Friday, September 21, 2012

Were the Reformers Heretics? part 1

I. Introduction

            Modern Baptists generally share with Protestants a very high view of the doctrine and practice of the Protestant Reformation and its leaders.  The movement is generally considered a great return to the fundamental truths of the gospel of Christ and a repudiation of the errors of Romanism.  The infallible Bible, the sole and sufficient authority for the Christian’s faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:16-17), teaches that by means of the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), God justifies or declares righteous all who in repentance (Luke 13:3) trust in the blood of the Redeemer (John 3:16;  Romans 5:1).  This is the gospel.  Justification is received simply by faith in Christ, apart from good works (Ephesians 2:8-9) and religious rituals, including those ordained by God (Galatians 2:16; 5:4-6), such as believer’s immersion (Romans 6:1-7) and the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).  All who have been justified are eternally secure (John 10:27-30).  Those who believe or teach a false gospel will be eternally damned (Galatians 1:8-9), and heretics must be rejected (Titus 3:10).  The Protestant Reformers and the movements they originated constitute no exception to this declaration.  Their teachings must, therefore, be evaluated in light of the gospel and the other truths of the Bible.[i]

II. The Reformers’ Views of Baptism

            Medieval Catholicism held that “the . . . merit of Jesus Christ is applied, both to adults and to infants, by the sacrament of baptism rightly administered in the form of the church . . . infants, newly born from their mothers' wombs . . . are to be baptized . . . for the remission of sins, that in them that may be cleansed away by regeneration, which they have contracted by generation. . . . . If any one denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted; or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away; but says that it is only rased, or not imputed; let him be anathema.”[ii]  Martin Luther retained the Roman Catholic teaching of baptismal regeneration, including the regeneration of infants through the instrumentality of baptism.  He called baptism “a new birth by which we are . . . loosed from sin, death, and hell, and become children of life, heirs of all the gifts of God, God’s own children, and brethren of Christ.”[iii]  The Lutheran Small Catechism affirms, “baptism effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.” (IV).  The binding Lutheran symbol, the Augsburg Confession, states that “baptism . . . is necessary to salvation” and “condemn[s] the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without baptism” (Article IX).  Luther led Lutheranism to teach that all the unbaptized—including all unbaptized infants—are eternally lost, and to anathematize those, like the Anabaptists, who taught otherwise.[iv]  However, Luther made a number of adjustments to the Roman teaching.  Rather than baptism actually cleansing the soul from sin, it brought about the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  It was also not necessary to baptize with water—beer would also serve the purpose.[v]  One wonders if immersion in beer would have been preferred to sprinkling or pouring;  at least when using water, Luther did prefer immersion.[vi]  Furthermore, the sacrament of baptism was the vehicle of conveying faith to infants, so that infants were actually saved by faith, indeed, by faith alone, at the point of baptism:
According to Luther, the soul is not actually cleansed from sin, either in baptism or at any time in this present life.  It is rather that sin is not imputed.  Negatively, the baptismal cleansing is a non-imputation of original and actual sin.  Positively it is an imputation of the perfect and all-sufficient righteousness of Jesus Christ.  For Luther baptism was still the sign of remission, and under the Holy Spirit it could still be the instrument of justifying faith, but his whole conception of the relationship had broadened and deepened [in comparison to medieval Catholicism].  It had broadened:  for the remission could now extend to the whole life of a Christian.  And it had deepened:  for it was a remission in spiritual rather than in quasi-material terms, in the terms of a righteousness of faith rather than a righteousness of sight and works. . . . The restoration of regeneration to much of its original meaning and honour as the chief grace of baptism was largely the work of Martin Luther.  Luther did it by relating regeneration directly to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the entry of the Christian believer into that resurrection. . . . The traditional teaching [on baptism] was necessarily opposed by Luther, who denied an ex opere operato efficiency of the sacrament and insisted upon the need for faith.  Yet Luther did not draw the conclusion that there are no effects of baptism in infants, for as we have seen he maintained boldly that infants do have faith, and he challenged his opponents to prove the contrary.[vii]  What this faith was for Luther it is difficult to say with any precision.  Sometimes he spoke of it rather as the absence of a hostile disposition, or even as an infused gift.[viii]  Whatever it was it enabled infants to enjoy the baptismal benefits of remission and regeneration.  The benefits themselves, however, were understood evangelically as remission by non-imputation and the regeneration of faith, so that no place was left for the familiar causal conception.  The same was true in the case of Melanchthon, who in reply to the Anabaptists claimed for infants a definite remission of original sin by virtue of the sacramental ministry.  But again the remission was understood evangelically as non-imputation.[ix] . . . Luther continued to use expressions which suggest an ex opere operato efficacy, for he had a strong sense of the objectivity of the divine grace and work.[x]  But at three points he broke definitely with the traditional dogma.  First, . . . he pointed out that the true work of baptism is a work of faith and promise, not of sight.  Second, and as a necessary corollary, he claimed that faith is indispensable to the operation of the sacrament,[xi] for faith is itself the fulfillment of baptism,[xii] the response of the soul which enables the sacrament to have its effect.[xiii]  Thus the baptismal remission and regeneration is not a naturalistic or mechanical process, but an intensely personal matter in which the divine promise is held out on the one hand, and faith is the appropriation and fulfillment of the promise on the other.  Third, and finally, Luther did not find the power of baptism in the element, but in the baptismal word, which gives to the external sign its true signification, declaring the promises.[xiv]  Baptism could achieve its effect only as the word of baptism was perceived and understood,[xv] and the response of faith evoked.  But to say that was to suspend the efficacy of the sacrament upon the free and sovereign Spirit of God who disposes of both word and sacrament.  The work of baptism was not done through the water alone, nor was it done through the Spirit necessarily acting with the water.  If it was done at all, it was done only in so far as the Spirit Himself worked in, with and under the water, and sign and grace came together in the one creative act by which faith is born and the soul renewed by promise.[xvi]
These adjustments to the Catholic view of baptismal regeneration were sufficient to bring upon Luther Rome’s anathema, but they did not separate him from the idea that baptism was necessary for regeneration and eternal life.  The Baptist doctrine of justification by faith apart from sacraments and their restriction of baptism to believers, as in the New Testament, were great enough evils to Luther and Lutheranism that the Diet of Speyer (A. D. 1529) decreed the death penalty for Anabaptists, and in A. D. 1536 Luther signed a memorandum written by Melanchton assenting to putting Anabaptists to death (cf. 1 John 3:15-16).  Luther stated, “The Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God,[xvii] and are indeed opposed to it . . . Secular authorities are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . . For think what disaster would ensue if children were not baptized? . . . Besides this the Anabaptists separate themselves from the churches . . . and they set up a ministry and congregation of their own, which is also contrary to the command of God. From all this it becomes clear that the secular authorities are bound . . . to inflict corporal punishment on the offenders . . . Also when it is a case of only upholding some spiritual tenet, such as infant baptism, original sin, and unnecessary separation, then . . . we conclude that . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.”[xviii]  The baptismal doctrines of Luther and the Baptists of the Reformation era were radically opposed to one another;  so far, was the gospel believed by Baptists from the saving truth that   Luther thought they should be executed.  Luther lived and died believing that baptism was essential for the receipt of the remission of sin.


[i]           A thorough refutation of salvation by baptism and a presentation of the true gospel is Heaven Only for the Baptized?  The Gospel of Christ vs. Pardon Through Baptism, by Thomas Ross, available for free download at  Anyone who has believed a false gospel of salvation through baptism is heartily encouraged to acquire a copy of this work, read it, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so pass from spiritual death to spiritual life.  A excellent presentation of systematic theology in general is the four volume set Landmarks of Baptist Doctrine by Robert Sargent (Oak Harbor, WA:  Bible Baptist Church Publications, n. d.).  This set, and other sound books, are available at

[ii]           The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), Session V: Decree Concerning Original Sin.

[iii]          (Luther, Works, 53:103).

[iv]          Both the traditional Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of baptismal regeneration require the conclusion that all pre-born infants who die are also in hell, since they have not had water applied to their bodies in the proper manner—indeed, those who would dare to think otherwise are anathema.  This would infinitely aggravate the modern horror of abortion.  One wonders if this “Christian truth” of the damnation of all preborn infants is set forth when a minister devoted to Catholic or Lutheran orthodoxy tries to comfort a woman who has had a miscarriage.  Happily, king David believed otherwise, knowing that he would be in heaven eternally with his dead infant, who had died without circumcision or any other ceremony, and thus comforted Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:18, 22-23; cf. Jonah 4:11).

[v]           “Luther gave a new turn to the debate when in his opposition to medieval legalism he made the rhetorical suggestion that beer would meet the case just as well as water [for baptism]: no doubt it would be equally available in his country”  (Pg. 134, Baptism, Bromiley;  cf. J. de la Serviére, La Théologie de Bellarmine, pg. 356).

[vi]          “Luther preferred immersion, and prescribed it in his baptismal service” (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907, 1910; 2:13:Foontotes; 7:1:7:102; 8:3:25). In Luther’s sermon on baptism in 1518, he stated that “baptism is . . . when we dip anything wholly in water, that it is completely covered over. . . . it should be thus, and would be right . . . [for] the child or any one who is to be baptized, [to] be completely sunk down into the water, and dipt again and drawn out” (Opera Lutheri, I. 319, Folio ed., quoted on pg. 108, Christian, J. T., A History of the Baptists, vol. 1, Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922.) Calvin stated that “it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church” (Calvin, Institutes, 4:15:19, trans. Henry Beveridge), although he held that it did not matter if we followed the example of the primitive church or not.

[vii]         Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, VI, pg. 538.  Infants do not have faith or know anything since they cannot even discern their right hands from their left, Jonah 4:11, nor know good and evil, Deuteronomy 1:39; cf. Romans 9:11.  Consider also what must be considered, at the very least, the extreme vitiation required of the content and nature of saving faith, if an infant has it.

[viii]         Cf. Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, VI, pg. 537-538.

[ix]          Corpus Reformatorum, XXXIII, pg. 295, 859.

[x]           Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, XXX, I, pg. 218.

[xi]          Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, XXX, I, pg. 216.

[xii]         Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, VI, pg. 532.

[xiii]         Luther, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, II, pg. 315.

[xiv]         Cf. Wernle, Luther, pg. 38.

[xv]         Since “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17), one wonders if deaf infants are able to repent of their sins and trust in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection for justification when the baptismal word is pronounced.  Thankfully, in Lutheran families, infants that can hear are able, despite not knowing good from evil, Deuteronomy 1:39, to turn from their sins to trust in the Lord Jesus the moment they are baptized.
[xvi]         Pg. 172-173,177-178, 198, 187, Baptism, Bromiley.

[xvii]        Consider this declaration of Luther that those with false views of inspiration should be put to death in light of his declarations about numerous New and Old Testament books being noncanonical, which will be examined in following posts.

[xviii]       (Janssen, X, 222-223; pamphlet of 1536).


Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Thomas,

I don't know if you will have this in this series, but it would be interesting to our readers if you included the story of your time at Westminster in a history class under Carl Trueman, when you asked him about John Calvin and baptism. I recall that you did that, but I'm not 100% sure. What say ye?

Anonymous said...


The Reformation got some things right and a lot of things wrong. One thing seems certain, though: It did not (and perhaps could not) produce a vibrant personal Christianity. It was too mired in church-state politics, Augustinianism, anal personalities, and warmongering for that.

T. Pennock

Joshua said...

Not Scriptural, but I have the following policy that has served me well:

Do not learn doctrine from men who would have killed, tortured or imprisoned you if they could have got their hands on you in their day.

If all the Reformers were flaming pederasts or confirmed rapists, they would have as many adherents as you can count on one hand. But because they applied their energies in the direction of persecution and murder instead, and it's 500 odd years ago now, we're supposed to just look back and laugh?

I'll learn from Paul because Paul was a persecutor, and the Lord saved him from it. I couldn't give two figs for the doctrine of men who were supposedly redeemed and then turned their hand to that practice.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Pastor Brandenburg,

I was taking English Reformation Texts, a Ph. D./Th. M. class at Westminster, from Dr. Trueman. From that class, it was clear that he was:

1.) Very intelligent.

2.) From a very conservative Presbyterian tradition.

3.) He said, if I recall correctly, that he was converted over a period of a few months. (I hope I'm wrong on that one/misunderstood him.--this is about a decade ago, after all.)

4.) In relation to your specific question: I actually had asked him if Luther believed in baptismal regeneration. His reply--which I do remember clearly--was "of course."

It is not a matter of debate within serious scholarship that Luther believed in baptismal regeneration. Nobody is denying it. The only people I know who deny that Luther believed in baptismal regeneration are Baptists who have received hagiographical, "fundamentalized," and purged revisionist history of Luther through, say, high school textbooks from places such as Pensacola or BJU that purge out Luther's heresies. It is as easy to argue that Luther denied baptismal regeneration as it is to argue that the Pope was a Lutheran and that Luther excommunicated the Pope from the Roman Catholic religion.

Luther's doctrine of baptism is that of a modern, unconverted, conservative Lutheran in the Wisconsin or Missouri Synod.

KJB1611 said...

By the way, leaving Romanism and joining the Reformed or Lutheran churches did not require personal conversion; it required changing one's assent to doctrinal affirmations. If, say, one's prince decided that an area was now going to be Lutheran or Reformed, and the Catholic priests or Catholic populace was willing to mentally assent to different doctrinal propositions, everything was fine. Personal conversion and the new birth were certainly not required--saving grace had been sealed to one and all in baptism.

Unknown said...

Timely series especially with "Reformation Day" ahead (Oct. 31). I haven't looked over this in details, but I will, Lord willing, soon.