Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Putting baptism back into “the forgiveness of sins” of the Apostles’ Creed

Like so many generations of Lutherans raised in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, my catechetical formation took place in confirmation class using the Small Catechism with explanation produced by the synod and published by Concordia Publishing House.[1] While the text of the Small Catechism itself was memorized and received some attention in catechesis, the true focus of catechesis was the synodical explanation with its numbered questions and answers, and supporting Bible verses.

When the synodical catechism treats the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed the emphasis falls on explaining justification by grace, on account of Christ through faith.  The current 1991 edition exhibits some changes in wording from the 1943 edition that I used, but the focus remains the same.  Near the end of the section on “the forgiveness of sins” there are three questions that follow the same order and provide the same answer with only minor changes in wording.  In the current edition they state:

183. Where does God offer the forgiveness of sins?
God offers the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel.

184. How do you receive this forgiveness of sins?
I receive this forgiveness through faith, that is, by believing the Gospel.

185. Why can and should I be sure of the forgiveness of my sins?
I can and should be sure of the forgiveness of my sins because God keeps His promises in Christ.

These questions and answers, like all of them in this section, provide true statements that teach about the Christian faith confessed in the Lutheran Church.  For many years this is how I thought about the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Creed -  namely, it confessed the truth that we receive forgiveness because of Christ’s saving death through faith.

However, when we consider the history of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, and of how it is explained in the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, it soon becomes clear that that there is a glaring oversight when “the forgiveness of sins” is taught in this way.  In fact, one can go so far as to say that it reveals the degree to which the sacraments have often failed to shape the piety of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  The correct answers were given when it was time to talk about Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Yet when the topic was not, “What do we believe about baptism?” or, “What do we believe about the Lord’s Supper?” the sacraments were often nowhere to be found in the piety of the synod.  And if these two sacraments received this treatment, Holy Absolution was even more invisible.

In the history of the Church, the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Apostles’ Creed has been first and foremost about the forgiveness received in baptism.  The catechetical practice of the Church prior to the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) is shrouded in relative obscurity.[2]  There is a paucity of texts extant and those that we have require us to tease out details of ritual practice and theology.[3]  The Apostolic Tradition was once considered to be evidence for pre-Nicene practice in Rome, but that now seems unlikely.[4]

The Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. and Constantine’s support of the Church dramatically changed the Church’s situation and also prompted significant changes in the way the Church was now able to do things – indeed in how it needed to do things as it sought to evangelize the Roman Empire that was becoming newly receptive to the faith.  The developed form of the catechumenate leading to baptism for which we have some significant evidence dates to this period.[5]

It is in this setting that creeds, which were already beginning to take forms we would recognize during the third century, come into their own.  The specific details varied from area to area, but the creeds became the basis for catechesis as they were given by the bishops to the catechumens (an event called the traditio symboli) and were then later spoken by the catechumens before the Church (called the redditio symboli).

The intimate connection between creeds, catechesis and baptism is a foundational truth of the early Church.  It is not simply that creeds were part of the process that led to baptism.  In Rome itself the forerunner of the Apostles’ Creed was in fact part of the baptismal formula.  The Gelasian Sacarmentary (Reginensis 316) provides “an edition of a rite which in its original Roman form was first drawn up in the early sixth century.”[6]  In this rite we find:

And before you pour the water over him, you question him with the words of the Creed, and say:

Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? R. I believe.

And do you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was born and suffered? R. I believe.

And do you believe in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Church, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh? R. I believe.

And while you ask the questions, you dip him three separate times in the water. Afterwards, when he has come up from the water, the infant is signed by a presbyter on his head with chrism, with these words:

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has made you to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, and has given you remission of all your sins, himself anoint you with the chrism of salvation in Christ Jesus unto life eternal. R. Amen.”[7]

The most striking thing about this is that baptism did not occur using the trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19.  Instead, each portion of the creed about Father, Son and Holy Spirit was confessed in conjunction with a threefold immersion in water (naturally an adult spoke this for the infant).  As J.D.C. Fisher observes, “This threefold series of question-answer-dipping constituted the means by which the Roman Church at this time fulfilled our Lord’s command to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”[8]  We do not know exactly when Rome shifted to the trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19. It occurred “by the time of Zacharias I, who in 744 had to deal with the question of whether a presbyter who incorrectly pronounced the Latin formula had administered a valid baptism.”[9] 

In the early centuries in Rome, “the remission of sins” was confessed in the very event in which it was received.  The explicit connection between baptism and the phrase “forgiveness of sins” has been grounded for the Church in the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν), and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38 ESV).[10]  This truth is confessed in the Nicene Creed (as it reached its final form at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.) in the words “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  The explicit linking of baptism and forgiveness is a regular feature of eastern creeds.[11]

As one would expect, the faith confessed by the Church in the west on this foundational truth of the faith was no different.  Quodvultdeus of Carthage was a deacon in Carthage under St. Augustine and later became bishop there.  In his Second Homily on the Creed he explained the creed and he told the catechumens, “[We believe] in the remission of sins. Holy baptism completely destroys all sins, both original and personal: things said, things done, things thought, things known, things forgotten –all are discharged.  He who created the person makes him anew; he who is the one who does not look for merit remits sins: for grace precedes even this second infancy, so that, liberated through Christ, those who were once captives in Adam and bound by the devil are free” (10.1-2).[12]

The historical understanding of the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Church is beyond doubt – it confesses the forgiveness of sins received in Holy Baptism.  The synodical explanation’s failure to convey any kind of sacramental grounding for this forgiveness could perhaps be excused by the rather vague language in the Small Catechism’s explanation of the Third Article (“but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith” ). 

Yet when we turn to the Large Catechism all such excuses fall away.  There Luther writes: “Further we believe that in this Christian community we have the forgiveness of sins, which takes place through the holy sacraments and absolution as well as through all the comforting words of the entire gospel. This encompasses everything that is to be preached about the sacraments and, in short, the entire gospel and all the official responsibilities of the Christian community.  Forgiveness is constantly needed, for although God’s grace has been acquired in Christ, and holiness has been wrought by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word in the unity of the Christian church, yet we are never without sin because we carry our flesh around our neck.  Therefore everything in this Christian community is so ordered that everyone may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and signs appointed to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live on earth” (II.54-55).[13]

We understand that the synodical explanation is aimed at the catechesis of young people, and so there will be a lack of precision on many matters.  However, the contrast with the Large Catechism is telling.  For Luther, to speak of the forgiveness of sins is to speak of the sacraments.  There is no free floating Gospel, but instead the Word and signs through which God gives forgiveness and provides comfort.  If historically the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” referred to Holy Baptism, Luther expands it to include “the holy sacraments and absolution as well as through all the comforting words of the entire gospel.”  Yet in this manner of speaking the sacramental focus of forgiveness remains front and center.  As his words at the end of the section on baptism (IV.74-86) about the ongoing significance of baptism in the life of the Christians dramatically indicate, Luther teaches a piety that is focused on baptism.

This sacramental focus is one that many in the LCMS are in the process of recapturing.  The phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Creed provides one place where both historical accuracy and confessional congruency prompts us to speak about the sacraments in general and baptism in particular.  With the synodical explanation we can ask the question, “185. Why can and should I be sure of the forgiveness of my sins?”  And then we can answer: I have been baptized!


[1] The edition I used was, A Short Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism – A Handbook of Christian Doctrine, copyright 1943, slightly revised in 1965 and copyright renewed 1971. The current edition is Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, copyright 1991.
[2] This fact should provide a strong caution against any attempt to use the catechumenate as a significant exegetical insight for reading the New Testament.  Such an attempt is an invitation to anachronism.
[3] The best treatments of this period are: Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation (rev. and  exp. edition; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 1-114; Bryan D. Spinks, Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the New Testament to the Council of Trent (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 1-36.
[4] I am persuaded by the work of Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson and L. Edward Phillips that the Apostolic Tradition does not describe pre-Nicene Roman practice, but rather that the text is a conflation of several different traditions from several different periods and that its final form probably reflects a fourth century setting.  See: Paul E. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
[5] For a general description of the catechumenate as it existed in the fourth and fifth centuries, see: Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 1-54. It is true that the Church developed the catechumenate in this period as a ritual process for bringing people out of paganism and into the Church during a time when it faced the challenge of dealing with larger numbers of people.  On the topic of ritual and conversion and antiquity, see: Thomas M. Finn, From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).  It is often asserted that the conversion of Constantine and the growth of the Church dramatically altered the commitment found in the Church.  However Peter Brown counters: “Knowing what we do of the moral texture of the third-century Christian communities, we do not need to think that, when it came to sinning, worldliness, and feigned adhesion, the conversion of Constantine heightened to any appreciable extent activities in which the contemporaries of Origen and Cyprian had already shown themselves capable of a high all around level of performance.  As with the idea of ‘mass conversions,’ so with the idea of the ‘corruption of the church’ after its establishment by Constantine, we are dealing with labor-saving formulas that take us much less far than we might think in understanding the precise moral tone of the late fourth century” (Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981], 66-67).
[6] E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (3d rev. and exp. edition.; ed. Maxwell E. Johnson; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 212.
[7] On the use of chrism for this part of the baptismal rite in our own setting, see: Mark’s thoughts: The Use of Chrism in the Lutheran Service Book Rite ofHoly Baptism.
[8] J.D.C. Fisher, Christian Initiation. Baptism in the Medieval West: A Study in the Disintegration of the Primitive Rite of Initiation (Chicago: HillenbrandBooks, 2004), 13.
[9] Fisher, Christian Initiation, 14.
[10] The Latin text of the Vulgate has “in remissionem peccatorum” and this provides the language for the Latin creeds.
[11] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (3d ed.; New York: Longman, 1972), 160.
[12] Thomas Macy Finn, Quodvultdeus of Carthage: The Creedal Homilies. Conversion in Fifth-Century Africa (New York: The Newman Press, 2004), 64.
[13] Translation cited from Kolb-Wengert.


  1. Great article! I am excited to see that many are in the process of recapturing this beautiful doctrine.

    Acts 22:16
    Now why do you wait? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’


    Mark 16:16 "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (NKJV)

    Critics claim that since Jesus did not say he who is not baptized will be condemned; therefore water baptism is not essential to be saved. If a heart surgeon told you that if you have a heart transplant you will live; he would not have to explain to you that if you refuse the heart transplant you will die. Negatives are understood. If the electric power company informs you if you pay your bill the power will be turned back on; you do not have to be informed that if you do not pay your overdue bill the power will not be restored. Negatives are understood.

    Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(NKJV)

    The apostle Peter did not have to say unless you repent and are baptized your sins will not be forgiven. Negatives are understood.

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