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Holy Baptism

In holy baptism, the triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the church.

The Christian community at worship celebrates God’s gift of baptism in a number of ways. The sacrament itself normally takes place in the midst of the worshiping assembly as a sign that in baptism we are made one with Christ and with the whole people of God. On behalf of the whole church, we promise support to new sisters and brothers, confess the faith with them, and welcome them into the body of Christ. Water connected to the Word—God’s saving promise in Jesus Christ—is at the center of the baptismal celebration.

Although a person is baptized once, the gift of baptism continues throughout a Christian’s life. Instruction in the faith for a life of discipleship is part of the preparation of those who are to be baptized or their parents and sponsors. The ongoing nurture of that faith is part of the congregation’s ministries of formation, education, service, and evangelical witness. (From Sundays and Copyright 2011 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #42903.)

The Church and Infant Baptism

ELCA Lutherans believe that Baptism is the Church’s entry rite. Baptism brings us into the Church, Christ’s living body on earth. As the First Century church baptized whole families, including infants, so do Lutherans. In fact, usually, ELCA Lutherans bring their infants to the baptismal font within the first months – even weeks – of a child’s life. “The fact that circumcision (which occurred on an infant’s eighth day) was replaced by Baptism in Jewish-Christian circles may indicate that infant baptism was assumed from the first” (“Baptism” by Martin Marty).

ELCA theologian Martin E. Marty says that our view of Baptism “… is not only compatible with but actually draws strength from the practice of infant baptism. If baptism is part of what God does, not of what we do, if it is God’s word that shapes, creates, reforms, reaches out, acts and enacts, then the priority does not fall on what we consciously bring. Logically and chronologically the gift of God in Baptism precedes what we take out of it. In Baptism it is Christ who brings the child, holds it in his arms, and receives it as a member of his body. …”

Dr. Marty goes on to say that because of the rich promise associated with Baptism, and because of what God’s inspiring Holy Spirit would surely know about an obedient church’s response to such a gift, one would almost expect biblical strictures against baptizing little children if the promise of baptism was not intended for all people of all ages in all nations to be baptized and thereafter walk in their Baptism. Upholding the ancient church’s practice of baptizing infants, Luther argued that if, “… Baptism is made dependent on faith, we (would) scarcely ever arrive at the assurance of having sufficient faith and thus at the validity of our Baptism. … Baptism … points to the fact that salvation comes only from God.”

Sacramental Baptism – Word and Water

Baptism is one of the two sacraments that mark Lutheran theology and practice, the other being The Eucharist (or Holy Communion). We believe both to have been instituted by Jesus.

Martin Luther defined sacraments as actions whose outward signs point to God’s command and promise. They contain two things:

the Word of God that makes the action or elements a sacrament an outward sign – which in Baptism is the primordial element, the ‘stuff’ of life, water Luther said, “… when the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith is lacking. For my faith does not constitute Baptism, but receives it.”

ELCA theologian Joseph Sittler has said, “A person is drawn to water – to an ocean, a river or a stream – because there is something in him that knows that this if from whence he came. One thinks of the percentage of water in our bodies, the need for water to sustain earthly life, water’s cleansing properties, and the Genesis 1:2-3 account that at creation “a wind from God swept over the face of the water. Then God said, ‘let there be light; …’” (Personal notes from a conversation with Joseph Sittler at a Lutheran Council in the USA staff retreat.)

Dr. Marty says, “Just as the whole language of Calvary presupposes the Old Testament sacrifice of a lamb with blood, so the whole language of Baptism presupposes a biblical interest in water. The Christian says: Baptism is my departure out of chaos into the order of the forgiven life. It is my visitation by the Spirit which broods over the water of life. … In this water I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live, sharing his living water.”

“Word meant the activity and voice of God in the Old Testament. … The Word, says Luther, is everything. Without it – and no Christian would deny this – the water is nothing and Baptism does not exist. … Connection with the Word thus means that Baptism relates a person to the whole plan of God. … This is why the ancient baptismal commands are of considerable importance to moderns who stand in the same need. … ’In the name of the Father’ relates Baptism to the whole of creation – and its water; ‘in the name of the Son’ calls to mind the whole personal relation of the baptized community to God in Christ; and ‘in the name of the Holy Spirit’ means that God takes the initiative, turning the (Word) into Spirit and creating the church.”