Monday, May 31, 2010
Last week I received in the mail the Spring 2010 (Vol. 72.1) issue of The Westminster Theological Journal. Considered by many to be the premier journal of the conservative, American, Reformed “subculture”, the essays published in this journal are from some of the best Reformed minds of our day. Of the ten essays presented in his issue of the WTJ, I thought seven of them were quite good; but one of those seven particularly impressed me: William B. Evans, “DÈJÁ VU ALL OVER AGAIN? THE CONTEMPORARY REFORMED SOTERIOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE”*. I will be providing some selections from this essay, followed with a few of my own reflections—from Evan’s pen we read:
Those familiar with the conservative Reformed subculture in the United States have likely noticed considerable recent debate on matters soteriological (i.e. issues having to do with the doctrine of salvation). Issues long thought settled have emerged with new vigor, new questions have emerged, and long-forgotten or even suppressed aspects of the Reformed tradition have been brought to light. For example, the doctrine of justification by faith, thought by many to be the material principle of the Reformation and a hallmark of Reformed Christianity, is now under intense discussion in a variety of circles. (Page 135)
Reformed soteriology, particularly in America, has been anything but monolithic. (Page 135 - bold emphasis mine)
…let us begin with Calvin, who set a formal agenda for most subsequent Reformed thinking by highlighting the Pauline theme of union with Christ. Here we recall his famous statement at the beginning of Institutes 3.1.1 that the benefits of salvation remain unavailable to us as long as “Christ remains outside of us.” Note also Calvin’s insistence that it is through union and participation with the “substance” of Christ’s incarnate humanity that both the power of his deity and the forensic benefits of salvation (e.g. justification) are conveyed to the Christian. But Calvin’s view of union with Christ and soteriology in general involved a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories which was never fully developed and explained. Categories such as “substance” and “participation” are ontological, while “imputation” and synthetic justification are forensic, and the Reformer never fully explained how the forensic dimension is related to Christ’s person such that to receive the former. (Page 135, 136)
Evans’ then goes on to relate subsequent developments “made by some of Calvin’s successors who began to explore the notion of Christ’s resurrection as a forensic act”, and then that “this promising approach was soon overwhelmed by the rise of federal theology [not to be confused with Federal Vision] with its notions of extrinsic federal or legal solidarity". (Page 136)
Evans continues with:
Accompanying this was the imposition of an ordo salutis famework on the elements of soteriology, such that the forensic benefits of salvation (justification and adoption) logically and temporally preceded the transformatory benefits (sanctification and glorification). The effect of these moves was to safeguard the forensic from works righteousness, but at the expense of making the forensic rather abstract. (Page 136)
This impulse was most fully developed in the American context by the Old Princeton theologians Charles and A. A. Hodge. (Page 136)
But this federal theology paradigm provoked reactions in other directions. The New England Calvinist trajectory from the Edwardseans to Nathaniel William Taylor was convinced that federal theology was implicitly antinomian…they jettisoned all notions of imputation (both in hamartiology and soteriology) and merit, and they spoke only of a “moral union” of shared sentiment between Christ and the individual believer. Here the primary concern was genuine transformation of life, and antinomianism was seen as the great threat. (Page 137)
Another reaction is evident in the so-called Mercersburg Theology of John W. Nevin. Responding both to the forensic abstraction of federal theology and the individualistic legalism of New England Calvinism, Nevin sought to go back to Calvin by emphasizing the believer’s union with Christ, which issues in both justification and sanctification, and the way that this union with Christ is inaugurated and strengthened by the objective means of grace in the corporate life of the church. (Page 137)
Later federal theology privileged justification, New England Calvinism stressed sanctification, and Mercersburg prioritized union with Christ. As we shall see, similar things are going on today. (Page 138)
Evans moves on to three modern (20th and 21st century) developments/trajectories: the first he terms, “The Biblical Theological Trajectory”; the second, “The Revisionist Wing”; and the third, “The Repristinationist Wing”.
Evans points out that the beginnings of the “The Biblical Theological Trajectory” are to be found in the works of Geerhardus Vos and his student John Murray. The ‘torch’ has been carried on by one of Murray’s students, Richard B. Gaffin, and “a variety of Gaffin’s students—Lane Tipton, Mark Garcia, Philip Ryken, the present author and others”.
We also find here a dissatisfaction with certain concepts and schemas that have been taken for granted more recently by the federal theology tradition together with the sense that they have obscured rather than illuminated certain key scriptural themes. (Page 139 - bold emphasis mine)
Particular attention has been focused on the ordo salutis construction that has informed much conservative Reformed soteriology since the early seventeenth century. Gaffin and others have argued that the ordo salutis, with its logical schematizing of the various elements of salvation, obscures the unity of salvation in Jesus Christ and the centrality of the believer’s union with Christ. (Pages 139, 140 - bold emphasis mine)
Another characteristic of this trajectory is a strong emphasis on the theme of the believer’s union with Christ. Two aspects of this view of union with Christ stand out. First there is the priority of union. John Murray wrote:
Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ…
Thus union with Christ is understood as an umbrella category that is foundational to all aspects of salvation. Philip G. Ryken writes, “Union with Christ is not simply one step in salvation; it is the whole stairway on which every step is taken.” Particular attention here is focused on the relationship between union and justification, with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness viewed as in some sense consequent to spiritual union with Christ. Thus Ryken adds, “Union with Christ is logically prior to justification…” (Page 140 - bold emphasis mine)
According to this trajectory, Scripture teaches both forensic and synthetic justification, and it indicates that one’s eternal destiny hinges in some sense on the ongoing life of faith and obedience. (Page 141 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans then moves on to the “The Revisionist Wing” trajectory. He begins with Norman Shepherd, “who taught systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, from 1963 to 1981, and then follows with “the so-called Federal Vision (FV) movement”. Evans writes:
Here we see a revisionist impulse entailing a significant recasting of the tradition. The motives evident here are several. There are deep concerns about “cheap grace,” that is, antinomian preaching of salvation apart from real transformation of life. Thus the necessity of obedience and the close connection of faith and obedience are stressed. There is also a deep ecclesial impulse here. The American revivalist tradition with its subjectivity and concern for isolated conversion experiences at the expense of the ongoing life of faith and obedience is viewed with deep suspicion, and so we see a turn toward the objective in religion, toward the churchly and sacramental. (Pages 141, 142)
Norman Shepherd must be regarded as a seminal figure here, for his thought has set an agenda for much of this group…He contends that the key scriptural covenants—the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the New—are conditional in that they entail both “promise and obligation.” The covenant promises are freely given, but the blessings of the covenant cannot be enjoyed apart from faith and obedience…Here we also see a rejection of the Law/Gospel distinction (which Shepherd views as “Lutheran”) in favor of a mono-covenental framework which attempts to integrate rather than separate obligation and promise.
Second, there is an expansive view of faith as including works of evangelical obedience. Shepherd never tires of declaring that the faith that saves is living, active, and obedient: “Faith produces repentance, and repentance is evident in the lifestyle of the believer. Thus, the obligation of the new covenant include not only faith and repentance, but also obedience.” Shepherd adds that this “is not the obedience of merit, but the obedience of faith. Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith.”
Third, there is a rejection of what Shepherd calls a “works/merit principle” in favor of a “faith/grace principle”, and a repudiation of the notion of merit. Merit matter of just deserts. (Page 142)
Fourth, there is a focus upon the objectivity of covenant administration over against the subjectivity of personal experience. Problems of assurance result, he contends, when we look within for evidence of God’s grace. Regeneration is difficult to quantify, and even more difficult to fathom is the mystery of God’s eternal election. And so Shepherd directs believers away from subjective personal experience to baptism. (Page 143)
Evans then quotes the following from Shepherd’s, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism:
But instead of looking at covenant from the perspective of regeneration, we ought to look at regeneration from the perspective of covenant. When that happens, baptism, the sign and seal of the covenant, marks the point of conversion. Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved. (Page 143 – p. 94 in The Call of Grace - bold emphasis mine)
Finally, there is a corresponding de-emphasis on election and divine sovereignty. In it foregrounding of the “five points of Calvinism,” Shepherd argues that the Reformed tradition has attempted, as it were, to play God, to approach soteriology from the standpoint of infinite deity rather than finite humanity. (Page 143 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans follows the Shepherd section with a look at the “Federal Vision (FV) movement” which “may be treated more briefly, since it is in a large measure a fleshing out of Shepherd’s earlier work.”
In addition to Shepherd, we must also note the importance of the theonomic or Christian Reconstructionist movement, which seems to have provided a sizeable social network and base for the FV movement. (Pages 143, 144)
With regard to baptism, the trend here has been toward exceedingly high conception of baptismal efficacy. The parameters of the covenant community are defined by baptism, which both admits a person to the church and conveys saving grace (regeneration and union with Christ). (Page 144 - bold emphasis mine)
With regard to the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis is, once again, on sacramental objectivity. Because baptized children are understood to have already received initial saving grace, the practice of paedocommunion is often encouraged in FV circles. (Page 144)
Because the enjoyment of the benefits of the covenant is conditional on perseverance in faith and obedience and because of a robust doctrine of baptismal grace, considerable attention has been paid to the dynamics of perseverance and apostasy. For example, Rich Lusk has argued at length that the warnings against apostasy in the NT are real rather than hypothetical, and that it is possible for those who are genuinely united with Christ in baptism to fall from grace…Lusk posits a separate grace of perseverance given only to the elect.” [Note: Lusk’s understanding of apostasy and the grace of perseverance here is identical to that of Augustine and Aquinas.] (Pages 144, 145)
Finally, the doctrine of justification undergoes considerable development in FV hands. Two areas stand out. First, the notion of imputation appears to be in process of eclipse. There is little talk of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, probably because such a notion of vestigial in the absence of the concept of merit. Likewise, soteriological imputation is challenge in that some of the FV figures, along with Shepherd, deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ to the believer. Second, Leithart has also argued that justification is more than merely forensic, and that it has a transformatory dimension. (Page 145 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans’ next section describes “The Repristinationist Wing”; he begins with:
Such revisionism has sparked a strong reaction from those who wish to defend classical Reformed orthodoxy. Much of this effort has emerged from faculty members at Westminster Seminary in California…The overriding motive here is clear and laudable—safeguarding the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith. (Page 145)
Finally, the historical method evident in this wing needs to be noted. As the continuity of later federal orthodoxy with the earlier Reformed tradition is asserted, a certain “flattening” of the tradition ensues. The notion of historical development seems to play no substantive role here. (Page 147 - bold emphasis mine)
In the last section, “Observations”, Evans gives us a summation of his thoughts. The following are some of those “observations”:
The contours of the nineteenth-century American Reformed debates are to a significant extent repeated. (Page 147)
Churches have been torn by these debates, and extensive denominational reports have been written. (Page 147)
…this controversy raises important question about the historiography of the Reformed tradition. Issues of continuity and discontinuity, of fidelity and infidelity to the tradition are persistently raised. Another way to phrase this is to raise the question of what is the “normative center” of the tradition for conservative Reformed people. (Page 148)
Second, this controversy poses important questions as to how conservative Reformed systematic theology ought to be done…Are Reformed churches defined primarily, as some today seem to argue, by adherence to confessional documents? If so, is the role of Scripture, practically speaking, simply to provide prooftexts for the confessional tradition? (Page 148 - bold emphasis mine)
…these debates are also occurring at the same time that the conservative Reformed theological tradition is no longer central to the intellectual life of American Evangelicalism, and as the conservative Reformed churches associated with the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) make up only about half a million people. (Page 150)
The prospect of further splintering of this group does not bode will for it. The battle lines are already drawn and the positions are hardening. One participant in these discussions has spoken of a “Reformed civil war.” (Page 150 - bold emphasis mine)
We have arrived at the end of Evans incredible essay—incredible for its clarity, content, and frankness. Evans gives the ‘outsider’ a look into the reality of one of the most vocal branches of the American conservative Christian scene, and that look raises numerous concerns for any thoughtful reader.
To Evans’ “observations”, I would like to add a few of my own. First, the trajectories mentioned by Evans that are moving beyond “classical Reformed orthodoxy” (i.e. the federal theology which developed shortly after Calvin), exhibit a return to a theology that is more Biblically and historically based. Second, those who are aggressively attempting to defend “classical Reformed orthodoxy” are in essence giving a certain priority to tradition over Scripture. And finally, the prominent leaders of these separate Reformed trajectories have at least one thing in common with each other, and with their ultimate Master (i.e. John Calvin)—arrogance. I have little doubt that this arrogant/overconfident attitude has been the primary contributing factor to new this “Reformed civil war”.
Grace and peace,
*Evans most likely had Michael Horton’s article, Déjà Vu All Over Again , in mind when he came up with the title for his essay.
Friday, May 21, 2010
“One day, several months after our return, when he and his brother were with some lambs of ours behind our tents, his brother came running to us and said: ‘That Qurayshite brother of mine! Two men clothed in white have taken him and have laid him down and opened his breast and they are stirring it with their hands.’ So I and his father went to him and we found him standing, but his face was very pale. We drew him to us and said: ‘What aileth thee, my son?’ He said: ‘ Two men clothed in white came to me and laid me down and opened my breast and searched it for I know not what.”
Halīmah and Hārith her husband looked this way and that, but there was no sign of the men, nor was there any blood or any or any wound to bear out what the two boys had said, No amount of questioning would make them take back their words or modify them in any respect. Yet there was not even the trace of a scar on the breast of their foster-child nor any blemish on his perfect little body. The only unusual feature was in the middle of his back between the shoulders: a small but distinct oval mark where the flesh was slightly raised, as it were from the impress of a cupping glass; but that had been there at birth.
In after-years he was able to describe the event more fully: “There came unto me two men, clothed in white, with a gold basin full of snow. Then they laid hold of me, and splitting open my breast the brought forth my heart. This likewise they split open and took from it a black clot which they cast away. Then they washed my heart and my breast with the snow.” He also said: “Satan toucheth every son of Adam the day his mother beareth him, save only Mary and her son.”
Notes:  Sīrat Rasūl Allāh;  Kitāb at-Tabaqāt-Kabīr;  Sahih al-Bukhārī, LX.54.
I discern some theological implications from the above narratives that echo certain themes from the Bible. From Job we read:
What is man, that he should be clean? And he that is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? (5:14 – ASV)
From the Psalms:
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me. (51:7-10 – ASV)
And in the epistle of 1 John we read:
And ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. (3:5 – ASV; see also 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15, 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22)
Grace and peace,
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Last night I was scrolling down through James Swan’s Beggars All blog’s “LABELS” looking for possible links to Eastern Orthodox posts, and stumbled upon this following link: DAVID WALTZ. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link and was completely surprised to find that James had chosen to respond to a November 2009 Articuli Fidei thread five months later in April, 2010. One would think that such a late response would prompt James to inform me that he had done so; but alas, not a word…
Anyway, now that I am finally aware of his post, I would like to share a few of my thoughts on it.
James posted the following:
David Waltz on On Scripture and Tradition:
“Once again, Scripture is CLEAR, but only for those who have embraced the true regula fidei. This was THE view of the majority of the early Church Fathers, and has been recognized as such by a consensus of patristic scholars; the following are but a few selections from this overwhelming consensus."
Here's a citation he used for support:The ‘ancillary view’ is Lane’s term for the sixteenth-century Protestant view, in which tradition functions as an aid, but not a norm, for the interpretation of Scripture… In spite of claims to the contrary, the Reformers did not return to the ‘coincidence view’…The Reformation posited a degree of discontinuity in church history… (Richard Bauckham, “Tradition In Relation To Scripture and Reason”, in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, ed. Drewery & Bauckham, p. 122.)
So, this quote from Bauckham is used as scholarly evidence that the Reformers posited a "discontinuity in church history" because they rejected the established God-given relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Since the Reformers rejected this, they therefore rejected the true regula fidei. The true regula fidei embraces the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
James has misread my thread; the primary focus of the thread was dealing with the view of the early Church Fathers on Scripture and Tradition. James pulls one quote (out of context) from the nine scholarly citations I provided and ignored the relationship of that selection to all the others. What I find even more troubling is the fact that James later goes on to provide the broader context the quote I provided from Dr. Bauckham, which affirms what I (and the other scholars I cited) have said about the early Church Fathers—i.e. that early CFs held to the “coincidence view” of Scripture and Tradition, and not the “ancillary view” of the Reformers.
So, I cannot help but ask myself: “What was James (Swan) thinking” when he wrote up his post? Further, did he actually read the entire thread; and if he did read the entire thread, should I not question the motives of his post?
In ending, I would like to state that once I discovered this disappointing post from James, I felt compelled to respond—sincerely hope my readers have some sympathy with me for addressing a sub-standard issue…
Grace and peace,
Friday, May 14, 2010
Gary begins his article by asking: “Where do you stand on God?” He immediately follows this question with:
It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.
This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.
The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.
Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.
IMO, the following from Gary’s introduction, sums up the primary presupposition of the “New Atheists”:
They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil.
Thus we have the battle-cry for “the war against faith”.
Interestingly enough, Gary (who appears to embrace agnosticism), towards the end of his article, weighed in with:
Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I've decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism – this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism – is too much for me.
This brings me to the book pictured at the beginning of this thread. Most of David Hart’s tome is available online in “limited preview” via Google Books.
For those interested in a less vigorous treatment, the same author has just this month penned a scaled-down/popular level critique of the “New Atheism”: First Things - Believe It or Not.
So much for initial foray into the hostile territory of the “New Atheists”—I would like to encourage others to provide links to other scholarly critiques/treatments of this dark, 21st century movement in the combox.
Grace and peace,
Monday, May 10, 2010
What is “faith alone”? The previous thread (LINK), as well as a couple of older threads (A Catholic affirmation/understanding of “faith alone”; An Evangelical critique of R.C. Sproul’s “Faith Alone”) here at AF, have shed some light on attempted polemical definitional constructs. I would now like to focus in on baptism’s relationship to faith—more explicitly, whether or not baptism is a crucial element of grace and faith, or whether it is a “work”. I shall begin by citing St. Augustine:
…in the holy union of the parts of the body of Christ, so great is the virtue of that sacrament, namely of baptism, which brings salvation…
“…Except a man be born again of water, and of the Spirit.” By water, therefore, which holds forth the sacrament of grace in its outward form, and by the Spirit who bestows the benefit of grace in its inward power, canceling the bond of guilt [reconcilians bonum naturæ], the man deriving from his first birth originally from Adam alone, is regenerated in Christ alone.
For if sacraments had not some points of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all…the sacrament of faith is faith*…thus the apostle says, in regard to this sacrament of baptism: “We are buried with Christ by baptism into his death.” (Letter 98 – NPNF First Series, 1.406, 407, 410.)
Augustine’s position that baptism is not a work at all, but rather, is a sacrament of grace (and hence, “is faith”), is maintained by the most famous advocate of “faith alone”, Martin Luther:
The Christian message informs us that, to begin with, we must become wholly different persons, that is, that we must be born anew. But how does this happen? By the Holy Spirit and by water (John 3:5). after I have been reborn and have become pious and God-fearing, then I go forth; and everything I do in that regenerate state is good…
Do not follow the example of Münzer, who claims that here the word “water” means affliction and temptation. It is true that the word “water” does often symbolize temptation in Holy Writ, especially in the Psalms. But here it cannot be interpreted that way; for here Christ is speaking of Baptism, of real and natural water such as a cow may drink, the Baptism about which you hear in the sermons on this subject. Therefore the word “water” does not designate affliction here; it means real, natural water, which is connected with God’s Word and becomes a very spiritual bath through the Holy Spirit or through the entire Trinity. Here Christ also speaks of the Holy Spirit and teaches us to regard Baptism as a spiritual, yes, a Spirit-filled water, in which the Holy Spirit is present and active; in fact, the entire Holy Trinity is there. And thus the person who has been baptized is said to be born anew. In Titus 3:5 St. Paul terms Baptism “a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” In the last chapter of Mark we read that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). And in this passage Christ declares that whoever is not born anew of the water and the Holy Spirit cannot come into the kingdom of God. Therefore God’s words dare not be tampered with. Of course, we are well aware that Baptism is natural water. But after the Holy Spirit is added to it, we have more than mere water. It becomes a veritable bath of rejuvenation, a living bath which washes and purges man of sin and death, which cleanses him of all sin.
Christ wants to say: “You are not yet born anew. But I have come to bring you a new way of being born again, namely, a rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit, and to proclaim to you the necessity of this rebirth. I bring you a washing of regeneration which gives you a new birth and transforms you into a new person.” (LUTHER’S WORKS [Volume 22] Sermons On The Gospel Of St. John -Chapters 1–4, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. Martin H. Bertram, 1957, pp. 280, 283, 284.)
Recently we heard the sermon in which the Lord told Nicodemus that unless a man is born anew of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot come into the kingdom of God. Thereby He indicated that our salvation and blessedness does not depend on good works or the righteousness of the flesh but on our being born anew. This new birth must precede the good works. There is nothing hidden about it; it is to be known as a new birth from water and the Holy Spirit. That is how we must be born anew. It is not sufficient to be born of a woman, which is a birth of flesh and blood. This birth we experienced once. No, Christ says clearly and concisely that the birth referred to here must take place through water and the Holy Spirit. This new birth is Baptism. We are baptized in God’s name, with God’s Word, and with water. Thus our sin is forgiven, and we are saved from eternal death. The Holy Spirit is also bestowed on us; we receive a new nature, different from the one with which we were born. Through Adam we were involved in the realm of the devil, who is our master; death, sin, eternal damnation, and the devil’s kingdom were born into us. But here we are reborn from death to life, from sin to righteousness; here we are transferred from the kingdom of the devil into the kingdom of God. You heard that the new birth is effected through the Holy Spirit and water, and that we are renewed through the power and the efficacy of Baptism. (Ibid., p 287.)
Grace and peace,
*Note: bold emphasis in quotations mine.
In the combox of this thread, Nick (LINK to “Nick’s Catholic Blog”) has brought to our attention material from Luther’s Large Catechism that is germane to the topic at hand; the following is a lengthy extract from the section on “Holy Baptism”:
26] Here you see again how highly and precious we should esteem Baptism, because in it we obtain such an unspeakable treasure, which also indicates sufficiently that it cannot be ordinary mere water. For mere water could not do such a thing, but the Word does it, and (as said above) the fact that the name of God is comprehended therein. 27] But where the name of God is, there must be also life and salvation, that it may indeed be called a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water; for by the Word such power is imparted to Baptism that it is a laver of regeneration, as St. Paul also calls it, Titus 3:5.
28] But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. 29] But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure?
30] Now, they are so mad as to separate faith, and that to which faith clings and is bound, though it be something external. Yea, it shall and must be something external, that it may be apprehended by the senses, and understood and thereby be brought into the heart, as indeed the entire Gospel is an external, verbal preaching. In short, what God does and works in us He proposes to work through such external ordinances. Wherever, therefore, He speaks, yea, in whichever direction or by whatever means He speaks, thither faith must look, and to that it must hold. 31] Now here we have the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. To what else do they refer than to Baptism, that is, to the water comprehended in God's ordinance? Hence it follows that whoever rejects Baptism rejects the Word of God, faith, and Christ, who directs us thither and binds us to Baptism.
32] In the third place, since we have learned the great benefit and power of Baptism, let us see further who is the person that receives what Baptism gives and profits. 33] This is again most beautifully and clearly expressed in the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. That is, faith alone makes the person worthy to receive profitably the saving, divine water. For, since these blessings are here presented and promised in the words in and with the water, they cannot be received in any other way than by believing them with the heart. 34] Without faith it profits nothing, notwithstanding it is in itself a divine superabundant treasure. Therefore this single word (He that believeth) effects this much that it excludes and repels all works which we can do, in the opinion that we obtain and merit salvation by them. For it is determined that whatever is not faith avails nothing nor receives anything.
35] But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what, then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God's (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper's baptism). God's works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended. 36] For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God's command and ordinance, and besides in God's name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation. Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it.
37] Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed. (The Large Catechism – Holy Baptism)