Our Lord instituted Holy Baptism when He commanded: "Therefore go 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 obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19).
"Baptize means to apply water by immersing, washing, pouring, and the like" (Explanation of Small Catechism). For some that definition is sufficient because that is all they believe happens when someone is baptized. They view it as merely a symbolic act. What about Lutherans? What do we believe happens when someone is baptized? Why do we baptize babies? They can't believe anything—can they?
The Lutheran Confessors take up these questions in the Book of Concord. In succinct fashion the Augsburg Confession states: "Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16) and that God's grace is offered through baptism (Titus 3:4-7). They teach that children are to be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God's grace."
Lutherans believe baptism is not a mere symbolic act by the person being baptized, but that God instituted it and is in fact an act of God Himself! In the Large Catechism we read, "So also I can boast that baptism is no human plaything, but it is instituted by God Himself." and "To be baptized in God's name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself." Lutherans believe it is God at work in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism!
We also believe that when one is baptized it is not a mere washing of the body, but a cleansing of one's sin! Luther teaches us regarding baptism in the Small Catechism: "It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this." In Holy Baptism the merits of Christ's life, death, and resurrection are applied to you and received through faith.
Those who reject infant baptism do so with the understanding that one must have faith before being baptized. They argue that infants cannot have faith therefore they should not be baptized. However infants are not baptized because they believe; infants are baptized because of Christ's clear Word! Infants are included in "all nations." They are baptized because of God's grace not because of their faith. As Luther writes in the Large Catechism, "...my faith does not make baptism, but receives it."
Some will remark, "Pastor, are you saying the cute little bundle is a sinner needing forgiveness?" Yes. David writes, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psa. 51:5). St. Paul writes, "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Infants are in need of salvation like everyone else. Out of God's grace and love in Christ, He provides it for them in Holy Baptism.
But can an infant receive the benefits of Holy Baptism through faith? Yes! Faith is not intellectual assent. One does not "figure it out." Faith is a gift of God wrought by the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul writes, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Can an infant have faith? Yes! If the Holy Spirit can bring a stubborn adult to faith then why would we limit the Holy Spirit's work in an infant's heart? It is as much a work of God that an adult has faith as an infant.
The picture we see in infant baptism is a wonderful picture of God's grace. We see a helpless child unable to feed, change, or do anything for himself. This helpless child is brought to the font with nothing to offer to God and God reaches out to the sinful child through the blessed waters of Holy Baptism, applying the merits of Christ's life, death, and resurrection and claiming the child as His own. We do not come before God in Holy Baptism because we have something to offer Him; we come before God because He has everything to offer us—forgiveness, life, and salvation for the sake of Christ. Through faith we receive these wonderful gifts from God in Holy Baptism—no matter our age!