Today, as we continue looking at what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, we consider Holy Baptism.
Baptism was a subject about which Martin Luther, the monk and priest who accidentally started the Reformation and the Lutheran movement, preached and wrote a lot. From 1528 until his death on February 18, 1546, for example, Luther preached 28 sermons on baptism! For several years in a row, he did sermon series on the subject. And that's on top of all that he wrote about Baptism in documents like The Small Catechism and The Large Catechism.
Luther said in a 1519 sermon, “There is no greater comfort on earth than baptism.” He felt that it was essential for Christians to appreciate the power of this sacrament, even if none of us this side of our own deaths and resurrections, will be able to fully understand it.
Let’s take a look at Article 9 of The Augsburg Confession, which talks about Baptism. (It’s on page 14 of the buff and brown books in the pew racks.) It says:
Concerning Baptism, our [Lutheran] churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation...and that God’s grace is offered through Baptism...They teach that children are to be baptized...Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God’s grace.
Our churches reject the Anabaptists [the Anabaptists were the forerunners of all modern churches that teach what is known as “believer’s baptism”], who reject the Baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism.There are three main points the Confession makes here about Holy Baptism. The first is that Baptism is necessary for salvation. It mentions Mark 16:16 as evidence. Take a look at that passage, please. Just before it, the risen Jesus tells the disciples to go into the world and preach the good news that there is eternal life with God for all who repent and believe in Him. Then Jesus says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved...”
Baptism, according to Jesus, is an essential part of being saved from sin and death. Jesus answers that question in another famous passage, John 3:5. Jesus tells a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit [in other words, without Baptism], he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Baptism is the port of entry, the birthplace for Christians, the occasion when helpless human beings are claimed by God as His children.
This picture of the sacrament doesn’t square with self-sufficient brands of Christianity that tell us that coming to faith is a matter of human beings exercising their free will, that people can decide to become Christians. But the Bible teaches that we’re born with original sin: We don’t have free wills. We are, as we confess each Sunday, “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
If you and I had to make a choice between following Jesus or not, we could never make the choice to follow Jesus stick.
We’re not born equipped with the ability to trust in God or in anyone else, for that matter.
Now, when God’s grace confronts us--when we catch a glimpse of the fact that God so loved the world, He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but live with God eternally--we can give up our rebellion and let Him love us. We can pull down our defenses and let His grace break through to us. But faith in Christ is not our doing. Our faith is God’s work in us. God does everything needed for us to be saved from sin and death. We have nothing we can do to make that happen.
Jesus explains this a bit more in John 3:7-8: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This past summer, a fierce gust of wind swept across our state, knocking out power for days. None of us, including AEP, really knew what hit us! It was an event over which we had no control. It would have been silly for any of us to have said “I have decided to allow my power to be put out.” If anyone had said that, we would have said that person was living in denial, overstating their own strength.
Similarly, when the Christian says, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” what they really should say is, “I am bowing to a power, love, and grace bigger than me. I won’t deny that any more. I put down my dukes and surrender.” Holy Baptism is a blast of God’s life-giving Holy Spirit over which we have no control. God’s grace and Holy Spirit, given through Jesus Christ, comes to us. And in Baptism, the apostle Peter says, we are saved (1 Peter 3:21).
Baptism then is not the symbolic gesture of commitment to Christ by someone who’s had an emotional or spiritual experience of God.
Baptism is an act of God in which His Word of promise meets the water of Holy Baptism and the baptized person is claimed by God as His own child, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
This is the second thing that Article 9 teaches us about Baptism: In Holy Baptism, God’s grace is actually offered to the baptized. Baptism is more than an external ceremony. God makes His covenant with the baptized and makes it possible for them to live with God for eternity.
Notice: This doesn’t mean that if a person is baptized, but doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ, they’re saved from sin and death. Holy Baptism isn’t fire insurance or an eternal “Do Not Go to Jail” card!
Go back, please, to Mark 16:16. Look again at Jesus’ words: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe is condemned.”
Baptism is the means by which God gives the gift of eternal life with Him. But it’s a gift that can only be be opened by faith in Christ.
People who are baptized but don’t have faith in Jesus Christ condemn themselves eternally, Jesus says in Mark 16:16.
He says the same thing later in His conversation with Nicodemus: “Those who believe in Him are not condemned; but those who do not believe in Him are condemned already, because they have not believed in the Name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
This then, is the third thing Article 9 teaches: The grace of God must be apprehended, taken hold of, by faith in Jesus Christ.
In Holy Baptism, God makes us spiritually “pure, without sin, and wholly guiltless,” Luther wrote, but that doesn’t mean that sin still isn’t present in the baptized. It is and will be until the day each of us dies.
But if we respond with surrender when the Holy Spirit moves us to repentance and to having faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, we’re joined by God in battling to kill off our sins and letting God’s forgiveness and life in.
And this really is central to what Holy Baptism is about.
Baptism is, first, a drowning of our inborn sinful selves.
And Baptism is, secondly, the rising of a new self, born of water and the Spirit.
Yet, no matter how close we grow to Christ, the “old Adam” or the “old Eve” will keep rearing its ugly head, threatening to suck us into hell, as long as we’re living.
This is what Paul was wrestling with in Romans 7, where he writes: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want [sinful, wholesome, holy things], but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul wonders at this and concludes: “Now if I do what I do not want...it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
And it’s because sin still tempts us and sometimes causes us to fall, that no Baptism is complete unless we who are baptized respond with repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.
Listen: I was baptized as an infant. God claimed me. He never gave up on me. When I look back on my life, I can see that God never failed to keep His part of the Baptismal bargain, His covenant to be my saving God. Repeatedly, He orchestrated events to reach out to me and reclaim me in His grace, even when I had turned my back on Him and claimed He didn't exist. Had I died in my atheist years, having chosen to go it alone without Christ, I would have stood before Christ at Judgment Day naked in my own sins, not covered by the grace and forgiveness that Christ bled, died, and rose again to give to sinners like me.
I'm grateful, eternally grateful, that, in remembrance of my Baptism, God kept sending what someone has called "the hounds of heaven" to shepherd me back into His kingdom!
I'm glad that He was so consistent, insistent, and loving that He brought me to a moment of surrender when I laid aside my rebellion and let Him love me and let Jesus Christ be my Lord!
In Baptism, God gives us life.
In Baptism, God gives us the power to resist temptation.
And in Baptism, God gives us the assurance that, as we repent and trust in Christ and struggle to live in accordance with His will, we are forgiven.
That’s why Luther called Holy Baptism a comfort.
When we receive the gifts of Holy Baptism by faith, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection are duplicated in our lives. Each time we truly repent for sin, God gives forgiveness; the old self dies and the new self rises. We live in peace with God. This is the daily life of a baptized Christian who welcomes Christ and the salvation given in Baptism.
Paul speaks of Baptism and the life with God it makes possible in Romans 6:4-5, where he says: “...we were buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
In Baptism, God promises to erase the power of sin and death over our lives if, in faith, we will submit to the crucifixion of our old selves, allowing our new selves to rise with Christ.
People with faith in Christ needn’t be guilt-ridden when we feel the allure of sinful inclinations within us.
We don’t need to despair even when we fall into sin.
We don’t wall ourselves off from Christ, convinced that He couldn’t love or forgive us anymore.
Instead, we remember our Baptism.
We honestly own our sorrow for our sin and we confess it to God.
We allow our temptations and our sins to drive us back to Christ and the promise to be our God that makes to us at Baptism.
We live the truth of Psalm 32:1-2: “Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the one whom the Lord does not accuse of doing wrong and who is free from all deceit.”
I don’t know how Holy Baptism works. I don’t need to.
But from God’s Word and promises, I am sure of the three things the Confession teaches:
- that Baptism is necessary for our salvation;
- that in Baptism, God offers us grace; and
- that the grace God offers in Baptism, no matter the age at which we’re baptized, can only be received by faith in Jesus Christ.
Next week, we look at Holy Communion.