The immense theologian, Martin Luther, came to faith long after his Catholic baptism via his enlightenment by God of the gospel following his considerable search for justification before God Almighty. Subsequent to Luther’s great awakening at age 36, he ministered in blitzkrieg fashion, much of it in the way of theological formulas - the law and gospel paradigm being most prominent - which were to aid in the transformation of the church in her worldwide arousal to justification by faith.
In his own spiritual arousal within Catholicism, it was not the intent of Luther to issue an invalidation of the Catholic church but of her errors. This background to Luther’s thinking and disposition is critical in understanding his theology.
What I mean is that Luther, much like all of us, no matter how greatly we might find unique spiritual edification from our peers and embrace sound doctrine, will ultimately reflect some element(s) of our time in history - some a little and others exceedingly - which will be planted in our theological expressions no matter how close to theological chastity we come. And this is the case with Martin Luther.
Though Luther sought to remain in the Catholic church, it was inevitable that those who followed Martin Luther’s fundamental teaching on justification by faith in Christ alone and apart from personal merit, would be compelled to form a new ecclesiastical body. And in forming that Protestant or ecclesiastically reformed body away from the Catholic church it was not without bringing some theological ghosts or as my title presents, refuse.
And I say all of this to qualify my topic regarding the theological litter that somewhat, unavoidably, was transported by Luther, Melanchthon and Chemnitz and company and embraced by the Lutheran church’s line of teachers and disciples. I realize that calling it rubbish is a bit harsh sounding, possibly you might prefer baggage or apparitions, which I alluded to a moment ago. That is fine diplomacy but I’m not so shy or reticent thus, coerced by the obligation to couch it in friendly terms seeing that on this occasion, the circumstance of baptismal regeneration, so much damage has been done.
While Luther did carry with him out of his spiritual regeneration many critical theological treasures which I do not hesitate to acknowledge and praise and look forward to meeting him in heaven and happily state rather effortlessly that he, no doubt, will measure greater reward than I, still, I must address the fact that he also bore a number of problematic theological ideas and one of those was the Catholic teaching of the sacraments, though he kept only two, which forward the claim that participating in the sacraments is a means of grace by which one may be saved and in particular, baptismal regeneration.
And so, today, I want to tackle only one text which I hope will be part of a number of posts addressing the errant doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
One of the favorite passages cited by Lutherans in appealing to baptismal regeneration is in Titus. Chapter three and verse five states (NASB):
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,And in pointing to this text Lutherans famously believe it is somewhat plain in supporting their theological idea. Essentially, it is the word “washing” which is their pivotal qualifier since it is predicated with “he saved us, not on the basis of deeds but…by the washing”. In their mind this washing must be identified as the water baptism performed by the church.
What Lutheranism Gets Correct
Before I chastise Lutheran theology I want to acknowledge some positive fruit, here. Lutheranism rightly points to the clarity of the text that human merit is absolutely null and void with respect to our receiving Divine approbation in salvation. Only through God’s provision, which comes through God’s mechanism - which we can only receive by faith - are we given Divine justification. Only God can and does cleanse us through His agency. This sweet Lutheran honey must not be overlooked in spite of the mishandling of a segment of the text which has given credence, in their minds, to baptismal regeneration.
Let’s Start with the Obvious
Simply upon the immediate and plain reading of the text we encounter the unmistakably conspicuous problem of claiming this refers to water baptism. The text is referring to an act by the Holy Spirit. Water baptism, on the other hand, is an act performed by a human being.
Two texts help us compare the difference.
Matthew 28:19-20 contains the command from Jesus to the Apostles to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” To whom is the command to baptize given and to what baptism does this refer?
The answer, of course, is that the baptism is a water baptism and the ones who are to perform this action are not the Holy Spirit but humans.
Acts 8:34-38 tells the story of the Eunuch who was reading Isaiah and Phillip coming along to explain the gospel to him. At one point they come to some water where the Eunuch asks to be baptized where the following is occurs:
36 As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.
Again, who performs the baptism, what kind of baptism is it and further, on what basis is the baptism performed?
Phillip performs the baptism. But notice that he insists on faith in the gospel, first, before baptizing the Eunuch.
The text in Titus refers to a washing by the Holy Spirit. The water baptisms in Scripture always have the washing or baptism, being performed by humans.
These two contexts are not the same. The only means by which one can assert that Titus is referring to water baptism is to impose onto the text or read into the text (eisegesis) something that is not there. Generally, it is an assumption by Lutherans that this must have in view water baptism primarily because the word “washing” is there.
Forcing the Bible to Match Theology…
One of the common problems with pledging allegiance to a school of theology is that once the oath is made, consciously or unconsciously, an individual will be compelled to produce artificial textual interpretations of Scripture to make it match their theological mottoes. This is quite common with certain Augustinian/Calvinist formulas which I have referred to in the past and here, in Lutheran theology, we see this practice on this occasion. But I will confess, it is far less in Lutheranism than in any other Protestant theology I’ve studied and many Evangelicals are guilty of this in their own proprietary formulas in greater numbers than Lutheranism.
The Grammatical Problem
Having examined the most immediate issue, let’s look at the related and more precise grammatical issue which is the second element for consideration.
A comparison text from Ephesians
The word, “washing” comes from λουτροῦ (loutrou) which commonly means either a bath or to bathe (ritually or for actual bathing of the body), depending on the use as a noun or verb and is often translated under the context of an ecclesiastical “baptism”. However, it also can have a spiritual context and not one of water.
A passage which uses the dative, neuter, singular form is Ephesians 5:25-26:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
Instantly, what we must observe is the use of the word “washing” apart from water. In this text, Christ has washed or cleansed with the Word of God. Hence, we have a gravitational use of cleansing/sanctification by Christ for one’s justification described as washing apart from baptism but with the Word (the Gospel) which, when believed, is the agent of cleansing.
Why Point out Ephesians?
While Ephesians is not the sole reference to washing in the Bible and in fact, is in the minority with reference to its use in the context of spiritual washing, it is important because of the claim by many baptismal regeneration proponents in asserting that the washing - when salvation is mentioned (or its elements) - must refer to a literal act thus, their appeal to water baptism in Titus.
Therefore, in response to any such theological pleading, especially here where we have washing not merely in the context of a non-water event but, in fact, one in the context of the spiritual washing which produces salvation, we must denote that water is nowhere in sight, rather, it is the gospel which washes.
This Ephesians passage uses the dative to identify the means of sanctifying (her – the church) and having cleansed (her – the church) which is “by means of” using the Word to wash her. In essence, it is using the dative to identify the means of the church’s sanctification and cleansing, which is by being washed, not with water but with the Word of God.
The main point here, ultimately, is to illustrate a clear spiritual use of the word washing, in association with spiritual cleansing or sanctification which results in our salvation.
The Genitive in Titus along with verse six
So, now to the main passage in question in Titus. Normally one isolates Titus 3:5 in formulating the argument of this passage being about water baptism. I am going to include verse six to magnify that mistake after I focus on the genitive. I believe the reader will appreciate what verse six brings, mostly in the way of qualifying verse five and enlarging the obvious.
5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
1. The main portion for consideration regarding grammatical properties is the phrase in verse 5, “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Here, the genitive case is used.
The term “genitive” is much like our word genesis. It points to some kind of origin. In the noun, it points to the noun as being either the origin of an action or having some kind of significant relationship to the action of the verb.
There are many kinds of genitives which are only, at times, slightly differentiated and often disputed. In this case we have what is primarily one of three kinds of genitives:
- a descriptive genitive (which refers to the verb belonging to the noun)
- a possessive genitive which is almost the same but more directly identifies the noun as being the undeniable source of the action of the verb
- a genitive of relationship which attaches a significant relationship of the noun to the verb. In all three cases, they fall under the greater taxonomy of adjectival genitives.
Ultimately, then, what stands out is that the actions of λουτροῦ/loutrou (washing), παλινγενεσίας/palingenesias (regeneration) and ἀνακαινώσεως/ anakainōseōs (to make anew – referencing the new spiritual species 2 Cor. 5:17, the new man in Colossians 3:10) are all actions “of the Holy Spirit”.
It is not a human baptizing with water in any way nor may the text be said to reference water, apart, that is, from what we term eisegesis or reading into or importing into the text what is not there. This washing is simply and undeniably an action of God the Holy Spirit.
Yes, it is a baptism but not a water baptism, rather the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit who washes us, regenerates us and makes us new in the new birth. Which brings me to the next verse, often ignored in water baptism appeals that should bring the context into obvious clarity.
2. Verse 6 states, “Whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”. Immediately what do we see? We see this is precisely the context the Holy Spirit being poured upon us. This is the spiritual pouring, by God, of the Spirit which occurs when one believes the gospel!
You'd think I might have more to say on this point but actually, that is it. Why? Because it is so overwhelmingly prima facie, at least in my view, in qualifying the context.
While I appreciate the numerous contributions of Lutheran theology and note that a considerable lot of its good and excellent properties are under attack today, still, it brought with it out of Catholicism, some defective elements. These elements are ones which I believe injure the Lutheran church, severely.
Often in Lutheran churches you will hear, not an emphasis on believing the gospel but on being baptized. It is used, in my view, as a vehicle to avoid the hard questions of genuine faith. It is also a means of qualifying people for membership so that souls may be added to the ecclesiastical roll but not necessarily to the divine one.
I am not saying that ultimately, no one is ever simultaneously saved when they are baptized but it is not because of the baptism rather, it is because of the illumination of God the Holy Spirit regarding the gospel of Christ and that person’s understanding of what Christ has done that saves him or her because of his/her faith in that truth.
Water baptism does not somehow force upon an individual a willingness to believe and the exercise of faith apart from one's own desire to believe and be saved. However, it can occur that one believes while being baptized but such simultaneous events, I believe, are rare and this is to say nothing of the most egregious claims of Lutheran theology namely, that of infants believing the gospel via water baptism.
Anyhow, this is not meant to be an extremely scholarly effort but as usual, a pedestrian one. One, however, which I believe is fundamentally unimpeachable with regard to the basic structure and properties of the text which, in order to overcome and make the argument for baptismal regeneration, one is forced to ignore these structural components of the text, explain them away, attack the messenger or amp up their mic and silence their theological opponent.