Today, evangelicals defend Luther’s pithy statement: “Justification by faith alone in Christ alone.” Here is what R.C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier ministries, has to say about Luther’s theological accomplishments.
“Luther blazed the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, and he restored the church’s focus to Christ alone.” – R.C. Sproul
But does Sproul accurately portray what Luther meant by justification, or is he, along with other evangelicals, misquoting the Reformer?
Many protestant denominations believe that God grants salvation to each person based solely on the faith of the person, apart from any action taken by that individual. In theological circles, the idea is called sola fide: saved by faith alone.
According to Luther, he would disagree with modern evangelicals on what “faith alone” encompasses. Faith shouldn’t be separated from repentance and baptism. Luther is being misquoted. For instance, in Luther’s Large Catechism, He describes the synergistic relationship between baptism and faith.
[I] affirm that Baptism is no human trifle, but that it was established by God Himself. Moreover, He earnestly and solemnly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved. No one is to think that it is an optional matter like putting on a red coat. It is of greatest importance that we hold Baptism in high esteem as something splendid and glorious. The reason why we are striving and battling so strenuously for this view of Baptism is that the world nowadays is full of sects that loudly proclaim that Baptism is merely an external form and that external forms are useless…. Although Baptism is indeed performed by human hands, yet it is truly God’s own action (1978, pp. 98-99).
While scholars differ on what Luther meant, it’s quite clear his soteriology (study of salvation) involved baptism. If salvation is dependent upon baptism, then was Luther contradicting his own theology: Justification by faith alone in Christ alone?
No. He is properly defining faith. Faith is not spiritually divorced from works (Jam. 2:24). Faith is not physically separate from our actions like Gnostic theologians would like us to believe. Faith clings to the water (Mark 16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:4-6; Gal. 3:27). Faith is faithfulness. Faith is obedience (Acts 2:38). To define faith absent from obedience is no faith at all.
Unfortunately, justification by faith alone in Christ alone has caused many to misinterpret Scripture. While we are saved by faith, our faith is never alone; it is fused with repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). And that’s why Luther himself included faith, repentance, and baptism as part and parcel of the gospel. He understood their symbiotic relationship as it corresponded to the reality of salvation. “Faith clings to the water.” – Martin Luther.
Here is a typical response when an evangelical hears baptism as part and parcel of the gospel.
“Baptism as a necessary means to secure salvation? To require baptism for a believer is adding works to the gospel, which is a foe to grace and an affront to God.”
The key difference between this statement and Luther’s is Luther did not believe baptism was a work of man. In fact, baptism is the opposite of a work. We are baptized in the name of “Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 16; Acts 2:28). We are placed into Christ (Gal. 3:27) through His death, burial, and resurrection. It’s all about what He accomplished. Baptism tells the world, “I can’t save myself. I need Christ. The flood of judgment is upon me. Place me in the ark of salvation through your blood. Call on the name of the Lord.” Baptism without faith is just going under the water, but baptism with faith is being born again (John 3; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Personally, I believe the confusion is a result of modern evangelicalism today. Instead of “repenting and being baptized for the forgiveness of sins,” we tell unbelievers to ask Jesus into their hearts for salvation.
First, nowhere in Scripture does it teach us to ask Jesus into our hearts for salvation. Secondly, the sinner’s prayer is a modern form of Gnosticism because it tries to separate the physical and spiritual realities and undermines what the Bible teaches. Thirdly, and most dangerously, if one takes the view that salvation occurs before baptism, then they are treating baptism as a work rather than a promise from God.
If you take the position that salvation comes first and baptism second, then you have to treat baptism as an act of obedience. You are putting it on the other side of the cross alongside sanctification. When you do that, you misguide people to what baptism really means.
I understand why people might say requiring baptism for salvation is a works-based salvation. It’s because evangelicals have been taught baptism is a work of man just like tithing and fasting, rather than a promise from God.
If Martin Luther were here today, I think he would be shocked how often he is misquoted. In fact, in the quote above, when Luther said the “world nowadays is full of sects that loudly proclaim that baptism is merely an external form and that external forms are useless,” I think he is talking to the modern Protestants. I find it ironic that the very ones who defend Luther’s “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” today are similar in theology to the very ones Luther objected to during the Reformation.