Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Among the things in which the early church was in universal agreement that are debated today are three: people can apostatize from their faith; the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ; and baptism truly brings saving grace to the recipient (cit. Dr. Jordan B Cooper, Sola Fide in the Church Fathers).
It would be a surprise to many Protestants today that Luther and the Lutheran tradition as a whole affirm that baptism brings salvation to the recipient. This should not, however, be a shocking statement to Protestants. Rather, they should look no further than their own fathers in the faith to see that many of them affirmed similarly. The efficacy of baptism unto salvation can be found in Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Calvin, Bullinger, Cranmer, Knox, Arminius, and others. Christians from the magisterial reformation (Congregationalists, Continental Reformed, Presbyterians, Classical Arminians, Anglicans, Hussites, and Lutherans) should not be averse to saying “baptism saves” or similar statements, and this should be seen as true orthodox (small “o”) Christianity. Unfortunately, many Protestant traditions have watered down this belief or rejected it all together despite their own theologians and confessions affirming this doctrine.
From the Congregationalist confessions, The Cambridge and Saybrook Platforms of Church Discipline, with the Confession of Faith of the New England Churches Adopted in 1680:
“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life ; which ordinance is by Christ’s own appointment to be continued in his church, until the end of the world.”.Confession of Faith, XXIX.I
From the Continental Reformed confessions, The Three Forms of Unity:
“69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?
Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water  and joined to it this promise, that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.
70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?
It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, so that we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and unblamable lives.
71. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with His blood and Spirit as with the water of Baptism?
In the institution of Baptism, which says: “Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.” This promise is also repeated where Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins.”Heidelberg Catechism, 69-71
From the Presbyterian confessions, The Westminster Standards:
“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.”Westminster Confession, XXVIII
“Q. 165. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”Westminster Larger Catechism, 165
From the Remonstrant confessions, The Arminian Confession of 1621:
“Baptism is the first public and sacred rite of the New Testament, by which all who belonged to the covenant were engrafted [incorporated] into the church by the solemn washing with water without distinction of age or gender, and initiated into the worship of God. For this, they were immerged [submerged] or washed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that by a symbolic sign and sacred token, they were confirmed concerning the gracious will of God toward them, that just as the filth of their bodies is washed away by water, so they themselves were purged within by the blood and Spirit of Christ (if they do not make this gracious covenant void through their own fault), and most fully delivered from the guilt of all their sins, and finally were granted the glorious immortality and eternal happiness of the sons of God.”The Arminian Confession of 1621 Ch. 23.3
From the Anglican confessions, The Book of Common Prayer of 1662:
“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit….Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior….Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace….N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”Holy Baptism, Thanksgiving Over the Water – The Baptism
From the Hussite Confessions, The Book of Order:
They also teach that baptism is a saving ministration instituted by Christ and added to the Gospel through which He Himself purifies, cleanses, and sanctifies His Church in His death and blood. As Paul says [Eph. 5:2526]: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water through the word.” And the people of our church alone in the Kingdom of Bohemia and the March of Moravia defend this faith concerning baptism with these Scriptures against those who believe and write that baptism cleans off only the dirt of the body, but does nothing in the soul for salvation.Confession of 1535, Article 12 – Baptism
It should be noted, for the sake of clarity and honesty towards the reader, that the Reformed tradition does not tie salvation in baptism to the moment of administration nor do they believe that it is effectual for the non-elect. This does not mean that they reject baptism as a means of salvation, but rather believe that the benefits of baptism may be apprehended at a later point in time according to these confessions. Reformed theologians during the reformation still, however, point people to their baptism for assurance of their salvation as a true promise that they are saved. Additionally, neither the Lutheran nor Reformed tradition state that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. Rather, it is seen as the ordinary form of regeneration. Those who have faith are truly saved even if they are yet to be baptized, yet those who reject baptism or refuse to be baptized are not saved for they do not have the Spirit, who would certainly lead them to a desire for baptism.
From the Luther’s Small Catechism, a brief outline of Lutheran Baptismal doctrine is presented. This will be the focus for the apology:
1] What is Baptism?—2] Answer.
Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.
3] Which is that word of God?—Answer.
4] Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew: Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
5] What does Baptism give or profit?—6] Answer.
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
7] Which are such words and promises of God?—8] Answer.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
9] How can water do such great things?—10] Answer.
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
What does such baptizing with water signify?—12] Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
13] Where is this written?—14] Answer.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Luther’s Small Catechism IV – The Sacrament of Holy Baptism
While the reformers were certainly well versed in the tradition of the church and philosophy among other subjects and appealed to these fields at times when making arguments, most often, they point not to great theologians of the past nor to pure reason but rather to scripture as their proof for baptismal regeneration, for Christians need look no further than the scriptures to see how plainly the Apostles speak on this matter.
The Scriptural Defense
Mark 16:15-16 reads, “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.'” In this text we see as stated above that it is unbelief that condemns, yet baptism is still given salvific efficacy. If baptism was absolutely necessary unto salvation, the verse would read “he who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned.”
Luke 3:2-3 reads, “While Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” This speaks of the baptism of John the Baptist. In Lutheran theology, there is disagreement on whether this is or is not the same baptism as the later baptisms, yet if John’s baptism is “of repentance for the remission of sins,” how much more then is the baptism instituted by Jesus?
John 3:2-8 reads, “[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” Some note that born of water could refer to the natural birth (cit. Cyril of Alexandria), many more assert that to be born of water and the Spirit is most certainly to point to baptism (cit. Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, among others).
Acts 2:36-39 reads, “[Peter speaking] ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’” It is directly stated here that baptism is “for the remission of sins,” to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” a “promise…to you and to your children,” and a “call.” Notably lacking is any action on the part of man; rather baptism is presented as the work of God.
Acts 22:12-16 reads, “A certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him. Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’” Just as seen earlier in Acts, baptism is to “wash away your sins.”
Romans 6:1-4 reads, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Just as Christ was killed and raised from the dead, so too is the old Adam killed and raised from the death of sin (Rom. 6:23) into life through baptism.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13, reads “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” Grafting into the body of Christ, which is by baptism, assuredly includes salvation.
Galatians 3:26-27 reads, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Putting on Christ, which is by baptism, assuredly includes salvation as well.
Ephesians 5:25-27 reads, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” What is to be cleansed by a washing of water by the Word if it is not baptism? This washing of water by the Word leads to “not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” along with holiness and lack of blemish.
Colossians 2:11-14 reads, “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Echoing Romans 6, we read that in baptism we are buried, raised, made alive in Christ, and forgiven all our trespasses.
Titus 3:3-7 reads, “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” What is the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” other than baptism? Just as in Acts 2, this passage emphasizes that baptism is not our own doing, but God’s monergistic act of grace through the Spirit.
Hebrews 10:19-23 reads, “Brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” What is having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water if it is not baptism?
1 Peter 3:18-21 reads, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the appeal of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Just as Noah and his family were saved through water, so also are we saved in baptism, which is not mere water to remove filth of the flesh, but appeal of a good conscience toward God.
Less direct references to baptism also exist that refer to the working of regeneration:
Ezekiel 36:25-27 reads, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” Some take this to be a foreshadowing of baptism from the Old Testament.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 reads, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” To be freed from sin here is associated not only with sanctification and justification but also with washing, which is to say baptism.
1 Peter 1:1-3 reads, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.” As with Hebrews, baptism is spoken of indirectly as “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” and is said to be part of election.
Lastly, it is notable that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration was so important and agreed upon in the early church that it is part of the universally accepted Nicene Creed (381 AD) in the statement “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” This creed is accepted by all* of the traditions of the magisterial reformation.
*The Congregationalist tradition never formally adopted the Nicene Creed until the Kansas City Statement of Faith in 1913, but the historic creeds were still influential in their tradition.
Addressing Common Counterarguments
“1 Peter 3:21 says the appeal saves you.”
This might seem so in some English translations, but the Greek is clearer. The word for “appeal” is “eperōtēma” and is a noun in the nominative case, meaning that it is the subject of the clause. The word is referring back to baptism here; thus, baptism is the appeal. We are not doing the appealing, the baptism itself is the appeal.
“This passage refers to spiritual baptism, but not water baptism.”
This cannot be referring merely to a spiritual baptism. Not only do Ephesians 4:5 and the Nicene Creed explicit state that there is solely “one baptism,” but also the Greek cannot render such a reading. To quote Dr. Eric Philips, “1 Pet. 3:21 is an even stronger proof of Baptismal regeneration than any of the major English translations communicate, because the first word of the verse [antitypos or antitype in English] is a relative pronoun referring to the word “water” at the end of v. 20. ‘…which water, as the antitype, Baptism, now saves you…'” (Philips, January 2019).
“Everyone in the New Testament believed, then was baptized, so the belief saved them.”
This argument does not negate the aforementioned verses. It needs to be stressed that Lutherans do not reject that belief saves a la Rom. 10. This is not an either/or; it is a both/and. Baptism is the appeal for the good conscience in 1 Peter 3:21. It gives faith and assurance a la Rom. 6:1-10. Baptism is water with the Word, a working of grace by the Holy Spirit.
“Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. Baptism is a work./Baptism is of obedience and a command. It is not a promise.”
Where is Baptism spoken of as a work? It is always paired in passages with the Gospel rather than the Law and near grace and salvation rather than good works. The flaw in this reasoning is easily demonstrated with a simple thought experiment. Replace “baptism” with “good work” or “work” or “man’s work” in any passage about baptism; the result tends to be horrendous. Past this, Lutherans hold that baptism is a monergistic means of grace, a work God, which bestows faith to the individual. That is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, from Christ alone (not the baptizee, baptizer, or sponsors).
“Baptism is a public profession of faith. It can’t save.”
If that is the case, then we would expect verses speaking about baptism to mention the individuals who witness the baptisms to be the focus, or the testimonies of individuals to be the focus. “Baptisma” appears 22 times in 22 verses in the New Testament, and “Baptizō” appears 86 times in 65 verses in the New Testament, but baptism is never spoken of as an event for the eyes of the audience. In most cases, people are baptized as soon as possible, often without audiences as in the Samaritans in Acts 8:12-13, Ethiopian eunuch 8:34-39, Saul of Tarsus 9:17-18, 22:12-16, Cornelius and family 10:14, 44-48, Lydia and family 16:13-15, the Philippian jailer and family 16:30-34, Crispus and family 18:7-8, and the Ephesian disciples 19:1-5. We also do not see any testimonies for the public before baptism, past “they believed” (present in some examples and not others) which may or may not have been a vocal profession.