When is baptism invalid? The shortest answer to this question is that baptism is never invalid. You’re either baptized or unbaptized. If someone has been baptized, they possess the gift of eternal life by God’s word working through water. If someone has not been baptized, then they’re yet another candidate to bring to the font so they might receive the immense benefits of this gift.
Baptism as a Means of Grace
Where does baptism derive its power? Its efficacy comes from the word and command of Christ. Matthew records Christ’s institution of baptism immediately prior to the Lord’s ascension. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). Baptism works because Jesus commands it to be done. Any sort of alternative formula – like the gender-neutral “Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier” – is ruled out because Christ has not commanded that we baptize with such words. Those who have received such a false baptism aren’t re-baptized with a “valid” formula, but should be baptized truly for the first time.
Christ uses humans to baptize, especially those called into the pastoral office. But the Sacrament ultimately belongs to him. It is the chosen instrument of his grace by which he delivers the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5), gives the benefits of his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3–5), clothes us with his righteousness (Gal 3:27), and imparts the gift of a new heart (Titus 3:5–6). Baptism saves (1 Pet 3:21) because of the merciful Lord who gives it. It’s always valid because no unrighteousness or faithlessness on our part could ify God’s faithfulness (2 Tim 2:13).
Baptism and Faith
However it’s also important to note that baptism isn’t mechanical. Its benefits are forgiveness of sins, victory over death and the devil, and eternal salvation (Small Catechism IV: The Sacrament of Holy Baptism 6). But these benefits are grasped by faith. One might come to faith prior to baptism, like in the case of an adult baptized after believing the message of the gospel. Or, an infant might receive the gift of faith from the word delivered in baptism itself for the first time. But in both cases, the benefits of baptism are comprehended by faith and trust.
Baptism doesn’t confer grace automatically. A principle of Roman Catholic sacramental theology (ex opere operato) teaches that the sacraments confer grace regardless of one’s disposition – assuming that you avoid putting a major obstacle in the way. This teaching is one that is rejected by the Lutheran Confessions. As Melanchthon puts it in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the papal party holds that “the sacraments bestow the Holy Spirit ex opere operato [from the work performed] without the proper attitude of the recipient, as though the gift of the Holy Spirit were a minor matter” (AP IV 63).
Faith, according to the Lutheran Confessions, is none other than grasping Christ. It holds onto the word of forgiveness, whether that word is bestowed in baptism, preached from the pulpit, given in the absolution, or attached to the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
The power of baptism and the reception of its benefits by faith will raise two very different questions for different types of people. This is where the issue of baptism’s validity usually comes up.
Is Baptism Enough for Them?
Those who are proud of their achievements in the life of Christian discipleship will usually wonder how baptism could be so powerful if so many fall away. After all, plenty of people are baptized and never darken the door of a church. So what should we say about them? Was their baptism invalid? Maybe it didn’t work. Perhaps the truly powerful thing about baptism isn’t Christ, but the exercise of faithfulness on the part of those who are baptized. The hiding assumption here on the part of the proud is that they can take credit for the faithfulness to Christ they’ve manifested in their lives.
Baptism is well and good, but someone’s got to keep the lights on at church, serve on council, help with the altar guild, and manage the finances. And for those who’ve devoted themselves to the life of the church, it can be hard to accept that there are baptized people out there who have never done much of anything with it.
To this kind of question, it’s most appropriate to draw attention to the fact that faith in itself is nothing. To believe is only to grasp Christ. Faith is not a feeling that I whip up in myself by sheer force of spiritual effort. Faith takes no exertion, it only takes the promise of the gospel. And to think that we get credit for our faith is to make ourselves Lord, not Christ.
Even worse is to imagine that faith is only a starting point to which we might add merit by our later Christian obedience. This kind of pride must be returned to the waters of baptism itself, where we have died to sin – including the sin of self-righteousness and self-justification. Christ justifies, and he needs none of our help.
Is Baptism Enough for Me?
A different type of person will raise a different question. If faith grasps the benefits of baptism, do I have enough faith? What happens if I lose my salvation? This question is an interesting mirror image of the first one. In the imagination of a self-righteous person, there’s always a lurking suspicion that I have to add something to baptism, so that means other people aren’t doing enough to respond in faith.
For the anxious Christian, I’m the one who gets worried about whether baptism counts for me. Those who see the weakness of their faith, the lackluster results of their Christian life, or the constant failure at overcoming sin will question baptism’s validity. Those with such troubled consciences must also be reminded that faith grasps Christ. And since baptism is an ongoing promise that never expires, such Christians must be pointed back to the power of Christ’s word at work in the water. In baptism you died to sin and were raised anew in faith. This faith is by grace, “not of your own doing” but is “the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
In both such cases, the answer cannot be speculative. The only real answer is proclamation, as one Lutheran theologian has taught so well. Baptism is an ongoing reality for Christians, but they must be reminded of its gifts and benefits. It must be continually preached. Otherwise, believers will be left secure in their self-righteousness or despairing in their skepticism that water can indeed do such great things.
Baptism is God’s Choice
The overall issue with baptism is that it offends our natural human tendency to think that we have a choice in the matter. But for Christians, we have no choice when it comes to our salvation. Surely, we think, something so important must require my consent. But such questions about validity are usually veiled attempts to insert either our choice or our contribution to the accomplishment of our salvation.
Some will object to infant baptism along these lines because children have no choice in the matter. And isn’t it worse if they depart from the faith afterwards? Usually the tactic here is to blunt the efficacy of baptism. Baptism can’t be that powerful if people can lose the salvation it gives. But by attempting a logical resolution of this problem, we always end up undermining the power of Christ at work through the sacrament. We want to take some of his saving work and ascribe it to ourselves.
About these kinds of questions, it’s unhelpful, once again, to speculate. Speculating withdraws confidence from the troubled conscience and grants pride to the self-secure. It’s true that Scripture warns against the loss of salvation, yet it doesn’t ever indicate how easy this is to accomplish.
God’s choice (election) is given in the promise of the gospel. This is true of baptism. In this Sacrament, God says, “I choose you.” If God is making his choice for us through the promise of the word tied to the water – and we contribute nothing to its effectiveness – then we can only conclude that falling away from its benefits must be very difficult. But if you do run across someone who has obviously rejected the gift of their baptism, just apply the promise of God’s choice once again. God has made you his own in your baptism, and he doesn’t intend to lose you. Faithlessness doesn’t render baptism invalid. It just presents an opportunity to apply the forgiveness of sins to yet one more sinner in need of God’s great mercy.