Born of Water: Martin Luther wrongly added “alone” to “faith” in Rom 3:28

BaptismofJesus2Although John Wycliffe’s 1382 English translation of the Bible is likely the first translation into the language of the people since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church thoroughly suppressed his work, and his translation was forgotten by the time of the Reformation.

Much later, in the 16th Century, Martin Luther translated the scriptures into German, and thus lit a fire under the Protestant Reformation. Soon, William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, and although he was burned at the stake for doing so, the church authorities were unable to keep translations out of the hands of the people. Soon the church was publishing its own translation (one of which is now called the King James Version).

Famously, Luther translated Rom 3:28 by adding “alone” after “faith” (in German, of course) –

(Rom. 3:28 ESV) For we hold that one is justified by faith [alone] apart from works of the law.

The argument has often been made that Luther’s translation led to centuries of doctrinal error. However, Calvin and Zwingli developed their theology from their own Bibles – the Latin Vulgate or Erasmus’s Greek text – not Luther’s German translation. Tyndale did not add “alone” to his translation, nor is it in the KJV.

The Baptist teaching that one is saved when he first comes to faith, not baptism, traces back to the Reformed Church founded by Calvin and Zwingli, not back to Luther. In fact, Luther insisted on baptism as the moment of salvation.

This is from his Large Catechism[1]

For it is of the greatest importance that we esteem Baptism excellent, glorious, and exalted, for which we contend and fight chiefly, because the world is now so full of sects clamoring that Baptism is an external thing, and that external things are of no benefit. But let it be ever so much an external thing, here stand God’s Word and command which institute, establish, and confirm Baptism. But what God institutes and commands cannot be a vain, but must be a most precious thing, though in appearance it were of less value than a straw. …

Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what, then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God’s (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper’s baptism). God’s works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended. For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God’s command and ordinance, and besides in God’s name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation. Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it.

Thus you see plainly that [baptism] is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.

It’s a shame that so many in the Churches of Christ have treated Luther as the enemy of our baptismal theology. In fact, he may be the greatest defender of the necessity of baptism born since the apostolic age.


[1] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, “Holy Baptism” (1538), published in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church: German-Latin-English (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921).

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Baptism, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Born of Water: Martin Luther wrongly added “alone” to “faith” in Rom 3:28

  1. Chris says:

    Jay, is there any correlation between the old covenant sign of circumcision and water baptism? Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision, and Paul uses Abraham as a focal point of his salvation by faith position. One could say that circumcision was just as much a work of God as baptism, especially since the main recipients were male babies.

    We do know that a Jew wasn’t considered a Jew outwardly only (circumcision), unless he were truly a Jew inwardly. So, can one be justified by faith like Abraham (or Cornelius) before receiving any visible outward display (baptism)? Or does God perform the spiritual circumcision of the heart normally during water baptism, and this is what makes water baptism superior to the old testament covenant sign of circumcision?

  2. Christopher says:

    “Soon the church was publishing its own translation (one of which is now called the King James Version).”

    To be precise, the Church of England, in contrast to the aforementioned Catholic Church.

  3. Christopher says:

    “It’s a shame that so many in the Churches of Christ have treated Luther as the enemy of our baptismal theology. In fact, he may be the greatest defender of the necessity of baptism born since the apostolic age.”

    Great article, Jay. Luther was an odd duck in some regards (though not quite the monster I view Calvin as), but he was astonishingly correct on some very important things. It is disturbing to realize just how unwittingly subject people have been to widespread misinterpretations of the scriptures and doctrinal errors throughout the ages. My eyes really became open to that reality with Fudge’s works on hades.

  4. Ray Downen says:

    Does the Lutheran church today baptize “for the remission of sins”? I’ve thought they taught that seekers were saved by faith (alone) and that baptism could be performed on infants (unbelievers) and they then would be saved.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Baptism is the rite of applying water in the name of the Triune God to a person to bestow forgiveness of sins and to incorporate them into God’s family.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Article will be up on that very topic — Lord willing and the Internet don’t crash.

  7. Dwight says:

    Jay, you say, “Still Baptism is itself a work.”
    Can you prove that they in the scriptures argued this or that it was ever called a work or seen as a work.
    This seems to be the point of contention in that we argue works don’t save, then argue baptism is a work, thus baptism doesn’t save.
    As far as I can tell baptism requires no effort on the part of the baptized, except to show up and declare they want to be baptized. Another let’s them down physically and another (God) raises them up spiritually, while another raises them up physically. And during this time we are cleansed by God. Even in burial, the one who is dead, doesn’t do any work to bury himself and we are buried in Christ. Baptism means we place our faith or trust in another…in some sense the one who is baptizing us physically and in the greater sense, the one who is raising us spiritually.

  8. eddodds says:

    “Semantics” and dynamic translation is why Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) sent people out not just a book (more precisely, a library of books). Baptism, for instance, is an “act of obedience” and you can call it a “work” — but “work” implies “the workman is worth of his wages” and we cannot earn our salvation — that is a gift of God. Thanks for this spotlight on the history of doctrine. I had a class with Leonard Allen which kindled a fire which led me to the Disciples of Christ Historical Society for a stint, and on to Wikipedia Seminary since.

  9. Dwight says:

    It took me years and a reorientation to break the baptism is a “work” cycle, which has helped me see baptism differently, bring it closer to and part of faith/trust and see God as most active in the process.

  10. Kevin says:

    In my view, anything that you do is a work…faith, repentance, baptism, etc. All works. If you expended intellectual capital or calories, it is a work. That’s not to say that other benefits outside of one’s activity do not occur simultaneously.

  11. Dwight says:

    I would argue that anything we produce is a work or from work, such as faith (called a work in 1 and 2 Thess.), repentance, etc, but I’m not sure baptism falls into that category. Our faith & repentance drives us to the point where we surrender ourselves to another who does the work in baptizing us into Christ and then to God who raises us up as a new person (spiritually).
    Like I said a dead person does no work in burying himself as he is buried by another and dug up by another, we who are spiritually dead present ourselves for baptism and then we give ourselves over to another and then raised by another. Our faith and repentance is working all through the process though.

  12. Kevin says:


    Point taken. I just think that we should include the positive decision to be baptized and the walk down to the river when we think of the overall baptismal process.

  13. Dwight says:

    Kevin, This is how we divide things and divide over things by not connecting them to one another and seeing them as that, meaning to your point, our faithful walk to baptism is faith and baptism together…as is our walk afterwards, because the cleansing we have as a new saint continues. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out where salvation lies, even when salvation isn’t even secure until we die. We must walk the walk of Jesus and the apostles without nitpicking everything allowing the flow to take place and the connections to exist.

  14. Jay Guin says:


    Martin Luther said baptism is a work. He immediately follows by saying it’s a work of God.

  15. Monty says:

    Baptism…..the circumcision made(performed) without hands…meaning not a work done by man…but by Christ. We submit to this spiritual dissecting, by faith.

  16. Dwight says:

    Jay, that’s fair as my point is that it is not a work of man or a physical work that gains salvation or justification. It is trust in submission.

Comments are closed.