What if a person who was baptized as an infant dies an unbeliever; will that person be saved because of the baptism received?
Questions Listed Under Baptism
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If a person dies as an unbeliever, whether once baptized or not, that person is tragically lost, not saved. Baptism gives saving faith, but unless that faith is preserved in life through application of the gospel in Word and Sacrament, the faith will die and does the person no good.
A more detailed answer to your question was the subject of an article in our Forward in Christ magazine not long ago. I copy and paste it here for your reading:
In today’s religious world, Christian baptism is often misunderstood and sometimes downright disrespected. This God-given instrument that gives or strengthens saving faith in Christ is too often turned into a mere human act of obedience or considered a mere external sign that points to a gracious work of God that will or might be carried out without any connection to baptism. It has become the Rodney Dangerfield of God’s designated tools – it gets no respect.
But is it possible that people sometimes give baptism too much credit? Your question makes us think of that possibility and we thank you. Are blessings of baptism overstated when we speak of it “guaranteeing faith and eternal salvation?”
Baptism Gives Saving Faith
Paul assured the Galatians, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). In and through baptism a most intimate link between the sinner and the Savior is promised and assumed. Other New Testament passages affirm that the gift of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and salvation are bestowed through baptism. They are not just symbolized or pictured in baptism; baptism is said to give these blessings. Perhaps because of such vigorous promises, people speak of baptism “guaranteeing” salvation. But more needs to be said.
Saving Faith Needs Gospel Nourishment
If the baptized sinner retains saving faith, he or she will retain the gift of salvation and inherit heaven. But this is different than saying baptism guarantees heaven. Baptism is God’s way of beginning or enriching a lifelong relationship, but it remains vital that the faith given be nurtured and strengthened through the gospel aside from baptism. This is why, when children are baptized, we normally urge parents and others to include the children in family devotions, train them to read Scripture at home as well as participate in public worship and Sunday school.
It is important that all who are baptized enjoy growth in faith and Christian lifestyle to maintain their hold on God’s salvation promises. If the saving faith received through baptism is allowed to die, the result is a personal forfeiting of spiritual and eternal life. It is irresponsible to speak of baptism “guaranteeing” salvation unless this kind of clarification is immediately added. God has chosen to give and preserve faith through instruments that accompany baptism, namely the Bible and the Lord’s Supper. To despise these is more like guaranteeing eternal death, not life.
A Parallel to Circumcision
Since the Bible draws the striking parallel between baptism and Old Testament circumcision (see Colossians 2:11-12) we may draw a fitting analogy. Any Old Testament Jew who thought that his being circumcised was a “guarantee” of eternal blessing was very wrong. Paul explains: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29a). This is not a despising or a denial of the blessings received through circumcision. But it is a strong reminder that unbelief forfeits all blessings once received through the God-given external rite with its internal promises.
Similarly, a baptized person is not to be considered a believer if he was once baptized but has neglected the gospel ever since. To think that baptism guarantees the preserving of faith for a lifetime is unwise presumption involving a misunderstanding of how the Spirit works. The Spirit gives saving faith, as he does with infants through baptism, and then preserves faith, through Word and sacrament, until we depart this life at death. We are commanded to seek and rejoice in both aspects of his gracious work. We desperately need both. We praise him for giving us both.
Why do we baptize infants when the Bible says, "Believe and be baptized?" It seems like baptism is for the person who has accepted Christ and wants the Holy Spirit to come into his life. He's proclaiming his faith and now wants to be baptized. I was baptized as an infant, but this question has always bothered me. Does my baptism really count?
The question that you ask is an important one that can lead a person to examine Scripture on a variety of key issues like "Where does faith come from? What is the relationship between faith and baptism? What is baptism -- a work of the person or a work of God? Can infants and small children be brought to faith?" And so forth.
I assure you that your baptism when you were an infant really counted and still counts. From the promises that are attached to baptism in the Bible, we know and believe that the Holy Spirit uses this sacrament to work faith in human hearts. And with faith comes forgiveness of sins – even when an infant may not be consciously or mentally aware of it. Saving faith is not a matter of a human being expressing intellectual or volitional decisions about God, but a matter of God changing hearts and destinies by his power and in love.
When this gift of faith is nourished, nurtured, strengthened, and preserved in a person through repeated use of the gospel (by reading and hearing God’s Word and by receiving the Lord’s Supper with its gospel message), the believer may cherish and recall the unconditional promises God made to him at his baptism. These remain a source of comfort for us all, just as Paul spoke of it in Galatians 3:26-27 and Titus 3:5-7.
If this gift of faith given in baptism is tragically neglected, eventually despised and lost through unbelief (through a neglect and rejection of God’s Word and sacrament), the infant baptism is not the fault or problem, and God’s promises made at that time still stand. The person need only be brought back to divine promises in Christ and will then again cherish his baptism.
If a person is brought to faith through God’s Word later in life and without the privilege of baptism, that person will surely seek baptism and value it as another opportunity to have the Holy Spirit work in the heart to strengthen that faith. This is the point of the words you quote (“Believe and be baptized” – from Mark 16:16 or perhaps Acts 2:38). When faith is first received through baptism, it is to be strengthened and preserved through the Word; when faith is first received through the Word, it is to be strengthened and preserved through baptism. I invite and urge you to rejoice in both and despise neither. How gracious God is and how powerfully the Holy Spirit works through all his chosen instruments!
If you are interested in a more thorough study of what the Bible says about the nature and source of saving faith, the purpose and function of baptism, and the specific issues that pertain to infant baptism, you are invited to read archived questions and answers on this important topic that are available at this website. You are also invited and encouraged to undertake a more thorough study through publications we offer at our publishing house. Here are links to two books that will be very helpful to you: My Adoption Into God's Family and Baptized Into God's Family.
What is a valid baptism? Under what circumstances would a person need to be re-baptized?
Accurately stated, there is no "Lutheran baptism" or "Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian baptism" and so forth. There is Christian baptism, on the one hand, and non-Christian baptism, on the other hand.
A valid baptism is one that has two essential things: the application of water (that's what "baptize" means, to apply water in some way, whether by sprinkling, pouring, or immersing) together with the Word of God, "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." This is nothing more and nothing less that what Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:18-20. If this was done, the baptism is valid and there is no need for rebaptism. Changing denominations within Christendom in and of itself does not or should not involve a second baptism. Only if there is doubt or uncertainty about a prior baptism being valid would a WELS pastor "rebaptize."
If someone comes from a non-Christian group (like the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, for example), whatever baptism the person underwent is not recognized as valid by us, and we would perform a Christian baptism. The reason for this is that such groups deny the Triune God as revealed in the Bible and have emptied the words "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" of their meaning. They use the right sounds and syllables, but no longer have the essential meaning of the words.
I have an acquaintance who doesn't believe that Baptism is necessary. Her grandchildren have never been baptized (their mother grew up in the Baptist faith). Is it possible for them to come to faith without Baptism? If the Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts as adults, is it necessary for them to be baptized—can they enter heaven without Baptism?
God has given no promise whatsoever that he will work or preserve saving faith in Jesus Christ other than through the gospel. The gospel or good news of Christ's work on our behalf, is conveyed through God's Word (the Bible) and the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper). Your acquaintance is sadly placing an obstacle between the Holy Spirit's faith-giving work by despising and perhaps prohibiting the baptisms of her grandchildren. Whether in ignorance or persistent obstinacy, this is a lamentable situation.
Despite this, should the grandchildren be brought (perhaps as soon as early childhood) to learn of their Savior's work and how their sins have been paid for by Jesus, the Holy Spirit can work saving faith in them. The absence of Baptism (though in their cases not a willful despising of Baptism) does not disqualify them from being on the receiving end of God's gospel work that can give and preserve saving faith in them. Once they have saving faith and an accurate understanding of what Baptism is (a means of grace, that is, an instrument God uses to create or strengthen faith), they would then be baptized for the strengthening of their faith.
While it is possible to enter heaven without Baptism, it is unthinkable that a knowledgeable Christian who has learned what Baptism really is would neglect the application of the sacrament for himself or his loved ones. In short, Baptism is not absolutely necessary, but remains a part of God's revealed will for us and our children, and an instrument of great blessing.
Is Baptism necessary for salvation?
Yes, it is necessary in the sense that God tells us to do it and that it provides the means of grace, the gospel of Christ, that works faith and salvation. It is not absolutely necessary since a person can come to faith through the gospel in God's word without being baptized. It would be a sin to despise and refuse baptism or to deny baptism to children.
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