Baptism: God’s Work Upon Us

Joshua Eckstein | Unsplash

By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

A number of years ago I was invited to speak at a Pentecostal seminary in Germany and make the best case I could for infant baptism, which was, as you might well imagine, not just unfaithful but downright unintelligible to my audience. The fact that I represented Lutheranism did not make my task any easier, since they were acutely aware of the historic Lutheran church’s dislike of “free churches” — though I can’t say that, as an American, I felt much inclined to admire state Protestantism politically or theologically anyway.

But by this time I had learned a thing or two about voluntary or “believer’s baptism” in the churches that espouse it, so I began my talk by asking how many of the people present had been baptized in water. All of them raised their hands. Hardly surprising.

Then I asked how many had been baptized in water twice. Result: fully half of the crowd of over 100 students raised their hands.

Then I asked how many had been baptized in water three times. Four or five people raised their hands.

Four times? Just one person — who promptly explained it was because she’d “been living in America at the time.” So much for my illusion that escaping the state church/free church tension solves sacramental problems.

Still, I pointed out that, whatever you might think about infant vs. believer’s baptism, there is not one single case of rebaptism in the New Testament. The oft-misinterpreted situation in Acts 19 deals with Ephesian disciples who had received John’s baptism but not Jesus’. Paul ferrets out the insufficiency when he discovers that these John-baptized disciples hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit, much less received him. As a result, at Paul’s initiative, the Ephesians received Christian baptism for the first and only time.

From there I moved into more familiar Lutheran territory, laying out the conviction that baptism is primarily God’s work upon us, not our work for God. That’s the real crux of the difference between infant and believer baptizers: not age, but who the primary agent is. If God is the primary agent, then there is no reason not to baptize infants, and compelling reasons to do so — not least Peter’s declaration on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:38–39a), and the later bald assertion that baptism saves (1 Pet. 3:21).

When I was wrapping up, my interpreter turned and interrupted me. “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he remarked, “but I think now that actually you Lutherans take baptism more seriously than we do.” I didn’t disagree.

It would be self-serving, however, to conclude on this triumphalist note. I’d like to think that my fellow Lutherans, and all my fellow Christians who baptize infants because we take the sacraments to be God’s work upon us rather than our work for God, universally take baptism with utmost seriousness.

Alas, this is not so. It’s just that our failures are a bit more hidden than the overt act of rebaptism.

For over ten years now I’ve taught an annual course on Luther’s theology in Wittenberg, Germany, for pastors from all over the world. I remember one particular pastor from Sweden — famous for being the least-believing nation in the world, despite membership in the official Lutheran church remaining rather high — describing, at the outset of our two weeks together, her ministry of baptism. As a rule, she reported, her baptismal candidates were infants presented by their parents, whom she’d never seen before and never expected to see again. But it gave her great joy to baptize these children anyway. After all, what is grace but to give the things of God with no requirements or strings attached?

At the end of our seminar, having immersed herself in Luther’s writings on grace, faith, law, gospel, and indeed baptism, this same Swedish pastor observed ruefully that maybe there was more to grace than a drive-by sacrament without faith, without church, and quite frankly without God.

I know by now how deeply embedded is a certain abstraction about grace that finds the mere suggestion that more ought to be required for baptism as offensive, legalistic, and the first step into the very revivalist Christianity that results in unbounded rebaptisms. The short rebuttal to this is to immerse yourself in Luther and see if he doesn’t talk you out of it. But a more immediate response is that it is exactly this kind of careless, cheap-grace administration of infant baptism that gives rise to rebaptism. You can’t stop the latter without also stopping the former. This is truly an ecumenical all-team effort.

Historically, after all, the Anabaptist movement arose in objection to the universal infant baptism of all subjects of Christian kingdoms, which did a poor job of cultivating disciples. In a way, the medieval church had already passed judgment about the inadequacy of baptism, shifting the locus of attention from the sacrament that everybody received sheerly for the sake of escaping hell to the vowed life of priest or monastic.

Yet for all that is said and taught about Luther’s reforming work, it has been all but forgotten that he also reformed baptism. Not by reassigning it from infancy to adulthood, or shifting the locus of attention from divine agency to human agency. Rather, by making it the foundational act of God’s saving work in this particular human life, upon this particular human body, at this particular moment in time.

Grace is not abstraction but concretion: water and trinitarian name applied by God himself through the medium of the pastoral ministry (or, in a pinch, the midwife). Just like physical childbirth occurs only once, so does the spiritual rebirth of baptism occur only once. But it is to be taught again and again, and Christians are to return to it — to the historic fact of God’s action upon them — in all times of doubt and need. “But I am baptized!” Luther’s anguished soul is instructed to protest against fear and guilt. “And if have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body” (see “The Large Catechism” in The Book of Concord, edited by Kolb and Wengert, p. 462).

If that is what is at stake in baptism, then both careless parodies of grace in infant baptism and faithless repetitions of it in rebaptism are ruled out of court. Your baptism matters enormously because it is what you turn to, in the story of your own life, as the source and renewal of your faith and discipleship. Neither a half-hearted enactment of cultural ritual nor a frantic effort to feel it and desire it enough to deserve it will see you through.

In my decade-plus talking through baptismal theology and practice with the pastors in Wittenberg, I always found that faith and grace and justification and all the rest really came into focus only when we talked about baptism, and baptism came into focus when we worked our way through case studies. If baptism is of ultimate importance in this person’s life, then the pastoral task is to make the right judgment call on, for instance, whether a real baptism has already taken place, or how to administer an as-yet not-done baptism under difficult or confusing circumstances. Over the years I collected many case studies from the pastors, and early in 2021 I realized it was time to put both the theology and the cases, with judgments on each included, in front of a wider audience.

The resulting To Baptize or Not to Baptize: A Practical Guide for Clergy breaks down baptismal case studies into three broad categories. The first is validity: assessing whether a putative baptism really is a baptism. So, for example, since Christian baptism is performed “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” then an act involving water and another name such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” is not a Christian baptism. But then again, a baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” administered in a Mormon setting with Mormon beliefs about the nature of God and grace, doesn’t get a pass for using the right name, any more than a Jehovah’s Witness baptism does, for neither group baptizes as the Christian Church does.

The second section of the book deals with “integrity of witness.” The question here is not whether the baptism is valid — in all cases, I assume it is — but whether the administration of that baptism takes place in circumstances that contradict or militate against baptism, rendering the whole act incoherent (and quite possibly leading to a choice for rebaptism later in life).

The automatic baptism of infants of unbelieving parents in state and folk churches certainly qualifies as a valid baptism that fatally undermines itself. But so does private baptism, which treats baptism as a family matter and judges the Church as an unnecessary add-on to the gospel, rather than the matrix in which the gospel reaches private individuals to draw them into the Church. So does virtual baptism, which deletes the very baptized body that is to be raised on the last day. So does destination baptism, in the Jordan or elsewhere, making the water more important than anything else, and so does novelty baptism — most egregiously, to my mind, applying the water with a squirt gun to maintain social distancing. It’s one thing to be crucified with Christ; it’s quite another thing to be shot by him.

The third and final category dealt with questions about safety and permission. It’s appalling to consider that anything should stand between God and those on whom he wishes to bestow baptism. But sometimes other parties intervene, with consequences that can’t be dismissed lightly. Pastors from Islamic nations are forbidden to baptize Muslims on pain of imprisonment or death, so what are they to do when asked to baptize anyway? Or what if they suspect that the request for baptism is an insincere attempt to trick them into a punishable offense? What if a child or teen wants baptism but the parents forbid it? These are but a few of the real-life dilemmas that pastors must be prepared to parse.

Widespread baptismal malpractice means that all of us are going to face uncomfortable conversations sooner or later. But it can be done, and the grace that follows after such discomforts superabounds to the good of the whole church. For on baptism, as Luther says, “God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might” (Book of Concord, p. 458).

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson serves as associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church in Japan. She hosts the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad” and writes a quarterly newsletter, “Theology & a Recipe.” Find out more about these and her books at To Baptize or Not to Baptize is available at all online sellers, or go direct to to learn more.


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