Luther Contra The Anabaptists: The Ground Of Baptism Is The Divine Command And Promise

Beginning in 1528 and 1529, Luther developed his primary defense of infant baptism. Without repudiating his earlier position on infant faith, Luther appealed instead to infant baptism as grounded on God’s gracious promised attached to the sign and God’s command to baptism with that sign. Luther denied that one should baptize because of the faith of the baptismal candidate. Such was Luther’s basic position in the Large Catechism and especially in Concerning Rebaptism (1530), after he saw that radical reformers such as the Anabaptists took the demand for faith and declared that there was no sacrament without faith. Those baptized as infants, they argued, received no baptism at all, and they needed to be baptized when they did profess their faith.

In Concerning Rebaptism, Luther argued that the mistake the Anabaptists made was to ground baptism in human faith. That one should have faith was indeed true, but to ground a baptism in the presence of human faith was to commit a grave error. First, said Luther, baptism was God’s activity. Our faith may come and go, but God’s promise and command to baptize always remain. Baptism was still baptism, even if it was incorrectly received, because our impropriety could not negate God’s work any more than bad faith by the Israelites could negate the covenant. “Abuse does not take away the substance,” said Luther, following a scholastic dictum; “rather it establishes the substance.

Second, Luther argued that faith itself cannot be proved. “Have now they become gods,” Luther challenged the Anabaptists, “that they can see in people’s hearts whether they believe or not?” Receiving someone’s confession, Luther said, is “neither here nor there” because

[t]he text does not say ‘Whoever confesses,’ but ‘Whoever believes.’ To have someone’s confession is not to know their faith… Therefore, whoever grounds baptism in the faith of the one to be baptized, can never baptize anyone. Even if you baptized a person a hundred times a day, in now way would you know whether he or she believes.

Lorenz Grönvik has given a helpful analysis of Luther’s baptismal theology in dialogue with his varied opponents. Grönvik has show that, for Luther, the divine word of promise (Verheißungswort) and human faith were intimately connected in his baptismal thinking, and the promise, as God’s promise, was also bound to the institutional sign of the promise. There was, therefore, a double aspect to Luther’s baptismal theology: The sign was one aspect, and the human faith that grasped the promise offered through the sign was the other aspect.

John W. Riggs, Baptism in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Practical Theology. Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 28–29.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. When I was considering the P&R position on baptism as a credobaptist, one of the things I had to begrudgingly accept is what Luther here says i.e. “Have now they become gods,”
    In effect, I had to realise that the credo-baptist position assumed itself to be in the possession of archetypal knowledge via the baptism candidate’s own self-conception.
    For me, the shift from credobaptism to paedobaptism was the unfounded epistemological claims underlying the credobaptist position.

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