One of the first and most important principle, insisted on by our theologians and the framers of our Confessions, is that a passage of Scripture is always to be taken in its natural, plain and literal sense, unless there is something in the text itself, or in the context, that clearly indicates that it is intended to convey a figurative sense.
Again: A passage is never to be torn from its connection, but is to be studied in connection with what goes before and follows after.
Again -- and this is of the greatest importance -- Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. As Quenstedt says: "Passages which need explanation can and should be explained by other passages that are more clear, and thus the Scripture itself furnishes an interpretation of obscure expressions, when a comparison of these is made with those that are more clear. So that Scripture is explained by Scripture."
According to these principles, we ought never to be fully certain that any doctrine is scriptural, until we have examined all that the divine Word says on the subject. In this manner then we wish to answer the question with which we started this chapter: What is written as to the benefits and blessings conferred in baptism?
We have already referred to the commission given to the Apostles in Matt, xxviii.19. We have seen that in that commission our Lord makes baptism one of the means through which the Holy Spirit operates in making men His disciples. In Mark xvi.16, he says: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." In John iii.5, he says: "Except a man" -- i.e., any one -- "be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." In Acts ii.38, the Apostle says: "Repent and be baptized every one of you for the remission of your sins." Acts xxii.16: "Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." Romans vi.3: "Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Christ, were baptized into His death." Gal. iii.27: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." Eph. v.25-26: "Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word." Col. ii.12: "Buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye are also risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God." Tit. iii.5: "According to His mercy He saved us by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." 1 Pet. iii.21: "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us; not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
These are the principal passages which treat of the subject of baptism. There are a few other passages in which baptism is merely mentioned, but not explained. There is not one passage that teaches any thing different from those quoted.
All we now ask of the reader is to examine these passages carefully, to compare them one with the other and to ask himself: What do they teach? What is the meaning which a plain, unprejudiced reader, who has implicit confidence in the Word and power of God, would derive from them? Can he say, "There is nothing in baptism?" "It is of no consequence." "It is only a Church ceremony, without any particular blessing in it." Or do the words clearly teach it is nothing more than a sign -- an outward sign -- of an invisible grace?
Look again at the expressions of these passages. We desire to be clear here, because this is one of the points on which the Lutheran Church to-day differs from so many others. Jesus mentions water as well as Spirit, when speaking of the new birth. "Make disciples, (by) baptizing them." "Be baptized for the remission of your sins." "Be baptized and wash away thy sin." "Baptized into Christ." By baptism "put on Christ." Christ designs to sanctify and cleanse the Church with "the washing of water by the Word." "Washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." "Baptism doth also now save us." The language is certainly strong and plain. Any principle of interpretation, by which baptismal Grace and regeneration can be explained out of these passages, will overthrow every doctrine of our holy Christian faith.
Our Catechism here also teaches nothing but the pure truth of the Word, when it asserts that baptism "worketh forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and confers everlasting life and salvation on all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare." Our solid and impregnable Augsburg Confession, also, when in Article II. it confesses that the new birth by baptism and the Holy Spirit delivers from the power and penalty of original sin. Also in Article IX., "of baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by baptism the Grace of God is offered, and that children are to be baptized, who by baptism being offered to God, are received into God's favor." And so with all our other confessional writings.
The question might here be asked: Is baptism so absolutely essential to salvation, that unbaptized children are lost? To this we would briefly reply, that the very men who drew up our Confessions deny emphatically that it is thus absolutely necessary. Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen and others, repudiate the idea that an unbaptized infant is lost. No single acknowledged theologian of the Lutheran Church ever taught this repulsive doctrine. Why then does our Confession say baptism is necessary to salvation? It is necessary in the same sense in which it is necessary to use all Christ's ordinances. The necessity is ordinary, not absolute. Ordinarily Christ bestows His Grace on the child through baptism, as the means or channel through which the Holy Spirit is conferred. But when, through no fault of its own, this is not applied, He can reach it in some other way.
As we have seen above, He is not so limited to certain means, that His Grace cannot operate without them. The only thing on which our Church insists in the case of a child as absolutely necessary, is the new birth. Ordinarily this is effected, by the Holy Spirit, through baptism, as the means of Grace. When the means, however, cannot be applied, the Spirit of God can effect this new birth in some other way. He is not bound to means. And from what we have learned above of the will of God, toward these little ones, we have every reason to believe that He does so reach and change every infant that dies unbaptized. The position of our Church, as held by all her great theologians, is tersely and clearly expressed in the words, "Not the absence but the contempt of the sacrament condemns."
While the Lutheran Church, therefore, has confidence enough in her dear heavenly Father and loving Saviour, to believe that her Lord will never let a little one perish, but will always regenerate and fit it for His blessed Kingdom ere he takes it hence, she still strenuously insists on having the children of all her households baptized into Christ.
Others may come and say: You have no authority in the Bible for baptizing infants. Without entering fully on this point we will briefly say: It is enough for a Lutheran to know that the divine commission is to "baptize the nations" -- there never was a nation without infants. The children need Grace: baptism confers Grace. It is specially adapted to impart spiritual blessings to these little ones. We cannot take the preached Word, but we can take the sacramental Word and apply it to them. God established infant membership in his Church. He alone has a right to revoke it. He has never done so. Therefore it stands. If the Old Testament covenant of Grace embraced infants, the New is not narrower, but wider.
The pious Baptist mother's heart is much more scripturally correct than her head. She presses her babe to her bosom, and prays earnestly to Jesus to bless that babe. Her heart knows and believes that that dear child needs the blessing of Jesus, and that He can bestow the needed blessing. And yet she will deny that He can bless it through His own sacrament. -- "the washing of water by the Word."
The devout Lutheran mother presses her baptized child to her bosom, looks into its eyes, and thanks her Saviour from the depth of her heart, that He has blessed her child; that He has breathed into it His divine life, washed it, sealed it, and adopted it as His son or daughter. How sweet the consolation to know that her precious little one is a lamb of Christ's flock, "bearing on its body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
But Christian parents have not fulfilled their whole duty in having children baptized into Christ. The children are indeed in covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. But it is their bounden duty and blessed privilege to keep their little ones in that covenant of Grace. Of this more in the next chapter.