In the third place, it is said, as I also have read, that they base their faith on this verse, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16]. This they interpret to mean that no man should be baptized before he believes. I must say that they are guilty of a great presumption. For if they follow this principle they cannot venture to baptize before they are certain that the one to be baptized believes, How and when can they ever know that for certain? Have they now become gods so that they can discern the hearts of men and know whether or not they believe? If they are not certain if they believe, why then do they baptize, since they contend so strenuously that faith must precede baptism? Are they not contradicting themselves when they baptize without being certain if faith is there or not? For whoever bases baptism on faith and baptizes on chance and not on certainty that faith is present does nothing better than he who baptizes him who has no faith. For unbelief and uncertain belief are one and the same thing, and both are contrary to the verse, “Whoever believes,” which speaks of a sure faith which they who are to be baptized should have.
You say, I know, that he confesses that he believes, etc. Dear sir, confession is neither here nor there. The text does not say, “He who confesses,” but “He who believes.” To have his confession is not to know his faith. With all your reasoning you cannot do justice to this verse unless you also know he has faith, since all men are liars and God alone knows the heart. So whoever bases baptism on the faith of the one to be baptized can never baptize anyone. Even if you baptized a person a hundred times a day you would not at all know if he believes. Why then do you carry on with your rebaptizing, since you contradict yourself and baptize when you are not sure that faith is present, and yet you teach that faith must most certainly be present. This verse, “Whoever believes,” altogether opposes their rebaptizing, since the verse speaks of a certain faith. They base their rebaptizing on an uncertain faith, and in not a syllable do they follow the meaning of the verse.
I say the same thing about the baptized one who receives or grounds his baptism on his faith. For he is not sure of his own faith. I would compare the man who lets himself be rebaptized with the man who broods and has scruples because perhaps he did not believe as a child. So when next day the devil comes, his heart is filled with scruples and he says, Ah, now for the first time I feel I have the right faith, yesterday I don’t think I truly believed. So I need to be baptized a third time, the second baptism not being of any avail. You think the devil can’t do such things? You had better get to know him better. He can do worse than that, dear friend. He can go on and cast doubt on the third, and the fourth and so on incessantly (as he indeed has in mind to do), just as he has done with me and many in the matter of confession. We never seemed able to confess sufficiently certain sins, and incessantly and restlessly sought one absolution after the other, one father confessor after the other. Just because we sought to rely on our confession, as those to be baptized now want to rely on their faith. What is the end result? Baptizing without end would result. All this is nonsense. Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can base baptism on a certain faith. This verse of Scripture is far more a judgment on them than on us. And these are the people who don’t want to trust the men who are witnesses of their baptism, but now as men are ready to trust themselves that they are baptized as if they were not men, or as if they were more certain of their faith than the witness of Christendom allows.
So I contend that if they want to do justice to this passage, “Whoever believes,” according to their understanding, they must condemn rebaptism much more earnestly than the first baptism. Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can maintain his position, for both are uncertain of their faith, or at least are in constant peril and anxiety. For it happens, indeed it is so in this matter of faith, that often he who claims to believe does not at all believe; and on the other hand, he who doesn’t think he believes, but is in despair, has the greatest faith. So this verse, “Whoever believes,” does not compel us to determine who has faith or not. Rather, it makes it a matter of every man’s conscience to realize that if he is to be saved he must believe and not pretend that it is sufficient for a Christian to be baptized. For the verse does not say, “Whoever knows that he believes, or, if you know that anyone believes,” but it says, “Whoever believes.” Who has it, has it. One must believe, but we neither should nor can know it for certain.
Martin Luther, Concerning Rebaptism in Luther’s Works, Vol. 40: Church and Ministry II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 40 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 239–41.
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