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On November 11, 1483, the day after his birth, Martin Luther was baptized in the Roman Catholic church of St. Peter and Paul in Eisleben, Germany, on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Hence his name, Martin.

Why was he baptized the day after birth? At the time, the infant mortality rate was sixty percent. In addition, the question still lingered: what happens to a baby who dies before being baptized? It was the belief in Luther’s days that a dead infant, not baptized, might forfeit heaven.

Luther proclaimed that Holy Baptism, one of seven present-day Roman Catholic sacraments, was one of only two truly Holy sacraments instituted by Christ, the second one being Holy Communion. The others, he professed, were only rituals and good works, void of the path to grace and salvation. Luther, in the Large Catechism: “For it is determined that whatever is not faith avails nothing nor receives anything. … Baptism, however, is not our work, but God’s.” Augustine wrote in Contra Faustum, Book XIX, accedat verbum ad elementum, et fit sacramentum: “When the Word is joined to the element [water] it becomes a sacrament.”

In his Small Catechism, Luther writes, “Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended [included or together] in God’s command and connected [combined] with God’s word.” He goes on to say, “If I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life both in soul and body. … Baptism is a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps … a treasure comprehended (included) and offered to us in the Word and received by faith.”

“A person can believe although he is not baptized. But if one were not able to be baptized he is nonetheless not damned provided that he believes the Gospel. Baptism is useless without faith.” That is, the gift of eternal life, resulting from Baptism, is not a gift that God gives those who do not profess faith in Him, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

You and I are Lutherans because we accept the illustrations, explanations and writings of Dr. Martin Luther—not as substitute teachings for the Biblical Word of God, but for their basis in the Word of God. We in the LCMS believe that baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues us from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all those who believe this as the words and promises of God declare. As Christ our Lord says:”Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

The doctrinal statements published by Synod regarding the baptizing of infants who die before being baptized include, in part, the following: “(1) There is some basis for the hope that God has a method, not revealed to us, by which He works faith in the children of Christians dying without Baptism; the same is not true of children of non-Christians. (2) Baptizing stillborn children is not sanctioned, Baptism is for the living only.”

The LCMS does not believe that Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. Mark 16:16 implies that it is not the absence of Baptism that condemns a person but the absence of faith. However, we dare not despise or willfully neglect Baptism; it is commanded by God. It is not considered a ritual but a powerful and miraculous means of grace by which God grants faith and the forgiveness of sins. We believe that infants and adults should be baptized and not denied baptism because of infancy, youth or age.

This year, 2017, is a year precious to all Lutherans: the 500th anniversary of Luther’s blessed discovery of the Gospel and his rebellion related to the beliefs and celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church. This article is part of a monthly series covering topics and historical events leading up to October 31, 1517, the date of the posting of the 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. It is republished, with permission, from the Rocky Mountain District, LCMS.