Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Baptism and the Thief on the Cross

Sorry to put this off for so long, but my sister and niece were in the area, and I devoted most of the week to seeing them (and having my carpet cleaned :P ) But I have wanted to reply to this for a while, and also to check on what Luther said regarding this.

J asked if I disagreed with the Augsburg Confession because it clearly says "baptism is necessary for salvation" and yet, I stated that the thief on the cross was saved.

The answer is "No, I don't disagree with the Augsburg Confession," and neither does Luther, who didn't write the Augsburg Confession - but approved it and provided quite a bit of feedback for it -- but he wasn't allowed at the presentation of it. Philip Melancthon, Luther's colleague is considered the primary author.

But Luther clearly believes that the thief on the cross is saved.

We who are godly, however, simply stand fast in the truth and with the thief on the cross rely on Him who is eternal. Their promises will be reliable. It is as if He were saying: “You, Christian, must not doubt, even though you may see the opposite. I will give faithfully and certainly; I will accomplish it.” Luther's Works, v. 17, Lectures on Isaiah, ch 40-66

Here speaks and judges one who did not suck woman’s milk but virgin’s milk, and was so poor on the cross he had nowhere to lay his head [ Matt. 8:20 ], and yet in that very place gave Paradise and the kingdom of heaven to the thief [ Luke 23:43 ], and in the manger was worshiped by all the angels in heaven. Luther's works, vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III

As long as we have pure teaching he will not harm us, but if the teaching is wrong we are done for. But praise be to God, who gave us the Word and also allowed his only Son to die for us! He did not do this in vain. Accordingly we should entertain the hope that we are saints, that we are saved, and that this will be manifest when it is revealed. Since Christ accepted the thief on the cross 37  just as he was and received Paul after all his blasphemies and persecutions, 38  we have no reason to despair. As a matter of fact, all of us must be saved just as the thief and Paul were. Good God, what do you think it means that he has given his only Son? It means that he also offers whatever else he possesses. We have no reason, therefore, to fear his wrath, although we must continue to fear on account of the old Adam, who is still unable to understand this as it ought to be understood.
37 Cf. Luke 23:39–43 .
38 Cf. Gal. 1:13 . ibid.

So it is clear that Luther believes that the thief on the cross is saved. And here is the one quote that I have found that addresses why.

“The thief [on the cross] 84  sinned unknowingly and not in defiance of God’s mercy or out of contempt for the Word, which he hadn’t heard until he was crucified. Consequently this example doesn’t support those who have contempt in our time or those who postpone participating in the sacrament of Christ until the hour of death.”
84 Cf. Luke 23:39–43 .. Luther's works, vol. 54 : Table Talk

and this one might be relevant, too:

Finally I claim that if some one had not been baptized, but did not know it and firmly believed that he had been rightly baptized, that faith would be sufficient for him. For before God he has what he believes. Luther's works, vol. 40 : Church and Ministry II

Luther also provided comfort to those who had lost babies due to miscarriage or stillbirth by saying that he trusts that babies who have not been baptized are not damned because God knows that the parents would've brought them to baptism.

One of the basic foundational tenets of Lutheran theology is that we divide all Scripture into two basic doctrines - the Law and the Gospel. Everything in the Bible falls under these two categories. The Law is anything the Bible says we are supposed to do. The Gospel is anything that tells us what God has done for us. The Law shows us our sin and leads us to repentance. The Gospel tells us that we are forgiven and saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now here is the thing...is baptism law or gospel?

Most denominations who believe that it is an outward symbol of what God has already done for us, would say that it was Law. Lutherans say the point isn't stepping up to the font and having the pastor pour water on us. The point is the gifts that God gives us through baptism. He saves us, gives us His Holy Spirit, forgives our sins, cleanses us, unites us with Christ's death and resurrection, and strengthens our faith. Baptism is completely about what GOD does.

It isn't our righteous act of stepping to the font and submitting to the water that saves us, because then we would be contributing to our salvation. Luther says that the pastor is only lending God his hands. God does it all. But if we state that baptism isn't important, that we don't need it, then we are despising God's command, and that is something completely different.

There are three places where God brings us to faith and strengthens us, giving us his Holy Spirit. We call these things "means of grace." A person can come to faith by the Word. The Holy Spirit can work through the Word of God and brings faith. He also does the same thing through His sacraments - baptism and Holy Communion, which are common elements united to God's Word to bring forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. God gives us all three to feed and sustain us through our daily life. Baptism is a rebirth, the Word and the Lord's Supper continually feed us. It's not that baptism isn't continually present....Luther says we are to always remember we are born into Christ through our baptism, and continually seek comfort in it.

But as I said before, for fear of contradicting Scripture, we refuse to step beyond what Scripture says, even when typical logic seems like it should. Scripture says "Believe and be baptized" in order to be saved, but it only says unbelief condemns. It never says "if are not baptized you will be condemned." It is unbelief that ignores God's command to be baptized and receive the gift He promised for us --refusal to trust in God's promises. Even though God gives us faith and forgiveness of sins through His Word, he still says we need to receive it through the Sacraments also. Not as a checklist of requirements, but because He is a loving father and He loves to give to us what we need and what feeds our souls and teaches us to love Him as well.

But Christ clearly says the thief on the cross is going to be with Him in paradise - that day. I can't believe otherwise. And since I know that the important part of baptism is what Jesus does, and that He also brings us to faith through the other ways that He established, then I know the thief on the cross believed by his confession, and Christ's acknowledgement of that. So I leave it at that.

This can be quite a struggle. In most situations, our logic is good but at times there are things our sinful nature cannot comprehend, or God chooses to not give us more information than we need to know. In the end, Scripture must reign supreme. This is where Luther left it, and it is one of those issues where he says that if we take it further than Scripture itself takes it, then we end up going away from Scripture entirely -- either by making it something symbolic and a work that we perform -- or by stating that baptism is completely unnecessary.

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