Martin Luther: A Heretic and Propagator of a False Gospel?

Martin LutherThe 31st of this month will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and the celebration has already begun in many quarters of the evangelical world. As part of this celebration, many are reminiscing and re-telling the important event that began it all: Martin Luther posting his 95 theses in Wittenburg. Interestingly, as evangelicals are celebrating the boldness of Luther, some unwittingly make him out to be a heretic and spreading a false gospel.

This may sound a bit outrageous, but consider the popular 9Marks ministry. Several weeks ago a good friend of mine sent me a 9Marks link that dealt with a question about the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (CC/CoC)(If you are unfamiliar with the ministry of 9Marks, check out their website HERE.) An inquisitor (a “Steven” from “Virginia”) remarked that he was rather confused about what exactly these churches believe. He commented that many of the churches have ambiguous statements of faith or none at all, so how should he interact and relate to this group of churches?

As interesting (and troubling) as this question was, the 9Marks answer and interaction with it revealed a theological inconsistency that is all too common in evangelicalism in general: an acceptance of Martin Luther’s view of justification by faith while leaving out his view of baptism. The result? In this case, the great founder of the Protestant Reformation would not be allowed to be a member of a 9Marks church. In fact, Luther would have to repent for perpetuating a false Gospel!

The 9Mark’s answer, written by editorial director Jonathan Leeman, focused upon the CC/CoC’s traditional view of baptism as the occasion when God bestows forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the penitent believer. Leeman interacts with a short explanation of baptism originally found on Abilene Christian University’s website (which is no longer available), which stated:

If by baptismal regeneration the accusers mean that the act of immersion inherently regenerates or converts or saves a person, then the charge is not true. From the earliest days of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the teaching has been that the only proper subjects for baptism are those who have faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and who repent of their past sins. It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses people from all sin by his grace. Baptism is not a ritual act that has inherent redeeming power. It is not true that when people “get baptized,” they are automatically “born again.” 

The most common understanding among Churches of Christ is that it is in the act of baptism, this culminating act of surrender of one’s life to God in faith and obedience, that God, by the merits of Christ’s blood, cleanses one from sin and truly changes the state of the person from an alien to a citizen of God’s kingdom. Baptism is not a work, at least not a human one. It is the place where God performs His work—the work that only He could do. If this constitutes baptismal regeneration, then we are guilty of the charge. It certainly is a sacramental view of baptism.

Although I personally find that some of this explanation leaves much to be desired (especially the idea that baptism is a “sacrament” and the nebulous use of “obedience”), it is overall quite accurate of the traditional CC/CoC view. This is what Leeman finds objectionable. For Leeman, God does not “[cleanse] one from sin and truly [change] the state of the person” in baptism, and certainly baptism is not “the place where God performs His work” of salvation. 

Leeman’s response is not in the least surprising or shocking, considering it’s a typical evangelical doctrine that baptism has nothing to do with salvation. It’s simply a work of man. What is interesting, however, is that Leeman believes that such a view of baptism invalidates a person’s baptism and makes him ineligible to become a member of a 9Marks church. If a person who held this view of baptism were to desire to become a member of a 9Marks church, then he would have to be “re-baptized.” In his own words, Leeman states, 

Whether or not this scholar is broadly representative, our church’s elders ask all members joining the church who were baptized in a Christian church what their particular church taught. If their church taught that baptism is necessary for salvation, we don’t accept their baptism as a true baptism. Whatever they personally believed about their baptism, the church was publicly teaching something contrary to the gospel through their “baptism.” We do not count their baptism as a baptism. Therefore, we ask them not to be RE-baptized, but baptized. If their church does not teach the necessity of baptism for salvation, then we accept their baptism.

We see, then, that if a person had been a member at a Christian Church or Church of Christ in the past, then he would have to be baptized because he was never really baptized in the first place. Baptism, according to Leeman, is not true baptism if it is connected to salvation in any way whatsoever. In fact, as Leeman points out, such a baptism is contrary to the Gospel. 

The question that must be raised at this point is, Does Leeman and 9Marks realize that such a view of baptism would discount Martin Luther from becoming a member at his church? I assume that Leeman and the 9Marks ministry uphold Luther as the great Protestant Reformer who trumpeted the great cry of justification by faith alone, considering many of their articles praise and refer to Luther for such a theological stance and they have many articles currently devoted to the Reformation and Luther in particular (see HERE). But what Leeman and 9Marks (along with evangelicalism in general) seem not to realize is that such a stance on baptism and church membership would automatically discount Luther as becoming a member of a 9Marks church. First, Luther would have to repent of his sin of propagating a false Gospel, and then he would have to be baptized (not “re-baptized”). The reason is because Luther himself believed and taught that God bestows his grace upon sinners at the time of baptism just as the traditional CC/CoC view believes.

Luther, referring to Mark 16:16, wrote, “The first point about baptism is the divine principle, which says, He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.’ This promise is far superior to all the outer show of works, vows, orders, and whatever else men have introduced. Our entire salvation depends on this promise; . . . knowing without any dubiety of mind that, once we have been baptized, we are saved.[1]

Luther stated elsewhere that baptism “effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.”[2] Moreover, “as we have once obtained forgiveness of sins in Baptism, so forgiveness remains day by day as long as we live.”[3] 

Sola FideBut wait! Isn’t Luther known for the Reformation’s emphasis upon justification by faith alone? Yes, of course he is! But Luther did not see his stance of sola fide (faith alone) to be inconsistent with his view of baptism. In his own words, Luther clarified this point: 

“It is true that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s. . . . God’s works, however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith.” It is through faith, “baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation. This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it.”[4] Furthermore, “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God himself. Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act. . . . Thus you see plainly that Baptism is not a work which we do but is a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps.”[5] 

As it can be observed, Luther himself was not exactly as sola fide as evangelicalism often portrays him. Luther believed that a person is saved by grace through faith apart from works, but baptism was the time in which salvation became a reality, and this was not a work of man. Baptism is when God works. This view, however, is the exact view which Leeman and 9Marks (and much of evangelicalism in general) reject and believe is contrary to the Gospel and thus disqualifies someone from becoming a church member. It is ironic that the very founder of the Reformation could not, in the twenty-first century, become a member of an evangelical church which so highly regards him. 

Perhaps Leeman and others would affirm Luther’s justification by grace but reject his baptismal view, and thus would call for his repentance of propagating a false Gospel and require him to be “re-baptized.” This would be the consistent thing to do, and I would certainly commend such a stance for such logical consistency. 

The issue, however, is that Luther is consistently heralded as the one who championed the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he clearly did not believe, at least not in its more modern understanding. 9Marks, along with numerous other evangelical ministries and churches, seems to miss Luther’s baptismal theology. This oversight is significant, considering the fact that evangelicalism in general understands such a view as contrary to the Gospel and “works-based.” If Luther is the great Reformer and exemplar of sola fide as he is often held up to be, wouldn’t it be proper to be clear that his view of salvation included baptism as well and that he didn’t see this as intrinsically contradictory to justification by faith? Wouldn’t it also be appropriate for evangelicals to state clearly, as they do with their critique of CC/CoC’s view of baptism, that Luther was also works-based in his understanding of salvation? 

If we are going to critique particular Christian traditions and affiliations as propagating a false gospel, certainly one would expect it to be consistent. If the CC/CoC are viewed to be teachers of false doctrine because of their view of baptism, then Luther ought to be critiqued similarly. Call a spade a spade. Let’s not theologically cherry pick. And in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation, let’s re-visit all the great theological truths of Scripture, but let’s also be forthright in what the Reformers actually believed and taught. Disagree we may, but let’s be transparent and lay it all out on the table.   

The Blade 

Notes: 

[1] Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church: A First Inquiry (De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praeludium), in Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, tr. Bertram Lee Woolf, 2 vols. (London: n.p., 1952), 1:255 [emphasis added]. 

[2]  Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” IV:6, in The Book of Concord, trans. and  ed. Theodore Tappert et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 348-349. 

[3]  Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” IV:86, in The Book of Concord, 446. 

[4] “The Large Catechism,” IV:35, 441. 

[5]  “The Large Catechism,” IV:10, 437; IV:37, 441. 

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2 Responses to Martin Luther: A Heretic and Propagator of a False Gospel?

  1. Perhaps we could say, granting for some wiggle-room around the edges, that as Luther and Zwingli could not come to terms on another matter in their day, the followers of Zwingli and the followers of Luther cannot come together on the matter of baptism. I will be bold enough to add that the reason for this is that the followers of Zwingli, like their teacher, are simply wrong about baptism, according to Bible doctrine.

    • prasor says:

      Good point, Harold. Fortunately, we don’t drown each other, like Zwingli did to his opponents, over this disagreement. 🙂