Dear Robert: Water, Word, and Infant Faith

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Dear Robert,

I think your response to your friend is good, overall. A few suggestions, though:

The Word of God of which we speak when we say that Baptism is the washing of water with the Word is not a direct reference to Jesus per se. It’s a reference to the Trinitarian formula, which is of course a reference to the God-Man Jesus Christ, Who gave it to the apostles. But it’s important to make this ordered distinction, as the Small Catechism does:

What is Baptism?—

Answer. Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.

Which is that word of God?—

Answer. Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew: “Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

What does Baptism give or profit?—

Answer. It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Which are such words and promises of God?—

Answer. Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

In fine, all answers to the doubting must firmly attest the integrity of Scripture as the theopneustos verbal Word of God, inseparable from Christ’s Person and Work as the Incarnate Word. We have more in common with Baptists here than we do with Barthians. The Bible is God’s Word. Let’s leverage that common bond.

“How much cognitive participation did you have in your first birth?” Pastor James would always ask, rhetorically. This gives voice to the theme of your letter, which I think you develop well. Yet there is a truth that we Lutherans often overlook, even though it is nowhere encapsulated better than in our own teaching. Let me start by sharing this excerpt from Chemnitz:

We by no means grant that infants who are baptized are either without faith or are baptized on the faith of others. The faith of others, indeed, that is, of parents or those offering them, leads children to Christ in Baptism, Mark 10:13 , and prays that they may be endowed with faith of their own. But there is no doubt that, through the washing of water by the Word, Christ operates by His Spirit in children who are baptized, and causes their reception into the kingdom of God, although we do not understand in what manner this is done. For Baptism is the laver of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out upon those baptized, that , being justified, they may become heirs of eternal life, Tit. 3:5 ; Matt. 10:15 ; and this is called the faith of infants. For, as the circumcision of children, in the Old Testament, was the seal of the righteousness of faith, so, because in the New Testament baptized infants please God and are saved, they cannot and ought not to be cast out among unbelievers, but are properly reckoned among believers; though faith cometh of hearing in another way in intelligent, sensible, willing adults, than in infants, not yet having the use of their reason.1

Babies who are brought to the laver of regeneration do not confess the faith for themselves, because they cannot talk. But being brought in the faith of the Church, they do believe for themselves. “Baptism avails for nobody and is to be administered to nobody, unless he believes for himself,” Luther declares in his Gospel sermon for Epiphany III. He goes on:

For the faith must be present before or at least in the baptism; otherwise the child will not be delivered from the devil and sins.

 

Therefore if their [the Waldensians] opinion were correct, all that is done with the child in baptism is necessarily falsehood and mockery. For the baptizer asks whether the child believes, and the answer for the child is: Yes. And he asks whether it desires to be baptized, and the answer for the child is again: Yes. Now nobody is baptized for the child, but it is baptized itself. Therefore it must also believe itself, or the sponsors must speak a falsehood, when for it they say: “I believe…”

 

…Therefore we here conclude and declare that in baptism the children themselves believe and have their own faith, which God effects in them through the sponsors, when in the faith of the Christian church they intercede for them and bring them to Baptism…children are not baptized in the faith of the sponsors or of the church; but the faith of sponsors and of the church prays and gains faith for them, in which they are baptized and believe for themselves….2

Infants brought to the font are dimly-burning wicks that are fanned into flame by the outpouring of the Spirit in the sacrament.​ If one wishes to be dogmatically precise, one should recognize the whole preparatory rite leading up the actual baptism, during which Scripture is read, the exorcism performed, and the Lord’s Prayer bestowed, as the final kindling of the infant’s faith through oral preaching before the “visible word” of the sacrament is administered. Hopefully faith has been engendered through the Word all throughout the term of pregnancy as mother and father not only attend the services of the Church but also as they pray for and with their infant child. But all of this is akin to the merely physical care that mother and father give to an unborn child— birth unto life is the telos of pregnancy. Still, Johann Gerhard has this rather astounding comment regarding infant faith:

One should not wantonly damn or exclude from the fellowship of eternal life the children of Christians who, before they can be brought to Baptism, die in the mother’s womb or are ripped away through an unexpected accident. What pertains to children who die in their mother’s womb is obvious, as follows…through the prayer of their parents and the Church (which in public prays for all the pregnant women), such children have been commended to God the Lord. Therefore, you need not doubt that God (according to His gracious promise about answering prayer, which He has demonstrated throughout Scripture) has heard you in this matter. And what could not occur through the ordained means of Holy Baptism, He has accomplished for these children in an extraordinary manner without means through His Holy Spirit. That He can do this He has demonstrated with the example of John the Baptizer, who was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb, Luke 1:15, and who testified to Christ by jumping, v. 41…

 

God the Lord is not bound to means in the same way that we human beings are so that He cannot help through His divine power without means. For in the same way as we humans are bound to means as pertains to the external affairs of this life, so also in matters pertaining to eternal life we are bound to the Word and the holy Sacraments; contrarily, as God the Lord is not at all bound to means in outward matters (since He can maintain the life of man without food [and] give health again without physicians) so also in matters pertaining to eternal life, He is not bound to the means which He Himself has ordained. Thus, He can make a person saved without [using] them.3

Gerhard articulates a hope here in terms so strong that many think he goes too far, some Lutherans included (though it sounds like your grandma might be a fan). For my part, I cannot judge it, nor do I wish to. Do we know with certainty where miscarried or unbaptized infants go? No. But there is much concerning the faith about which we do not have “certainty” in the modern sense of the word…and that may be an understatement. We are bound to the external Word, but God is not. Is His arm shortened that He cannot save? By no means. Still, we look for Him where He has promised to be and to be gracious to us, not in every box wherein He could theoretically be hiding per His omnipotence. That is putting God to the test, which it is not our prerogative to do. So get the fleece off the lawn, people.

You might also wish to direct your friend to this compendium of Scripture references having to do with Baptism, compiled by Pr Esget a few years back. Some of them are less intuitive, but the less intuitive are some of the best, in my opinion. There are also a few short quotations from some of the early fathers, as well as a number of tombstone inscriptions which clearly attest the practice of infant baptism in the sub-apostolic period.

Would be happy to correspond more on this if you’d like.

 

​Under the +Mercy

TDD

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Appendix: Rite from The Lutheran Agenda (1941) for Burial of the Stillborn; PDF here

 

A READING SERVICE FOR
THE BURIAL OF THE STILLBORN

(Also for the burial of an unbaptized child)

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AT THE HOUSE

BELOVED IN THE LORD: Our Savior says in the third chapter of John: Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. From this truth it is evident that the Lord has bound His Church to the administration of Holy Baptism. But since the Lord has in no wise bound Himself by this ordinance, this word must be understood of such as have had the opportunity to receive this blessed Sacrament and despised it, but not of such as could not receive Holy Baptism. We may well commend such as could not be baptized to the infinite mercy of God. We may confidently hope that God in His grace has received this child unto Himself for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ.

This comfort is also yours for another reason. This child has been presented to God in the common prayer of the Church, and from His own kind and comforting assurances we know that such prayer in the name of Jesus Christ is heard by Him.

Let this, then, comfort you in your sorrow, and may you humbly and willingly submit to the will of God. The Lord grant that you and all of us may continue steadfast in the faith until in His good season we also attain to eternal blessed- ness; for the sake of His dear Son Jesus Christ.

Let us pray: O almighty, eternal God and Father, Thou hast given, and Thou hast taken away; as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are Thy thoughts higher than our thoughts; teach us all to trust in Thee, and strengthen the faith of these sorrowing parents (mother), upon whom Thou hast laid this heavy burden.

Help them (her) to receive this affliction from Thy hand as a chastisement unto peace, so that they (she) may confi- dently believe that Thy ways are goodness and truth. Teach them (her) to depend entirely upon Thy boundless mercy and to maintain this trust that their (her) child, which even before its birth (so soon after its birth) Thou didst call to Thee and which they (she) have (has) for months entrusted to Thy fatherly kindness, was received into Thy heavenly joy even without Baptism, so that it will be returned to them (her) in the resurrection of the righteous. In particular let this affliction serve to keep them (her) in daily repentance, so that they (she) may, in fervent love and true faith, strive for Thy heavenly kingdom, where Thou hast prepared a place also for them (her). Teach us all to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom and here in time make diligent use of the means of grace. Grant that we all may be united in Thy heavenly kingdom, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

Then shall the Minister say

THE BENEDICTION

THE GRACE of our Lord Jesus Christ + and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.

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AT THE GRAVE

When the casket is lowered into the grave, the Minister may say:

THE LORD gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in weak- ness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 Death, where is thy sting? 0 Grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the Law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Minister shall then continue:

FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God, in His wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of this child, We therefore commit its body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself.

Let us pray: Almighty God, who by the death of Thy dear Son hast overcome sin and death and hast redeemed and saved little children no less than others, and hast by His resurrection restored innocence and everlasting life, to the end that we should be delivered from the dominion of the devil, and that by the power of the same resurrection our mortal bodies should be raised up from the dead unto eternal life in Thy kingdom, grant that with our whole heart we may confidently believe this and finally, with all Thy saints, be partakers of the joyful resurrection of the just; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

Then may follow the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction:

OUR FATHER who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ + and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.

 

See also:

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  1. Martin Chemnitz, Loci communes Theologici, III, 160, qtd. in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Locations 12050-12061.
  2. Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Gospel for the Third Sunday after Epiphany,” Church Postil, 26-28, 31, 34.
  3. Johann Gerhard, A Comprehensive Explanation of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, [1610], Trans. Rev’d Elmer Hohle. Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2000; 173-175.

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