Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The term “necessary” does not typically evoke thoughts of ambiguity.  Either something is necessary or it is not.  For example, if an instruction booklet says it is necessary to do step A prior to step B, one will not typically attempt to do step B prior to step A.  This might entirely ruin the project.  Moreover, when one uses the word “necessary,” one does not usually feel the need to qualify it with modifiers like “absolutely.”  And yet, in the realm of theology, some have found it necessary to determine whether or not certain things that the Sacred Scriptures define as “necessary” are in fact “absolutely necessary.”   In particular, the topic of Holy Baptism is usually subjected to this peculiar use of words.  Many Lutheran theologians will laud Baptism as “necessary for salvation,” but not “absolutely necessary.”

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?

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. 
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:

“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.”


  1. Daniel,

    We know positively that people have been saved apart from baptism...Enoch and Elijah were taken directly, Moses appeared along with Elijah and the glorified Christ at the transfiguration, Abraham in the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus, the thief on the cross. As we well know from the great Justification debate, we can't base doctrine on isolated passages, but rather on the sum teaching of all of Scripture. So, while it is true that unless a man be born of water and the Spirit, etc., it is also true that faith comes from hearing the message, etc. The point here is that the Word alone generates and sustains faith, whether that Word be spoken, read, or linked to the elements in the sacraments of baptism and communion.

    About faith looking forward to a desired baptism, golly gee, that sounds an awful lot like the intuiti fide of the Election Controversy a while back, and you know how that one turned out. However, if a person is at the point where he desires baptism, I think it's a good bet saving faith has already been worked in him simply by hearing the message.


    1. Daryl,

      Thanks for the comment! I wholly agree that the Old Testament saints were saved prior to Baptism - it wasn't even instituted yet! But they had other things and types of Baptism which we no longer have - circumcision, the passage through the Red Sea, and even the Great Deluge.

      I understand the tendency to not want to base an entire doctrine off of an isolated text. But the sacramentarians lodge the same claim against us when we assert the plain meaning of Christ's Words: "This IS My Body." How much plainer could "he cannot enter" be?

      Finally, I think the intuitu fidei charge is a bit of a red herring (incidentally, I hold to intuitu fidei, but not in the sense that the fidei is a work of man). I am NOT saying that man desires Baptism of his own accord. I am saying that a Spirit-worked faith will desire Baptism because it trusts God's Word, thus trusting the promises ascribed to Baptism. Does that make sense? Faith surely comes from hearing the message. But what is the message? "Baptism now saves you."


  3. watch the video "Baby Talk Theology"

  4. We change Christ words when we rationalize various theories on how a man could enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. I firmly believe that every old and new testament saint who enters the kingdom of God receives a prior baptism. How Almighty Christ accomplishes this for His saints who do not receive a church baptism is not revealed to me by scripture but I truly believe the words of Christ and accept the clear testimony of our Lutheran Confessions, "Of baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation" AC, IX

    Daniel Gorman

    1. Well said Mr. Gorman, I could not agree more.