tells us God chooses to create and maintain saving faith in Jesus through the gospel (good news) that he brings to us in the Bible and Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is an instrument that God uses to give people (including infants) spiritual life to replace spiritual death.
But what if an infant for some reason dies without being baptized? The Bible doesn't provide an explicit, direct answer to that question.
We are aware of the child's sinful nature, and that might make us pessimistic about the child's future. We also are aware of God's love for that child and his knowledge of the circumstances that prevented baptism. That might make us optimistic. We wouldn't deny that God could have created saving faith in the child aside from the gospel and baptism. But the bottom line doesn't change, does it? The Bible does not provide explicit information on this subject nor enable us to give a 100% happy and comforting answer for those who have lost an unbaptized child. We must leave this in God's hands.
“Faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it.”
In this context, it seems that saving faith inherently clings to Baptism. Now, is it possible for faith to cling or "look forward" to a desired Baptism, in the same way that Old Testament believers "looked forward" to the coming Christ? It would seem so. Thus, what some call a “Baptism of Desire” may be possible. I personally hold to this opinion. St. Augustine believed that it was possible for Martyrs to receive a “Baptism of Blood” if they were killed prior to being baptized. That is certainly a laudable opinion. But that's all these ideas are: pious opinions. Sacred Scripture is silent, so we should not attempt to dogmatize one way or the other. We should simply say what Christ’s clear words say:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”