Luther on Personal Faith and Baptism of Infants

This page is a summary of the sermon preached by Martin Luther on the Third Sunday After Epiphany, 1528. The sermon is on personal faith and infant baptism. I initially made the entire sermon available on this site because it has been excerpted, at another site, in a way as to change the teaching of Martin Luther relating to Infant Baptism and the subject of Personal Faith. Unfortunately that file is not currently available so the links to it will not work. I will attempt to reconstruct the entire sermon for reference here.

It is one thing to disagree about a doctrine or practice. It is quite another to misrepresent someone's writings in a way to make them say the opposite of their clear intent. Regardless of how well intentioned one may be, intentional misrepresentation and quoting out of context is deception, even an outright lie, and should not be the practice of believers.

Great Faith: Matthew 8:8

Luther references the great faith of the centurion who does not need the Lord to be present but trusts the word of the Lord to heal. He uses the term alien faith to describe the operation of the centurion's faith to beseech the Lord for the healing of the servant. There is a sense in which the faith of the centurion is responsible for the healing of the servant but Luther insists that salvation can happen only by a personal faith, that "alien faith" can only present someone (e.g. an infant) to the Lord and that the Lord works faith just as He must do in all of us.

Luther insists that the clear "public words" of Scripture that demand a personal faith are foundational. No amount of "reason" or compassion can change the truth of these words. This applies to every class of person, including infants.

Can Infants Have Faith?

Luther insists that personal faith is the only way to be saved, the only way to appropriate the benefits of baptism. There are not several Gospel messages in Scripture, only one and that one Gospel applies to every situation. Others have claimed children cannot believe, not having the ability to reason. If that is true what are their claims about the salvation of infants and children?

The Sophists and Roman Catholic Sects

Infants are baptized without their own faith, they say, and on the, faith of the Church. There is no Scripture for that view. Regardless of which man makes such claims, no matter how educated or held in honor, without Scripture it cannot be certain. When one's soul is at stake, only the clear word of Scripture may be trusted.

They have gone even farther, teaching that the sacraments have such power, in themselves, that even if someone does not have faith, the sacrament provides forgiveness of sins and the work of grace - even without faith.

The Church Fathers

The writings of the Church Fathers do not contain the above errors, but say only that the child is baptized "into the faith of the Church". Without further explanation their words have been used by the sophists in support of their view. Luther claims that this view is falsely ascribed to them and, even if it was true, the Scripture alone must be our source. To trust church councils and the pronouncements of men alone is dangerous, and this view of sacraments a deadly poison. Baptism is exclusively for those who believe and should be administered to no one who does not have faith.

The Waldensians

This sect teaches rightly that one must believe to participate in the sacraments. They err, however in that while they teach that children cannot have faith, they baptize them still. Luther is consistent. If they don't have faith children should not be baptized. The error here is their conviction that children cannot have faith, which Luther believes God works in the children of believers in response to "alien faith", i.e. the faith of their parents and sponsors. If the child has no faith, baptizing him is a falsehood and a mockery. It would be better not to baptize the child at all, if their premise were true that the child was without faith.

Threefold Kingdom Of God

Some seemed to teach a distinction in the Kingdom of God. For them this meant that: "they (infants and children) are baptized, not to be saved thereby and to receive forgiveness of sins; but they are received into the church and brought to the Gospel." There are not two kinds of baptism, one for children that brings them into the church and to the Gospel, another for adults which, by faith, works salvation and cleansing from sin, (Romans 6:1-ff).

Luther's Conclusion and Doctrine

Infants and Children brought to baptism by believing parents and sponsors have their own, personal faith which lays claim to the benefits of baptism. This is the power of "alien faith", not to save someone else, but that through it the child obtains his own faith which is able to save him.

Errors Rejected

Luther rejects the errors taught by the Sophists and the Waldensians, namely:
  1. That infants and children before the age of reason cannot have a personal faith.
  2. That children are saved by the faith of the sponsors.
  3. That children are saved by the faith of the church.
  4. That children are saved by the power of the sacrament.
  5. That in baptism children are brought to the Gospel and the church but are not saved because they lack personal faith.
  6. That there are two kinds of baptism, one for adults and another for children.
  7. That the words of Christ to "Suffer the little children to come unto me" mean spiritual children who are small in humility.
  8. That adult "reason" is necessary for faith.

Truth Affirmed

  1. That Christ commanded us to bring the children to Him.
  2. That infants acquire faith as a gift of God through the faithful intercession of parents and sponsors.
  3. That this faith is a personal faith for salvation (not one of intellectual understanding, comprehension or facts, but the gift of God, Ephesians 2;8-9).
  4. That the Lord's standard is not that of adult intellectual faith, but that adults must become as little children.
  5. That this faith appropriates the blessings of Baptism.
  6. That this baptism is the same baptism for children and adults.
  7. That no one is to be baptized without the belief that they have a personal faith in Christ as Savior but only those we believe to have faith should be brought to Christ.
  8. That there is no salvation apart from a personal faith in Christ, even with baptism. Faith is the hand that reaches into the waters of baptism and retrieves the pearl of salvation.
    [Note: Luther teaches that true baptism is water connected with the Word of God. When properly administered in connection with the Word it is always a Godly baptism, even if the candidate lacks faith. The lack of faith, however, means the benefits of baptism are not appropriated to him. When that person genuinely believes, the benefits of baptism are applied to him, it is not necessary to be rebaptized. Luther is NOT suggesting to baptize someone whom we know to be without faith, he is saying only that the problem is not in the Baptism, but in the lack of faith. How can we know if an infant has faith? We cannot know with certainty, just as as we cannot know whether an adult profession is genuine. With an adult we look at his life and hear his confession, his testimony and on that basis we believe he has faith. With an infant we look at the parents and sponsors, as Luther puts it the "alien faith" and trust God's promises that He receives the children brought to Him and brings them into the Kingdom Of God as He promised.]
  9. That preaching is elevated beyond the reason and the rational thoughts of man. Preaching is not to reach the rational mind, but the spiritual mind. Its effect is to those who have "ears to hear" and not the intellect. It is preaching the Word of God that creates faith, not the exercise of the intellect or reason (which, in fact, are opposed to the foolish notions of faith).
  10. Only in Baptism is it possible to obey Christ to "bring the little children to Him".

Posted on this Site: January 29, 2011