[This week's online Midweek Lenten worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, focuses was on Holy Baptism, part of our series, Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism. Below is the video and the text of the message.]
In Holy Baptism, God saves us from sin, death, and separation from God.
This is what God’s Word teaches us in 1 Peter. Recalling the global flood of Noah’s day, Peter says, “only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water [the water of the flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:20-21)
Some Christians, confronted by the words of Jesus’ apostle, shake their heads in disbelief. “Wait a minute,” they say. “Baptism saves us? Don’t I have to do something? Don’t I have to decide to follow Jesus? ”
Listen: Scripture teaches that all human beings are born with sinful natures (Psalm 51:5).
Ephesians 2:3 tells us that, “we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
I would have an infinitely greater chance of deciding to look like Matthew McConnaughey than I have of deciding to be saved or deciding to follow Jesus.
If you were suddenly dumped into the Pacific Ocean, your capacity to yell for help, swim, or even cling to a piece of sinking flotsam could only take you so far. You could not save yourself!
In Baptism, it’s God Who does the deciding and God has decided through Christ to save the baptized.
At least that’s what God’s Word teaches.
So, Baptism is life-saving, life-changing stuff! Jesus tells Nicodemus in John, chapter 3: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…[and] Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 5)
In Holy Baptism, God remakes us as human beings. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “... if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
When God’s Word and His Holy Spirit assault chaos, including those born into the chaos of sin, new life happens.
This has always been so!
In Genesis 1, the Spirit moved over the waters of chaos and brought the universe into being.
At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptizer. “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. [the Bible tells us] And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22)
This is what happens when we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God opens His kingdom to us and He sends us the Holy Spirit, the One Whose word brings the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us and we become children of God.
But how, Luther asks in the Catechism, can water do such great things? “It is not the water [the Catechism says] that does these things, but the Word connected with the water and our faith which relies on that Word. For without the Word of God it is simply water and not Baptism. But when connected with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit.”
Luther then quotes Paul’s New Testament letter to Titus: “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5-8a)
In Holy Baptism, God’s saving Word about Jesus comes to us and remains with us, tenaciously refusing to leave us or give up on us even when we turn away from Him, when we stop worshiping God with His people, even when we cease to believe in Him.
God will not force the baptized to believe in Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
But, through the indelible commitment that God makes to us when we are baptized, He will keep bringing His saving Word to us so that we might believe in Jesus and be saved.
This is what happened to me. I spurned God and claimed atheism as my religion for ten years. But God kept pointing me back to Jesus. God refused to give up on the commitment to be my Father and Lord and Savior that He made when I was born from above at the Baptismal font!
Holy Baptism is the saving Word of God, embodied in the element of water. Just as I had no control over when I was born, I really have no control over when I am born anew in Holy Baptism. If we are baptized as infants, we cannot be unborn even if I walk away from God. And if a person is baptized as an adult, it will still be God Who calls them out of the darkness of sin and death into the light of His loving grace and will cause them to crave Holy Baptism. (In The Large Caetchism, Luther says that if a person comes to faith without having been yet baptized, they will "not despise" the sacrament!)
In the New Testament book of Acts, we read accounts both of individual adults being baptized after coming to faith in Jesus and of whole households, including the children, being baptized.
In the entire New Testament, nobody says, “Before you can be baptized, you have to understand things.”
And it doesn't say, “Before you are baptized, you have to reach a certain age.”
Instead, the apostle Paul compares Holy Baptism to circumcision, the Jewish rite by which boys eight days old, were initiated into the faith. This happened long before they could know Who God is, long before they could understand the faith.
The evidence suggests that because God wants to give us new life and unleash His saving Word in people as soon as possible that the early Church baptized infants and children. They took Jesus’ words seriously, as we do, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:24)
In Holy Baptism, God gives all the baptized a share in Jesus’ victory over sin and death. On this point, Luther quotes Romans 6:4: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
As good Lutherans, we know that we can only be saved by grace through faith in Christ.
That leaves the question of whether, like the man thrown overboard in the Pacific Ocean, we will stop striving and struggling and trust in Christ.
And how do we do that?
We don’t. We don't do anything!
The God Who comes to us in Holy Baptism sends us His Spirit to empower us to believe. “...no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 12:3 reminds us.
And the God Who comes to us in Holy Baptism keeps sending the baptized His saving Word: “...faith comes from hearing the message [that is, the Good News of Jesus], and the message is heard through the word about Christ,” Romans 10:17 teaches.
The Small Catechism reminds us that Christ has commissioned His Church to baptize. “...go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commands us, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19)
It also reminds us that Jesus tells us why we need to baptize. In Mark 16:16, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
However God creates faith in Christ within us, we are saved. If you've already been baptized, it is Holy Baptism that is the primary engine by which God moves us toward faith. And if you've come to faith without baptism, you will surely want to be baptized, a holy desire God will create within you. (As He did in the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts.)
Jesus commands us to baptize so that people who cannot decide to follow Him by the power of their own wills may be reborn and so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit unleashed in our lives each day, we will come to saving belief in Jesus and we will be sustained in that belief.
That’s why Holy Baptism is so important.
Our series ends next week with a look at Holy Communion.