Baptism, Catholic, Communion, Lutheran

Frank Answers About Lutheran-Roman Catholic Understandings of Forgiveness In and After Baptism

Question: I would love to learn more about the differences between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic understanding of what infant baptism does (with respect to original sin, inherited guilt, concupiscence, etc.) I’m wondering what is forgiven in baptism and why the Lord’s Supper and Confession/Reconciliation are necessary if sin or guilt has already been dealt with in Holy Baptism.

I love Frank Answers! Thank you for offering so many thoughtful posts!

Thank you for your affirmation of my blog posts. I enjoy writing the articles and finding appropriate images.  (Unfortunately it does take time to go back into the post several times to correct errors in typing or grammar or formatting! But at least you can do that. In print media you have to live with your errors).

Answer: Both communions subscribe to the Nicene Creed which acknowledges “one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.”

Both communions affirm the dogma of original sin which was promulgated by the Second Council of Orange in 589. The theological roots of this dogma are found in North African Christianity, especially in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Augsburg Confession affirms original sin in Article 2. The Roman Confutation of the Augsburg Confession acknowledges this basic agreement on original sin but rejects the Confession’s statement that original sin also means that people are born without the fear of God and without trust in God. Philip Melancthon, in The Apology of the the Augsburg Confession, cites the writings of the church fathers to show that the Catholic party should have accepted this illustration of one of the consequences of the fall. He goes to include concupiscence also as part of the fallen human condition. While there is a distinction between “infused” righteousness (the Catholic understanding) and “imputed righteousness” (the Lutheran understanding), the common understanding of concupiscence is desiring something contrary to what is truly good, especially the desires of the flesh, and the order of reason.

Original sin presumes the inherited guilt of the fallen human condition. Since Augsburg Confession Article 9 affirms that children should also be baptized and rejects the Anabaptists who teach otherwise, the implication is that children are included in this fallen condition. The Roman Confutation of the Augsburg Confession accepts this article on Baptism.

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), which was Luther’s assault on the sacrificial system of the late medieval church, the reformer exclaims:

“Blessed be God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to the riches of his mercy [Ephesians 1:3, 7] has preserved in his church this at least, untouched and untainted by the ordinances of men, and has made it free to all nations and classes of humankind, and has not permitted it to be oppressed by the filthy and godless monsters of greed and superstition. For he desired that by it little children, who were incapable of greed and superstition, might be initiated and sanctified in the simple faith of his Word; even today baptism has its chief blessing for them.”

As benefits of Baptism, Luther lists in The Small Catechism that “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it…”

Luther placed the great confidence in the Baptism’s saving power and taught Christians always to rely on it and return to its promises. In The Babylonian Captivity he says, “Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would he cannot lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe. For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone.”

Luther was the great theologian of baptism. He taught that the living of the Christian life is simply a living out of one’s baptism. But what does this mean? In his 1519 treatise (published with the title “A Sermon…”) on The Holy Sacrament of Baptism, Luther says that “The significance of baptism is a blessed dying unto sin and a resurrection in the grace of God, so that the old man, conceived and born in sin, is there drowned, and a new man, born in grace comes forth and rises.” This is verbally similar to the explanation of baptism in the Small Catechism of 1529 that “It signifies that the old creature [Adam] in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Luther goes on in the 1519 “sermon” to say that

“This significance of baptism—the dying or drowning of sin—is not fulfilled completely in this life. Indeed, this does not happen until man passes through bodily death and completely decays to dust. As we can plainly see, the sacrament or sign of baptism is quickly over. But the spiritual baptism, the drowning of sin, which it signifies, lasts as long as we live and is completed only in death.

“Therefore the life of a Christian, from baptism to the grave, is nothing else than the beginning of a blessed death. For at the Last Day God will make him altogether new.”

Baptism is not only about forgiveness of sins; it is about being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6). This is the paschal mystery of Christ’s Passover from death to life, which has been revived in Catholic as well as in Lutheran sacramental theology since the early twentieth century. The great theologian of the paschal mystery was the Benedictine scholar Dom Odo Casel of the Maria Laach Monastery in the Rhineland. His “mystery theology” was a great influence on liturgical renewal and reform in both communions.

Luther is saying that this death and resurrection is the daily life of the baptized. But he speaks of it as daily contrition (sorrow) and repentance (turning around) for sins and evil desires. Are these sins and “evil desires” (concupiscence) not forgiven in Baptism? Baptism forgives original sin, absolves inherited guilt, but daily sins need to be dealt with by returning to Baptism.  This doesn’t mean being baptized again. “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.”

But we do sin and we may ask God for forgiveness, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, make a special prayer for forgiveness, or go to the pastor and make a confession before God in the presence of the pastor and hear the words of forgiveness (absolution) from the pastor as from God himself. Yes, Lutherans have available individual (private, personal) confession and absolution. Luther provided an order for it in his Small Catechism. A form is also available in Lutheran worship books for easy access. Confession and forgiveness is a return to Baptism. (See also Luther’s 1519 Treatise or “Sermon” On Penance.)

We also go to Holy Communion. In the rites of Christian initiation in the ancient church, Baptism led directly the Eucharist and Holy Communion. The Eastern Orthodox Churches still have this practice. I can’t here go into the reasons for the separation of Baptism and Holy Communion in the Western Church. But the fact is that initiation is complete when one is included in the Eucharistic fellowship. Going to Holy Communion is a return to Baptism.

A new life is born of water and the Spirit in the sacrament of Baptism. But it is a life of struggle between the new Adam and the old. To aid us in persevering in this struggle there is prayer, Scripture, confession and absolution, but most of all there is the Eucharist and the communion of saints. In his treatise (also published with the title “Sermon”) On the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519), Luther shows how we are joined to the communion of saints in the Eucharist which support us in our struggles.

“To receive this sacrament in bread and wine, then, is nothing else than to receive a sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all saints….

“This fellowship consists in this, that all the spiritual possessions of Christ and his saints are shared with and become the common property of him who receives this sacrament. Again all sufferings and sins become common property; and thus love engenders love in return and [mutual love] unites.”

Luther goes on with an extended analogy of all the things citizens of a city possess in common for their mutual defense against adversaries. He then paints a realistic picture of the adversities that afflict the baptized Christian.

“Now adversity assails us in more than one form. There is, in the first place, the sin that remains in our flesh after baptism: the inclination to anger, hatred, pride, unchastity, and so forth. This sin assails us as long as we live. Here we need not only the help of the community [of saints] and Christ, in order that they might with us fight this sin, but it is also necessary that Christ and his saints intercede for us before God, so that this sin may not be charged to our account by God’s strict judgment. Therefore in order to strengthen and encourage us against this same sin, God gives us this sacrament [of Holy Communion].”

According to Luther, this is the relationship of Baptism and the Eucharist. The lifelong struggle between the old Adam and the new begun in baptism continues throughout the whole of our earthly life.  This necessitates the nourishment and help provided by this second sacrament. Our struggles of body and soul are brought to the table where they are taken on by Christ and the communion of saints. They are taken on by Christ because Christ becomes a part of us just as we become a part of him when we are baptized and communed. These two primal sacraments signify union with Christ as well as “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.”

Our struggles are also taken on by the saints who have been joined to Christ by a common sharing (koinonia) of the sacraments of water and of the body and blood of Christ. They surround us, pray for us, and encourage us in the church on earth and the church in heaven. This may be a good reason to include a litany of the saints in the procession to the baptismal font and a commemoration of the saints in the eucharistic prayer (Great Thanksgiving). See my Frank Answer About Saints in the Lutheran Church.

The long and short of it is that we need all the help we can get to live out the baptismal life in this world in as we contend with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Pastor Frank Senn

The image featured above this article is of Pastor Robert Moore baptizing a naked child at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas. But of the two images below, which is Roman Catholic and which is Lutheran? Your guess.

1 Comment

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    John W. Siegmund

    Thank you for this wonderful and easy to comprehend Exegese of the three holy sacraments of baptism, confession-absolution and eucharist. May your words bring joy and blessing to all readers. And in and for all the blessing of our Lord, Savior and God Jesus Christ. Martin Luther’s repeated word about the activity of Christ together with His saints for the believing communicant in the Holy Communion, strengthening us to return to and live the baptismal new life is powerful and comforting. For this reason the inclusion of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints by name, as well as the communion with bishops of the Church in the Anamnese part of the eucharistic prayer is so important. I practiced this every Sunday in my parish before retirement, and keep doing it now, when I preside at the eucharist (mass) today. John W. Siegmund, Jr., Pastor em.

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