Baptism: lex orandi lex credendi

A few assumptions of this post:

  • The method of baptism is not related to its efficacy.  Where there is water and the Word of Jesus, there is baptism.  There is forgiveness, the Spirit, and life.  Therefore, the question of whether immersion, sprinkling, or some other form of baptism is used can be discussed along lines of tradition, convenience, imagery, etc freely.
  • I understand that many Lutherans believe only sprinkling at a font should be used since others in the body insist on immersion.  They believe that we must show the freedom we have in the face of such false teaching.  I understand this concern and resonate with it in general.

imageLex orandi lex credendi is translated loosely: How one prays, one believes.  This phrase is usually brought to battle to challenge those people that think that forms of worship can be changed without changing teaching.  We choose forms based on our beliefs, and our forms influence our beliefs.  No form is neutral in this sense.

Allow me today to apply this principle to baptism.  While no doubt most Lutherans use a font for Baptism due to practical matters, tradition, and to show the freedom we have in the method of baptism, that does not mean that how we do it does not influence our beliefs. Lex orandi lex credendi.

When one baptizes at a font, the image is primarily an image of cleansing.  And this certainly is a scriptural way to speak of baptism:

Ephesians 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Titus 3:5-6   …he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…

When one sees baptism practiced in this form then, the primary thing they are taught is that one is cleaned up at baptism, that their sins are forgiven.  And certainly we sound a loud “Amen” to this.  But there is more to baptism that just cleansing of past sin (original and actual).

Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

There is also resurrection. A new man free to walk in righteousness and serve God is raised up.  Listen to  Luther in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

imageHence 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.  (3.23)

“It would be well to give to so perfect and complete a thing a perfect and complete sign.”  This is the point of this post.  Perhaps we should return to immersion.  It is closest to the institution of Christ and it gives the appropriate image of the death of the old self and the rising up of the new self.  It shows us what is done in baptism.  Both things.  Dying and Rising.

Perhaps too many years of practicing sprinkling has taught us to think of baptism only as a taking of sin and not as a giving of new life.   In fact, all too often when we talk about the rising in connection to baptism, we speak only of the old self’s ability to rise and swim (a Lutheran, but not necessarily strictly biblical way to talk).  We must speak of the reality of the new life we are given.  The new life that frees us from slavery to sin.  All too often I hear fellow brothers speak as if we are still bound just as we were before baptism.  I can’t help but wonder if the way we baptize has not effected the way we believe and left us with little to say or believe about the new life we have in Christ Jesus already now, while still here on earth.

I have a baptism Sunday.  It will be at the font.  I have no doubt of the efficacy of that baptism.  The old man will be killed and the new man will be raised.  But will those watching get the point?  Will they see “a perfect and complete sign” of what occurs.  Will the way we pray/worship/baptize affect how they believe?


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Theology and Practice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Baptism: lex orandi lex credendi”

  1. Peter Mead Says:

    My view on both sacraments is that the elements (in ALL their fullness) complete the Word. What does water do? It washes. It refreshes. It drowns. It renews. On and on (science will tell us even more that water does over the ages, and God will inform his people concerning his Baptism in each case). What does bread do? What does wine do? Many, so many things! God is COMMUNICATING with his people through these means. Let God communicate in the fullness of his fullness. So, yes, immersion is awesome (though its necessity is unnecessary as far as the “need” goes–communicate the image to the congregation). But communicate it, and let it communicate! Let the sacrament of the table communicate all that it can (one-ness with God … the foretaste of the feast … the communion with one another … the grapes gathered … the sacrifice renewed … etc.). The ETC. is what may matter for future generations. God has an amazing way of communicating with future generations! Peace, Pete

  2. Chris Says:


    “Is immersion necessary” is, I believe, the wrong question. Phil, we live in a fallen world where even the language we speak is but a shadow of that which was spoken by the Word at creation. It still contains the divine spark, but it has been confused, contorted and disfigured. Symbols are often the only way that we can approach the divine. As the Blessed Augustine writes in De Magistro (On the Teacher), signs (i.e. symbols)are words (but not all words signs) that eventually form a chain to be connected to God. Yes, it may take 20 steps, but we get there eventually. Why is this important? The symbolic natures of anything done in the Liturgy, the offices all confess that which cannot just be fathomed by hearing words. The whole body is to be let in on our salvation. To throw away those symbols or signs as in-efficacious in of themselves runs the risk (and this has happened way too often in many modern Protestant confessions) of compartmentalizing the faith into that which is apprehended strictly by the mind. And where does it end? i know that my priest’s vestments do not change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, but he still wears them. If immersion, as the ancient practice (and still used by the Holy Orthodox Church) was deemed necessary (see St. Cyril of Jerusalem on this in his Catechitical Lectures), then why do you not also proclaim that it is fine to use skittles and diet pepsi for the consecrated gifts at the altar? You’d respond that Christ didn’t do that. Well, Christ was also immersed by St. John the Forerunner. The Greek verb baptizdho means to dip or to immerse. It does not mean “to baptize.”

    The dispensation from the visual and tangible elements of the faith because they are not necessary only will destroy the Christian faith and make it solely an intellectual feat. And once that happens, then Satan has won. Even the demons know Christ is the Lord, but they have no idea or no manner of knowing how to approach Him as Lord in worship. Such is foreign to them.

    Before you just casually dismiss what I am saying as a “slippery slope argument,” show me one, only one, modern Lutheran church that has done away with all the symbols of the Liturgy. It may be thriving, but is it doctrinally pure? I doubt it. Symbols connect us to God and they were instituted by the Church for good order (how many times do the Lutheran Confessions use those exact words?) and for the education of the faithful. It makes no difference and it should make no difference that the vast majority of Lutherans in this country can read and write and are technologically proficient so they have no need of “ancient and antique” remedies for the uneducated and illiterate of yesteryear.

    As far as Peter’s comments go, I find his understanding of the sacraments to not only be unLutheran but unChristian. The sacraments communicate? Strictly speaking: No, the sacraments are what cause change. Baptism is not an elaborate telegram announcing in the first mode that “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” It effects a profound and mystical change. Same goes for the Eucharist. I don’t know where Peter’s religious convictions lie, but they are clearly anti-sacramental, which is something that is rampant, yes, rampant in modern Lutheranism.

    The problem with both your and Peter’s comments is that you both look at the sacraments only in terms of representation. Do they actually effect change? If so, then why not use whatever elemens you like for the Eucharist. Or why not baptize in orange juice? If your recourse, as typical Lutherans do, is to hide behind adiaphoron, you’ve already lost the argument. I challenge you to refute this.


Leave a Reply