I was reading Luther's Larger Catechism, and I came upon the section where he discusses the sacraments. I must confess, as a Baptist with a profound respect for Luther, some of these concepts are very foreign to me.

I remember one part in particular where he wrote that one cannot be saved apart from being baptized.

In the second place, since we know now what Baptism is, and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn why and for what purpose it is instituted; that is, what it profits, gives, and works. And this also we cannot discern better than from the words of Christ above quoted: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. 24] Therefore state it most simply thus, that the power, work, profit, fruit, and end of Baptism is this, namely, to save. For no one is baptized in order that he may become a prince, but, as the words declare, that he be saved. 25] But to be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ, and to live with Him forever.

..and Regarding infants

But if God did not accept the baptism of infants, He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them; in short, during this long time unto this day no man upon earth could have been a Christian.

I also remember reading that it does not matter the worthiness or manner in which the sacraments are given, so long as they are given in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (if I have mis-remembered something please correct me but please do not allow it to serve as a distraction). The important thing was invoking the name of God, whereby the sacraments become efficacious to the point where even an evil "Pastor" would be able to administer the sacraments and it would be effective still.

Hence it is easy to reply to all manner of questions about which men are troubled at the present time, such as this one: Whether even a wicked priest can minister at, and dispense, the Sacrament, and whatever other questions like this there may be. 16] For here we conclude and say: Even though a knave takes or distributes the Sacrament, he receives the true Sacrament, that is, the true body and blood of Christ, just as truly as he who [receives or] administers it in the most worthy manner. For it is not founded upon the holiness of men, but upon the Word of God.

From this now learn a proper understanding of the subject, and how to answer the question what Baptism is, namely thus, that it is not mere ordinary water, but water comprehended in God's Word and command, and sanctified thereby, so that it is nothing else than a divine water; not that the water in itself is nobler than other water, but that God's Word and command are added.

It seemed as though Luther's "faith alone" was not in the work of Christ, but rather the sacraments, and the work of Christ was the means whereby the sacraments derive their qualification for being "made effectual" by the name of God.

Therefore I exhort again that these two, the water and the Word, by no means be separated from one another and parted. For if the Word is separated from it, the water is the same as that with which the servant cooks, and may indeed be called a bath-keeper's baptism. But when it is added, as God has ordained, it is a Sacrament, and is called Christ-baptism. Let this be the first part, regarding the essence and dignity of the holy Sacrament...

...Comprehend the difference, then, that Baptism is quite another thing than all other water; not on account of the natural quality but because something more noble is here added; for God Himself stakes His honor, His power and might on it. Therefore it is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water, and in whatever other terms we can praise it,-all on account of the Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word, that no one can sufficiently extol, for it has, and is able to do, all that God is and can do [since it has all the virtue and power of God comprised in it]. 18] Hence also it derives its essence as a Sacrament, as St. Augustine also taught: Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum. That is, when the Word is joined to the element or natural substance, it becomes a Sacrament, that is, a holy and divine matter and sign.

I don't know how to ask the questions in my mind. I want to understand this concept, but I just cannot fathom it right now because it is so radically different to my own viewpoint. Could someone provide a broad overview of this soteriology and perhaps link to the pertinent parts of the confessions Lutherans hold (Formula of Concord, for instance)? I will read the confessions more in depth at a later time, but for now I am at a very beginning point in studying Lutheran theology.

My intent is to learn, not to offend. If I have stated something so incorrect that it could be an insult, it is because of my ignorance of the topic. Please forgive me in advance. All of the above quotes came from Luther's Larger Catechism, http://bookofconcord.org/lc-6-baptism.php

  • Not to many people really understand Luther's mind in this. I am not Lutheran but I am sure you have got him wrong on this one. Seems to be a popular misunderstanding these days.
    – Mike
    Jun 19, 2012 at 16:24
  • Here's an excellent short article on the Lutheran attitude toward baptism (pdf) by one of the preeminent Swedish Lutheran theologians of the 20th century, Bo Giertz. Just the title of the article will give you an idea of how Lutherans do theology.
    – user2147
    Sep 10, 2012 at 17:37
  • For anybody coming into this question years after I've asked it, recognize that neither of the 2 answers posted to date are correct. Read the Lutheran confessions, part of which is the large catechism (bookofconcord.org). Dec 22, 2015 at 12:59

2 Answers 2


I had the same thoughts you did until I understood Luther more.  The thing with Luther is that he most certainly believed you are saved by faith only and that even baptism was not necessary. Having said that he puts such weight on Baptism that it almost seems that 'if there was anything needed beyond faith' baptism would be it.  You must not blame Luther for his fear of breaking away from Baptism.  

His idea was Different then yours and mine. He thought there was a lot of power in Baptism so that many children could have faith when they were baptized.  It was not about saying faith was not enough, it was about not wanting to take that away from children. For example, Luther said:

If baptism is not right, that is, without value or help to the children, then I would be guilty of no greater sin than the Word of God had been spoken and his sign given in vain. I would not be responsible for the loss of any soul, but only of an ineffectual use of the Word and sign of God.

But this God would easily forgive me, since it was done in ignorance and more than that out of fear. I did not invent it. It came to me by tradition and I was persuaded by no word of Scripture that it was wrong. I would have been unwilling to do it, had I been convinced otherwise. It would be very much as when I preach the Word, also according to his command, among the unbelieving and without fruit, or as it is said, cast pearls before swine, or holy things to the dogs [Matt. 7:6]. What could I do? Here, too, I would rather sin in preaching fruitlessly than in refusing to preach at all. (Luther's Works Volume 40, P254). 

So you see Luther was uneasy to entertain a break from the Catholic church on this point.  The second main idea with Luther, is that he saw Baptism as something that could be like a woman marrying someone they do not love.  A woman may get married without love, but then after falling in love their is no need to remarry. This is because the marriage rite was performed properly.

But a baptism on the Word and command of God even when faith is not present is still a correct and certain baptism if it takes place as God commanded. Granted, it is not of benefit to the baptized one who is without faith, because of his lack of faith, but the baptism is not thereby incorrect, uncertain, or of no meaning. (Luther's Works Volume 40, P253)

Now just to be clear this is the real Luther we all know and love:

This is what we think. When the Holy Spirit makes us aware of the work of Christ and of his merit, outwardly through the gospel and inwardly through his gift, when he bestows this merit upon us and causes us to believe in it, then this faith is nothing else than a living trust and confidence in the merit that Christ has bestowed upon us. We rely upon it from the bottom of our hearts, without doing any works of our own. We are confident that it is not our own works but the work and merit of Christ that destroys our sins, overcomes death, and swallows up hell. This means that no work is required in order to believe in God or to have a true and living faith. (Luther's Works Volume 36, P301-302)

On the subject of believers who die before being baptized, Luther, even with his high view of baptism says:

If a person can’t have access to the sacrament (baptism), faith is enough, according to that word, ‘Your faith has made you well’ [Matt. 9:22]. On the other hand, if he can have it, he should not despise it. (Luther's Works Volume 54, P459)

So in summary, Luther never thought of it as adding something to works.  In fact he accused Anabaptists as making baptism a work, for not trusting that faith coming after baptism was good enough.

This is really the key to setting this subject right.  The Anabaptists and Lutherans were actually the same in many ways , they just did not realize it yet, among those violent changing times. As far as the Anabaptists and Luther go in history, they had more in common then history might make it appear.

  • Wow, great information. Jun 19, 2012 at 19:26

Fascinating question. I would be careful to connect modern Lutheranism with what Martin Luther believed. Martin Luther developed over time. Also, I view this question as Luther's sacramentology, not soteriology. Section 29] of the Larger Catechism seems to well-distinguish between the Water of Baptism being a seal of the promise of God unto salvation, but is not salvation itself. Never believe that Lutherans or Martin Luther believe in a form of Baptismal Regeneration.

Where as Roman Catholic doctrine sees sacraments as a means of communicating grace the modern Lutheran view sees them more as symbols of the promise of God. See section 35] of the Confession that talks about Baptism being God's work, not ours. It speaks of Baptism of Christ being necessary for faith, and it is the faith that accesses salvation. The sacrament of baptism is distinguished from Christ's Baptism.

It is interesting that Luther viewed Sacraments as a part of God's Word. It's a very different view than the Reformed view which sees Sacraments as Signs and Seals only. Not without power, but certainly not as powerful as Lutheran's appear to view them. Sad-to-say, I am far from an expert in this. :)

I highly commend to you the Beggars All blog. Jim Swan, who runs it, has impressed me with his study of Luther. I doubt I've done a great job of representing the sacraments here, but the links should be useful.

  • Hi, Sam. I've edited the question title to reflect good points that you make regarding the question. I guess my current position is that I understand that Luther believed in the sacraments as the Word of God combined with physical means, but I'm looking for a defense of this in order that I may understand it better. I don't see how Luther arrived at this position (other than it is a relatively small shift from his former Catholic thinking), and I want to so I can make an informed judgement on it. Jun 8, 2012 at 11:39
  • Also, thanks for the blog posting. I hope to listen to the audio today. The writing is very well done. Jun 8, 2012 at 11:40

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