Phillip Cary of Eastern College has argued, “Protestantism cannot carry through its own deepest intention – to put faith in the word of Christ alone – without a Catholic doctrine of sacramental efficacy.”
That will sound counterintuitive or worse to many Evangelicals. Protestantism is about word, and not sacraments.
Cary is right, though. That’s a big claim, and this is a small article. So let me narrow and sharpen the point. Instead of “No sacraments, No Protestantism,” let’s say “No baptism, No justification.” That should get some attention. Why would a Protestant say there’s some crucial connection between baptism and justification?
The Bible, for starters. Paul links justification and baptism. The Corinthians had been the kind of people who do not inherit the kingdom, but Paul tells them they are no longer such people because “you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Does “washing” refer to water baptism? It seems so, since the whole passage is embedded in a baptismal formula: “you were washed . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The shift from what the Corinthians “were” to what they “are” is marked by their baptismal washing, which is both a sanctification and a justification.
Paul actually uses the word “baptize” with “justify” in Romans 6. Whoever dies, Paul writes, is “justified from sin” (v. 7). (That’s what the Greek says, though your English Bible may translate the verb as “freed.”) When does one die to sin? Paul has already told us: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (vv. 3–4). Through baptism, we die to Adam and brought to life in society with Jesus. Paul calls that transition from the reign of Death to the reign of Life a “justification,” and it happens at baptism.
If we’re Protestants, we want to be biblical. And if we’re biblical we have to say things like “you were washed, sanctified, and justified in the Name of Jesus” and “in your baptism you died with Christ, and whoever dies is justified from sin.” Because that’s what the Bible says.
How are we to understand this? If we talk about baptism and justification in the same breath, aren’t we falling back into justification by works?
No, because baptism is an act of God. A human pours the water and says the words, but God performs the baptism. Baptism is an enacted word that declares the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the ungodly. The big difference between the word and baptism is that the word offers God’s grace to everyone-in-general while baptism declares God’s favor to me. Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts my name on the package.
Like the gospel, baptism requires a response of enduring faith. Faith involves believing what baptism says about you. Because you have died in baptism “consider [reckon] yourselves to be dead to sin” (Romans 6:11). The self-imputation of “righteous” is based on the baptismal declaration that we are “justified from sin” by union with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And I can’t, of course, live a life of unbelief and disobedience, and expect baptism to recuse me at the end. Such a life would betray my baptism, which is Paul’s whole point in Romans 6. Still, baptism is the moment when I “die to sin” through Christ, the moment I’m washed to become “justified from sin.”
Suppose I ask you, “How do you know you are in a right standing with God?” You might say, “Because I feel the relief of forgiveness.” But then I’ll ask, “Do you always feel relief? Do you never feel guilty?” And I suppose you’ll admit that you do feel guilty sometimes.
You might say, “I know I’m justified because I believe the gospel.” You know you’re justified because you’re confident that you have fulfilled the condition of justification, which is faith. That sounds a lot like putting faith in your faith, which is putting faith in something you’ve done, which is the opposite of what a Protestant should say.
You might protest, “But faith is a gift. I’m not putting faith in my own belief, but in God’s gift of faith.” Fair enough, but you’ll notice that you’re still focusing on what’s happening in you. Instead of getting assurance by turning outward to God, you’re assured by turning inward. Which, again, seems like the opposite of what a Protestant should be doing. That inward turn was one of the main things Luther was trying to escape.
If baptism is not a public declaration of justification, where and when does that public declaration take place? Is it ever heard on earth? Is it ever spoken to me in particular? Can I hear it anywhere except in my heart? If I only hear the declaration of justification in my heart, how can I be sure I’m not hearing things? To be sure we’re right with God, we need some sign from Him, and it has to be a sign to me. We might wish for some other sign, but the sign that Paul talks about is water.
John Henry Newman charged that Luther delivered men from the tyranny of works only to place them under the tyranny of feelings. That’s unfair, and an inaccurate claim about Luther. But if we say that justification is a legal declaration, but then immediately say that this legal declaration is inaudible except to my inner ear, we are very much in danger of doing just what Newman worried about. We should worry too.
This leads us back to Cary’s conclusion: Justification by grace through faith cannot be sustained, either in theology or in our experience, without confidence that God works in the sacraments. We cannot get assurance unless we’re convinced that God declares me His beloved child in the water of baptism.
Which means, No baptism, No justification. And that implies, No sacraments, No Protestantism.
Peter Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. To learn more about Theopolis, sign up for the e-newsletter In Medias Res and receive an excerpt of Leithart’s book, Gratitude: An Intellectual History.