Martin Luther on Immersion

Martin Luther on Immersion
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 8:43am

A RECENT QUESTION: Was Martin Luther himself immersed? The question came up at church yesterday in a discussion about Martin Luther’s high view of baptism.

MY REPLY: I do not know the answer to your question. I do know that Luther strongly defended the practice of immersion. E.g., in his treatise, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” printed in “Three Treatises” (Fortress 1960), he says, “The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion in water from which it derives its name, for the Greek ‘baptizo’ means ‘I immerse,’ and ‘baptisma’ means, ‘immersion'” (186). “It is therefore indeed correct to say that baptism is a washing away of sins, but the expression is too mild and weak to bring out the full significance of baptism, which is rather a symbol of death and resurrection. For this reason I would have those who are to be baptized completely immersed in the water, as the word says and as the mystery indicates. Not because I deem this necessary, [!!!] but because it would be well to give to a thing so perfect and complete a sign that is also complete and perfect. And this is doubtless the way in which it was instituted by Christ. The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with whom he dies and rises again through baptism” (191). “Baptism swallowed up your whole body and gave it forth again” (192). Here he gives three reasons for immersion: 1) This is what the Greek word means. 2) Only immersion truly portrays physically what is happening spiritually at that time. 3) This is what Jesus himself instituted. In the face of these overwhelmingly convincing reasons, how he can in the same breath say that this is not necessary is completely infathomable. It is an example of how irrational we can become at the temptation of Satan and his demons (1 Tim. 4:1).

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Martin Luther on Immersion — 4 Comments

  1. Dr. Cottrell,
    I loved your book: Baptism, a Biblical Study.
    Everyone should embark on its included Bible study! It’s the best! I did a nine month study with your book and the Bible. We met every Friday night and had a blast! Thank you! 😃

    • I’m glad I could contribute to your “blast”! This sounds like what John Piper would call “Christian hedonism.” Look it up!

  2. Respected Professor Dr.Jack Cottrell ,
    I am writing from India. Today I got the chance to read your article “Martin Luther on Immersion.” The same question I am asking to many pastors for an answer. A pastor in my town said that “he has read a biography of Luther which says Luther baptised by immersion.” Unfortunately he can’t remember the book’s name. My question is “is there any biography of Luther which informs as he baptised by immersion?”

    For yours kind answer I will remain most grateful and thankful.

    Thanking You very much.

    Sanjeeve. Koraput. odisha.India.

    • I do not have information about such a biography. I do know this. In his long 1520 essay on “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” which treats the seven Catholic sacraments, in the section on baptism, Luther gives a very fine defense of immersion. He has three arguments: (1) Immersion is what the word “baptizo” means; (2) immersion is the way baptism was applied in apostolic times; and (3) immersion is the only form of baptism that really pictures what baptism is accomplishing in terms of washing and cleansing. BUT — he then proceeds to say that, in spite of this strong reasoning, it is not REALLY NECESSARY to immerse. His basis for this is that God had been allowing the church to “baptize” by sprinkling for many, many centuries. Thus He must approve of it. (Here Luther violates one of the basic Reformation principles, “sola Scriptura.'”)

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