Martin Luther’s statements about baptism are often misunderstood, and those who misunderstand them usually misrepresent what he taught. Therefore, let me begin by emphasizing the fact that he never claimed that anyone could be saved apart from faith in Christ. On the contrary, he was emphatic about the necessity of faith in Christ, and made it perfectly clear that “to seek the efficacy of the sacrament apart from the promise and apart from faith [in Christ], is to labor in vain and to find damnation.” (From Luther’s essay, “THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF CHURCH”.)
In order to understand Luther’s views on baptism, you need to begin with what the Apostle Paul taught about the relationship of God’s grace to His promises (see Galatians 3). In short, the Bible makes it clear that God’s grace only comes to us through His promises, and what is promised only becomes ours through faith in Christ (2Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 3:18, 22). Therefore, even though God uses baptism (just as He uses preaching) to give us His promise, it is only through personal faith in Christ that we receive what is promised (Romans 5:2, Galatians 3:14). That is why Luther said, “Even so it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies.” (“THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF CHURCH”) And, that is why Dr. Walter A. Maier (founder of the Lutheran-Hour broadcast) said,
Furthermore, Luther made it perfectly clear as to what promise he was talking about when he said, “The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever man has added to it. For on it all our salvation depends.” (“THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF CHURCH”)
That having been said, it should be clear that Luther saw baptism as nothing more than a ceremonial way of telling the person being baptized that he has forgiveness in Christ. Or, as Lutheran theologian and educator C.F.W. Walther put it “Just as Scripture does not teach (as the simplest Christian knows) that the mere outward act of hearing the Word saves any one, just as little does it teach that the Sacraments save thus. The mere symbol, placed before men’s eyes, does not produce the salutary effect, but indicates what the Word proclaims. We baptize with water, which signifies that Baptism effects cleansing from sin, sanctification, regeneration, and renewal. What I am being told by means of preaching I behold in the external element of Baptism. The Word and the Sacrament produce the same effect in the heart.” (Law and Gospel, page 357)
Luther not only did not teach that baptism would save ex opere operato (that is, by the mere performance of a sacramental act) but he emphatically opposed that doctrine, as the following statement by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery (Lutheran theologian and educator), reveals.
During the Middle Ages someone came up with the idea that the words of consecration somehow empower the sacrament to convey God’s grace ex opere operato, whenever the rite is performed. Of course, that view leaves out the Gospel, namely the good news of forgiveness in Christ. Which is why Luther opposed that doctrine, and why he said, “It cannot be true, therefore, that there is in the sacraments a power efficacious for justification, or that they are effective signs of grace. All such assertions tend to destroy faith, and arise from ignorance of the divine promise” (“Babylonian Captivity”). As a result, true Lutherans have always rejected the idea that “God has joined to the water a spiritual power which through the water washes away sin” (“Smalcald Articles”). However, in spite of Luther’s strong opposition to that error, it crops up from time to time. Of that problem, C.F.W. Walther had this to say:
Pay special attention to the fact that Walther does not say that these men intend to teach the ex opere operato heresy, or are even aware that they are teaching it. Instead, he says that they teach it by giving people the “impression that, in order to get to heaven, it is merely necessary to submit to the act of being baptized.”
While “Luther freely admitted that infant baptism is neither explicitly commanded or explicitly mentioned in Scripture,” and held that “The direct witness of Scripture is by itself not strong enough to provide an adequate basis for beginning infant baptism were it not already practiced,” because he was convinced that it came from the Apostles, and had always been the practice of the church, he defended it dogmatically (“The Theology of Martin Luther”, by Paul Althaus, pg 361). However, as the following quotation from the Encyclopedia Britannica points out, he found it difficult to accommodate his belief that there is no baptism apart from faith in Christ, to the baptism of infants. “To that practice [infant baptism] Luther consistently adhered, but justification of the practice differed at different periods of life. In 1518 he still held that the infant is regenerated and saved through the merit of the faith of its sponsors; in 1520 (De Captiv. Baby. Eccl.) he abandons this view and holds that in Baptism infants themselves believe. If God can turn the heart of the wicked much more can he turn the heart of a child. After 1528 without abandoning the view that infants themselves believe, Luther tends to base his defense upon the scriptural texts Matt. 28:19; Mark 10:14.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1956 edition, volume 3, page 84) The final position that he took was that even if infants did not believe at the time of their baptism, when they came to faith in Christ their baptism would be complete, and the promise “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved,” would be theirs through faith. (See, “The Theology of Martin Luther”, by Paul Althaus, pg 369-370).
Another thing to consider in trying to understand Luther’s position is that he believed that if baptism were limited to adults, Satan would undermine the promise it was intended to convey by claiming that people had to perform certain works in order to make themselves worthy of it. The following statement gives his exact words.
One of the ways in which Luther believed that baptism had been perverted had to do with the widespread idea that works were needed to atone for any sins committed after baptism. Concerning that error he said:
The point that Luther is making in that statement is that if we sin after baptism we need to look to Christ for forgiveness, believing His promise, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Nevertheless, the Church of Rome so thoroughly perverted baptism, that instead of reminding troubled hearts of the promise of forgiveness given to them at baptism, they divorced repentance (penance) from baptism, and turned it into a vain attempt to atone for one’s own sin. In explaining that truth further, Luther went on to say, “Never does [the promise given to us in] baptism lose its power, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation… You have, thus, been baptized once in the sacrament, but you must be constantly baptized again through faith [in Christ].” (“THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF CHURCH”)
Because Luther viewed the promise of forgiveness in Christ as the primary part of baptism, he said, “The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water from this also it derives its name. For the Greek baptizo means “I immerse,” and baptisma means “immersion.” For, as has been said, signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify, or, as they now say, that which the sacrament “effectively signifies.” We shall see how much of truth there is in this… It is indeed correct to say that baptism washes sins away, but that expression is too weak and mild to bring out the full significance of baptism, which is rather a symbol of death and resurrection. For this reason I would have the candidates for baptism completely immersed in the water, as the word says and as the sacrament signifies. Not that I deem this necessary, but it would be well to give to so perfect and complete a thing a perfect and complete sign. Thus it was also doubtless instituted by Christ. The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with Whom, through baptism, he dies and rises again. Although you may properly say that Christ was washed clean of mortality when He died and rose again, yet that is a weaker way of putting it than if you said He was completely changed and renewed. In the same way it is far more forceful to say that baptism signifies that we die completely and rising to eternal life, than to say that it signifies merely our being washed clean from sins.” (“THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF CHURCH”)
Although Luther later translated an ancient baptismal service that called for immersion, he never required immersion, or claimed that baptism was invalid if the water was applied some other way. On the contrary, since faith in Christ is of key importance, he held that those who had faith in Christ had the true baptism, and that their baptism was fully acceptable to God (no matter when or how the water was applied) because God sees no fault in those who trust in Christ.
Because Luther viewed the promise given to us in baptism as the primary part of baptism, he believed that baptism was valid whenever that promise had truly been given. In other words, just as the promise of salvation that is given to you during a sermon, or by reading John 3:16, is always valid whether you believe it or not, the promise given to you in baptism is always valid. Nevertheless, because the forgiveness that is promised to us must be received through faith in Christ, Luther regarded baptism without faith as incomplete, and held that “When faith then comes, baptism is complete.” (“The Theology of Martin Luther”, by Paul Althaus, pg 369).
Furthermore, because the promise is the Word of God, its validity does not depend on the faith, or moral integrity, of the person administering it. On the contrary, “When the pastor says: “I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen,” and not: “I baptise you in my own name.” It is as though he said: “What I do, I do not by my own authority, but in the name and as God's representative, so that you should regard it just as if our Lord Himself had done it… For I hold that “in the name of” refers to the person of the Doer, so that the name of the Lord is not only to be uttered and invoked while the work is being done, but the work itself is to be done not as one's own work, but in the name and as another's representative. (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”)
Although God gives us a great and precious promise of forgiveness in baptism, it would be a mistake to assume that one can have that forgiveness simply by being baptized, without faith in Christ (2Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 3:22). In Luther’s theology, Christ is of primary importance, and baptism is only identical to turning to Christ if it is being used to hold up the promise of forgiveness in Christ, while pointing men to Him as the source of forgiveness (Acts 2:38).