Q: I heard Lutherans believe that Baptism saves and forgives sins. How does this fit with the Lutheran belief that people are saved by “grace alone”? Does saying that Baptism saves imply that it can do so apart from Christ or that it must be added to Christ?
A: Lutherans do believe that God forgives and saves through Baptism, but, if there were to be a multiple choice test where the answers were A) Baptism saves apart from Christ, and B) Baptism saves in addition to Christ - a Lutheran would have to mark "None of the Above." As is typical of Lutherans, the answer isn't just a third option, but resides in a completely different paradigm.
Most people are familiar with the three Reformation slogans, "grace alone," "faith alone," and "Scripture alone." The fourth, which is often overlooked, is "Christ alone." This principle makes salvation apart from Christ or by anything added to Christ impossible for a Lutheran, since Lutheranism can neither propose a salvation apart from Christ nor can it require anything in addition to Christ as a condition of salvation.
As we instruct our middle school students at our church, we drive home nearly every week two particular points about Lutheran doctrine: First, that man is saved "by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone," and second, that God has promised to deliver His grace to humans through the means of the Word (Bible), Baptism, and the Lord's Supper or Means of God’s Grace.
Lutheran Baptismal theology relies heavily on verses like Titus 3:5-8, 1 Peter 3:20-22, and Romans 6:3-5. Lutherans believe that Baptism saves because it delivers Christ. That is, Baptism takes the grace of God earned by Jesus at the cross and applies that grace to the individual.
It is important to keep in mind at this point another idea unique to Lutheran theology. That is that in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper God is giving to us and acting for us, not we to/for Him. They are seen as completely directed from heaven down to earth and never directed from earth up to heaven. God is active and man is passive. Baptism is not even seen in Lutheranism as an act done by the pastor, because Lutheranism views pastors as agents who act in the place and at the command of Christ when they administer the sacraments.
As a result, Baptism is not seen as added to Christ, because it is not seen as an act of man. Likewise, it is not seen as apart from Christ, for Christ is the very one who is acting through it (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit). Baptism is neither apart from nor in addition to Christ for a Lutheran, because baptism applies and delivers Christ.
Those who do not baptize children often raise questions at this point about how a Lutheran explains the baptized child who ages to be a pagan or atheist adult or other similar scenarios. Lutheranism would never propose that the adult who rejects Christ would be saved because of their having been Baptized. For a Lutheran, it is not contradictory to say that a baptized child is saved at one point, then rejects his Baptism and his Lord later in life, resulting in the loss of salvation as long as he does not repent.
Lutheranism gives all credit to God and no credit to man in the accomplishing of salvation, and its sacramental theology, particularly that regarding Baptism, reflects this.
Q: If we could apply God's grace to anyone isn't that the same as the indulgences of the Catholics, just in a modified and lighter sense - not for a physical price but for free? Can a man (pastor) apply God's grace to someone else? Does that not come in a personal way to each person from God Himself?
A: This is the point where the rebaptizers fail to understand Biblical theology and the Lutheran position, and unknowingly agree with the Roman Catholics. In Baptism God is doing; we are receiving. Baptism is neither the work of the one being baptized nor of the man baptizing, but rather it is solely the work of God. Roman Catholics and the rebaptizers both teach that Baptism is something the person does for or toward God, and they simply disagree about whether it is capable of saving or delivering grace. Rebaptizers teach that Baptism is our act of devotion to God which does not save or give grace, while Roman Catholics teach that it is our act of devotion to God which does save and give grace.
It is impossible to ignore the very clear verses of the Bible that teach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone. It is also impossible to ignore the verses which very clearly attribute forgiving and saving power to Baptism. The only way that these passages can all be true is if Baptism is something God is doing for us, rather than something we are doing toward or for Him. Baptism does apply God's grace to the recipient, but not against their will or without faith.
This also relates to the Office of the Ministry. Jesus assigns His disciples with the very task of applying God's grace in John 20. They are to Baptize and Commune, Preach and Absolve, and by doing so deliver God's grace to those who need it. Those who are the Apostles' spiritual sons, namely the pastors of the church continue to apply God's grace through these very means today and until the Lord returns. This grace does, in fact, come personally to the believer through Baptism, just as it does through the Lord's Supper, not based on the work or holiness of the Pastor or the recipient, but instead, because of the promises of God Himself through these Sacraments, and His faithfulness to keep them.