A Theological Dissertation on the Efficacy of Baptism

Joseph A. Tipton
Abraham Rothe
Monday, May 1st 2023
May/Jun 2023
by Abraham Rothe; translated by Joseph Tipton

Abraham Rothe (1666–1730) was a German Lutheran theologian and pastor from Żary in what is now western Poland. He defended his Dissertatio theologica de efficacia baptismi (1692), from which this excerpt is translated, in a public ceremony at the University of Leipzig presided over by the famous theologian and philosopher Valentin Alberti.

1. We shall forego discussing the word baptism since such discussions are ubiquitous, having been treated ad nauseam. Instead, we shall summarize our topic with a definition, and a very well-constructed one at that, which the great Johann Scherzer (now among the saints) once provided in his System of Theology: “In its proper sense, baptism is taken as a sacrament unique to the New Testament, an action instituted by God and Christ. Although he never performed baptism himself, Christ sent John to perform them. Under ordinary circumstances only ministers of the Church should administer it. In baptism, every person who is alive has been born, is an infant under our care or an adult believer (and hence offering no objection), is by ordained necessity submerged in or sprinkled with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the water being ordinary, yet united with the Spirit. This is done so that the person, now reborn and renewed by the water and the Spirit and having all his guilt removed, may in the future become a child of grace and glory. Exorcism is perhaps the best analogy for this power.”

2. In this definition, you have at one glance the talking-points concerning baptism. However, laying them out and looking closely at them is not our project. We are only concerned with what is relevant to our topic; namely, the fact that in this definition the efficacy that we too are inclined to attribute to baptism is put forward clearly and distinctly. It reads, “This is done so that the person, now reborn and renewed by the water and the Spirit and having all his guilt removed, may in the future become a child of grace and glory.” We must now speak more in depth concerning this efficacy.

3. Efficacy is a power that inheres in a thing so that it performs its function during the very act. The Germans call it eine Kraft. The Greeks call it δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, although it is generally acknowledged that the former term denotes the primary act of efficacy, its power to effect, while the latter denotes the secondary act of efficacy, the effecting itself. However the matter may stand, we maintain that both are relevant to baptism when taken—one should note—in terms of its action and use. For baptism, together with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is distinct from the word of God in that the power and efficacy the latter possesses to produce the spiritual effects God has ordained it to produce are entirely anterior and external to its use. By contrast, the sacraments, and in particular baptism, do not have any power and cannot produce any spiritual effects in isolation from their use.

4. The power and efficacy we are attributing to baptism is instrumental; in other words, [it] serves as a means. God has determined to work effectually through the sacraments just as he has through the word. Consequently, whenever baptism is administered, it becomes in essence and by divine fiat a productive and effectual means of igniting faith and gaining salvation. It is, I repeat, an instrumental means, being supernatural in its essence, since it comprises both an earthly and a heavenly component. From its first appearance and institution, it possessed a sufficient, that is, a divine and extraordinary power and efficacy, needing no other special power to produce its spiritual effect.

5. When we say baptism’s efficacy is instrumental, we mean that (a) it is not physical. Its regenerative and faith-conferring power is not physically inherent in the baptismal water as though in its object. It does not reside in the water through any latent inherence. The grace of the Holy Spirit is not bound to it by any unbreakable bond. No supernatural power has been created in it that makes the water “fertile” and enables it to “pour forth grace.”

Nor do we mean that (b) it is moral. No divine power to produce the effect of grace is definitely and invariably present in baptism through the coordination and mediation of the symbol of water, and it does not reach its effect through the symbol. This, no less than the previous notion, is not only inconsistent with Holy Writ but with the nature of an instrument as well. Nor do we mean that (c) it is indirectly demonstrative or representative. The sacrament of baptism does not simply show and depict what God’s will, the path to eternal life or faith, rebirth, renewal, and eternal salvation are.

Nor, finally, do we mean that (d) it is miraculous—in the strict meaning of the word. While we grant that there is considerable similarity between baptism and a miracle, we cannot on that account say that they are the same thing. In the case of a miracle, the very nature of a thing is changed; in the case of baptism, only the way the thing is used is changed. In terms of quantity, the water in baptism remains the same water, although in its sacramental function it is not merely water or simply a physical entity devoid of heavenly treasure. On the contrary, it is a sacramental thing, a regenerative washing in the word. Being full of the Holy Spirit, it is united with the Holy Trinity in an inexpressible way, thereby making it a means by which the Holy Spirit works. Hence, while its efficacy is instrumental, acting as a means, we assert that it is no less real and effectual.

6. We have already pointed out in the definition in Section 1 what the efficacy of baptism consists in; namely, “A person is reborn and renewed by the water and the Spirit and has all his guilt removed so that in the future he may become a child of grace and glory.” We assert and confess this on the authority of the Augsburg Confession, which states, “Through baptism grace is offered to a person who is also through baptism received into the grace of God” (Article IX). The words in the Augsburg Confession, which state that through baptism a person is received into grace, show that grace is offered through baptism not in a demonstrative or representative sense, but truly, really, and effectually. (Otherwise, the efficacy of baptism would be demonstrative—an idea we rejected in Section 5.) A person is received into grace when he is made regenerate through baptism; for in and through baptism, the Son of God is born in him; that is, he is granted faith in Christ, lays hold of his merit and has all his sins forgiven—which equally pertains to both guilt and punishment. Also through baptism, the righteousness of Christ is offered to him, being imputed to him in it. Thus he is adopted as a child of God and heir of heavenly blessings, whereas before he received baptism and as long as he was (ordinarily) without it, he was a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Hence, someone who has been baptized is also made anew through the same sacrament (after all, it is called in Titus 3:5, “the washing of regeneration”). His righteousness and holiness, which he lost in Adam’s fall, are restored to him once the Holy Spirit is poured out upon him, so that he can receive new strength, have the errors of his mind dispersed and emerge a new man, created according to God in true righteousness and holiness, his will now corrected, and his appetite restrained. A person who has been reborn and renewed through baptism in this way is indeed a child of grace and glory. And as a surety and guarantee of eternal life, the Holy Spirit bears witness in his heart, giving testimony that he is a child of God and enjoys in this life the blessedness of hope, bound for actual blessedness in the life to come (Rom. 8:16, 24). This is the efficacy that otherwise the Calvinists ascribe to the inward baptism of only the elect.

7. Regarding the cause (or origin) and the foundation of baptism’s efficacy, we maintain that its cause is the Triune God and his inexhaustible goodness and wisdom, while its foundation is the word and the gospel promise attached to the baptismal water. For it belongs to God to impart justifying grace and endow the sacraments with the power to confer that grace upon us. He is the one who instituted the sacraments as the means of salvation, imparting his grace through them properly and authoritatively, being their chief author.

There are three distinct persons in the Trinity. That is why Christ, when instituting baptism in person in his assumed humanity, commands his disciples to baptize in the name of the three persons of the Godhead (Matt. 28:19). However, as a description, it is not unfitting for the Holy Spirit to be called the author or the generative, efficient cause of baptism’s efficacy, given that regeneration and renewal also originate with him, though not to the exclusion of the other persons.

According to the will of this three-in-one God, baptism of water acquires by the power of the word of institution and the divine promise an efficacy to produce supernatural effects (namely, regeneration, renewal, salvation, etc.) that is so great as to serve as the instrument and vehicle by which God displays and applies to believers the gospel promise of the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life. The water of baptism does not in and of itself or by its own natural power possess the efficacy to produce such spiritual effects without the operation and power of the Holy Spirit, but it does possess the ability to work inwardly, in a manner consistent with the nature of an instrument, possessing it in accordance with God its author’s effectual ordinance, Christ’s institution, and the Holy Spirit’s operation. For God is one who can work in ways that defy the mind, logic, the natural order, and all understanding (Eph. 3:20). It is consistent with his goodness, and he is supremely good, to multiply the means of salvation, providing and instituting the sacraments in addition to the word and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in particular baptism, so that there might be ordinary means for infants to be saved as well. It is not his will that any of the little ones should perish (Matt. 18:14), nor does he wish that anyone perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Thus whatever baptism brings about, the language we must use is, “God brings it about through baptism.”

8. The efficacy of baptism is real, actual, and effectual; or, to put it more clearly, when applied legitimately and in conjunction with the word of God, with the Holy Spirit working through it, the baptismal water is sufficiently effectual. Be that as it may, in secondary actualization its ἐνέργεια or operative power cannot always exert itself as far as its effects are concerned. This is due to an obstacle the recipient presents. Now, in the case of infants, the efficacy of baptism always exerts itself, given that they are innocent of the vice of hypocrisy and do not present any obstacle to the Holy Spirit’s working. On the other hand, in adults the case is different. They can bolt the door, impeding the working of the Holy Spirit by actual unrepentance and hypocrisy. This can easily be demonstrated by the single example of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13, 21). In this case, of course, baptism cannot benefit them in any way ex opere operato, but rather turns out to be grounds for their judgment and condemnation. Now, while baptism does not—through their own fault—benefit such hypocrites, baptism’s efficacy nonetheless remains unimpaired. It is still the effectual instrument the Holy Spirit uses to offer, impart, and apply justifying grace to them, provided they do not resist and reject it.

9. Such is the power and efficacy of baptism that it does not only produce effects for the past and present; it also extends into the future as well. As far as the past and present are concerned, everyone agrees that baptism removes the stain of original sin—not completely, but considerably, at least as far as blame and guilt are concerned. In fact, in the case of guilt, it removes not only original sin but sins one actually committed beforehand as well, granting forgiveness for these sins. And so that candidates for baptism can lay hold of this forgiveness and apply it to themselves, baptism in the case of infants ignites faith, while in the case of adults it confirms and seals it. Removing all guilt in this way, it both cleanses one from all uncleanness and clothes him in the garments of Christ’s righteousness and salvation, effectually applying and sealing the benefits won through his death. In this way, it renders one who was by nature a child of wrath the child of God. Both of the blessed Luther’s catechisms assert all of this when they read, “Baptism effects the forgiveness of sins, frees one from death and the Devil and grants to everyone who believes on an individual basis eternal blessedness.”

10. Given that these tremendous blessings and gifts last forever and that baptism confers them on its recipients, we cannot but assert that the very power of baptism, once it has been received, causes them to last in perpetuity and be a profound benefit to baptized believers. To be specific, in the case of adults, or rather those who examine themselves to see if they are worthy to approach the holiness of the Lord’s Supper, it is absolutely true that their enjoyment of the heavenly blessings conferred upon them previously in baptism is confirmed in this sacrament of confirmation, and those blessings are once again sealed to them. Nor is there any doubt in the case of infants and young people in their minority. Indeed, we confidently affirm that for them baptism exerts its power as well. After all, they have likewise been rendered acceptable to God through baptism in Christ Jesus, his uniquely Beloved. This being the case, who would challenge the idea that the working of the Holy Spirit, whom they too received in baptism as a surety and guarantee of eternal life, is not operative—especially when they must at God’s behest succumb to the fate of all mortals? In fact, the Holy Spirit, who does not disdain to elicit praise and acclamation for Christ from their mouths (Ps. 8:3), is particularly at that time working as effectually as ever in them, kindling in them faith in Christ. Moreover, he does not disregard the prayers of godly parents. He is fully aware that they often remind their children of the baptism they received and encourage them with the same thought when they are lying on their sickbed. He knows how to use these godly declarations to strengthen and seal faith in these little ones.

11. There still remains one thing to discuss, which might be called the efficacy of baptism, in a sense. As we said above, in and through baptism, a Christian is regenerated and made a child of God. The Holy Spirit himself is also given to him as surety, and thanks to him, the Christian is granted and awarded the ability to lead a godly life according to God’s commandments, though quite imperfectly, given our mortal weakness. If one who has been initiated through baptism contemplates this and further reflects on how in baptism he has renounced the devil and all his works and ways, has on the contrary pledged his allegiance to God and wishes to serve him as his Lord and Father who has received him as one of his sons; to repeat, if he reflects seriously on this, he will certainly leave behind his filthy sins, running more desperately from them than from a mongrel or snake so as not to lose all over again the grace of God he received in baptism. He will walk before God in a way that befits the children of God, standing firm in the faith of Christ whom he put on in baptism and following his example. He will not grieve the Holy Spirit whose sanctuary he has become, but rather will follow his lead. And to do so, he will mortify the desires of the old man, conforming himself more and more each day to God’s standard, doing so with the greatest effort and striving. This is what Paul tells his Ephesian brothers, who had already been baptized, to do: “Take off the old man who lives according to your former way of life and is wasting away in corruption according to his misguided desires, and be renewed in the Spirit of your minds” (Eph. 4:22–24). Explaining in Romans 6:3–4 why they should do these things, Paul tells them that they should cultivate an entirely new life on account of the baptism they received, as though saying to them, “You of course know full well that everyone who has been baptized into Christ Jesus has been baptized into his death. Therefore, he is buried with him through baptism into death so that, once initiated in baptism, he can walk in newness of life in the same way that Christ was resurrected from the dead through the glory of the Father.”

And so, if the Holy Spirit and the power required for a spiritual life are conferred in baptism, what keeps us from saying that baptism plays a role in inspiring one with a desire for godliness? And if this is true, as it clearly and most certainly is, what keeps us from saying that baptism’s efficacy also extends into the future? Luther captured the power that baptism has to motivate one toward godliness when he offered a general description of baptism on the basis of its end and effect. He said that immersion in water “signifies that the old Adam that still remains in us ought to be by daily mortification and repentance submerged and snuffed out, while every day the new man emerges and rises again to life.”

12. Lastly, in light of the fact that the sacraments also serve as a mark of one’s professed religion among men, as the Augsburg Confession (Article 13) discusses, baptism also distinguishes believers from unbelievers, serving as a wholly reliable criterion of the two. However, beware of thinking like the Socinians that baptism was instituted only or primarily for this purpose.*

Joseph A. Tipton is a researcher in the field of early modern literature and teaches Greek and Latin at The Geneva School in Orlando, Florida. He has published on the German neo-Latin poets Petrus Lotichius and Simon Stenius and is currently working on Samuel Rutherford’s Dictates on the Doctrine of Scripture.

*Rothe here states: “See the work written by our presider [Valentin Alberti], It Is Important For Religions.” Article VIII, pp. 380 ff. The reference is a shortened version of Alberti’s work, the longer title of which is Interessse praecipuarum religionum Christianarum ita in omnibus articulis deductum [ . . . ].
Photo of Abraham Rothe
Abraham Rothe
Abraham Rothe (1666–1730) was a German Lutheran theologian and pastor from Żary in what is now western Poland.
Monday, May 1st 2023

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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