Baptism: God stakes His honor, power, and might on it. Lenten Vespers Sermon Feb. 20 2013
Wednesday after Invocabit-Vespers
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Small Catechism—What is Baptism? Where is this written?
February 20, 2013
Baptism is necessary for salvation.
Can we really say that? Yes, because Jesus says it. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (St. John 3:5)
As a member of this congregation you already say it, because the Lutheran Confessions say it in agreement with the Word of God. If you’re a member of St. Peter, you’re a member of a congregation that says that the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions, are faithful explanations of Scripture. And the Augsburg Confession says: “Of Baptism [our churches] teach that it is necessary to salvation…”
Obviously, if something is necessary to salvation, it’s a big deal. And to go to a church where they say it isn’t necessary to salvation would be a very bad thing. Right?
That’s why later on the Lutheran Confessions thank God that the Anabaptists had made no headway in the Lutheran churches in the 1530’s. Anabaptists said that infants should not be baptized, that babies went to heaven without baptism. And for adults, when you were really saved was when you understood God’s Word as an adult and made a decision to follow Jesus. Then you would be baptized again. The confessions make this boast:
…we confess that Baptism is necessary to salvation, and that children are to be baptized, and that the baptism of children is not in vain, but is necessary and effectual to salvation. And since the Gospel is taught among us purely and diligently, by God’s favor we receive also from it this fruit, that in our churches no Anabaptists…[have gained ground], because the people have been fortified by God’s Word against the wicked and seditious faction of these robbers.
Notice how seriously the Lutheran Confessions take the teaching about Baptism. They are thankful that the rebaptizers have not succeeded in bringing their doctrine into the churches or in taking many sheep.
Unfortunately, we can’t make the same boast. Those who say that Baptism is just water and that it doesn’t benefit babies have made inroads in our churches. Thank God, we don’t have any pastors in the synod yet who deny that Baptism saves. But we have lost lots and lots of our sheep to churches who tell people that Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation. I was one of those lost sheep for awhile; I almost was rebaptized. Many, many sons and daughters of this congregation, baptized and catechized by Rev. Frenk and Rev. Martin, have gone on to join churches who say that infant baptism is invalid and that baptism is just water. I hear that at least one of the children I catechized has received so-called “believer’s baptism”, which is called that because the churches that practice it say that babies who are baptized do not believe in Christ.
Baptism is necessary to salvation. Jesus says so. In the great commission verse we said in the catechism today Jesus says, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Why didn’t Jesus say what the so-called “bible-believing Christians” say—“Go make disciples of all nations, preaching to them and telling them to accept me as their Lord and Savior?” Because that is not how disciples are made. They are made through Baptism, and then they are instructed in all of Christ’s teaching.
So why have the churches that teach that baptism is an empty sign made such inroads into the Missouri Synod? There are two glaring reasons.
First of all, so many of us have convinced ourselves that it’s not that big a deal to deny baptism or to believe and teach wrongly about it.
I’m pretty sure right now there are fair number of people who are either uncomfortable with this sermon or mad about it. I’m not trying to make you mad or give you a guilty conscience. I understand the temptation of churches that teach falsely about Baptism because it got ahold of me. And when it’s your kids or loved ones who belong to one of these churches, you worry about them but you want to say, “At least they’re going to church.” That’s how I feel about my family members who are members of such churches and whose little children are not baptized.
It’s not that they can’t be saved. People can be saved who are in error, so long as they believe in Christ their savior.
But because people can be saved in churches that get Baptism wrong does not mean it’s no big deal. If God commands baptism and promises salvation through it, it is a very big deal to teach that baptism is not necessary and does not save. It’s also a big deal to have fellowship with those who teach this.
Convincing ourselves that churches that teach falsely about baptism are just making a minor error is part of the reason why they make such inroads. If it’s just a minor error that doesn’t matter, then it makes total sense that young people would leave to join a church with a lot of other young people, children, and activities.
But there is another reason why those who deny baptism have made such inroads, and it is probably a bigger reason. It’s not just that people think it’s “no big deal” to reject Baptism, as long as you’re going to church. It’s the flipside of this ambivalence. If it’s no big deal to lose it, then it’s also no big deal if you have it.
That’s the greater tragedy: that we haven’t learned how to derive comfort from Baptism. A lot of times we pastors drill into people’s heads that Baptism saves and that those who say it doesn’t are teaching contrary to the word of God. But what we aren’t so good at is helping people find consolation in Baptism.
We are baptized so that we may have certainty of salvation.
So that we may comfort ourselves with it when we are attacked by Satan, or when we are sick, lonely, afraid, depressed, and when we are dying.
Even if you have the right doctrine, you miss the blessing if you don’t know how to use it. I have to say for myself that I have not taught this well because I myself did not understand very well how to find comfort in my Baptism.
It’s a hard art to learn, because it goes against what we can see and it goes against our natural tendency to depend on what is in us instead of God’s Word.
Nevertheless I hope that during these weeks God will grant me to preach so as not only to defend the right teaching about Holy Baptism—as necessary as that is—but also to bring home to your heart and mine the tremendous comfort and treasure that God gives us in Baptism.
The first thing that is necessary to know in order to take hold of the heavenly comfort given us in Baptism is that it is not just a few handfuls of water, but it is water which God Himself commanded and with which He has joined His Word.
Plain water can’t save you. Hocus pocus, priestcraft, ritual, chancel-prancing made up by men can’t save you either.
Baptism looks like plain water. People who have been baptized usually look like plain people—plain sons of Adam. So it becomes very easy for us to doubt whether Baptism accomplishes anything.
Billy Graham crusades and gigantic growing non-denominational churches look like they accomplish something. Not only do lots of people come forward to pray for Jesus to come into their hearts, but people will give you their testimonies and tell you how their lives changed as a result of their conversion experience. And a lot of times these people will say, “I was baptized as an infant, but I didn’t know the Lord until I came to this church and accepted Jesus as my Savior.”
Are such experiences false? No, in many cases they were real. Maybe even most cases.
Are they from the Holy Spirit? If Billy Graham preaches that we are dead in our sins, and then preaches that Jesus shed His blood to take away the sins of the world, and someone sitting in the stadium believes, that is the Holy Spirit’s work.
On the other hand, when people learn to trust their experiences instead of God’s promise, or to reject what He has told us is His work, that is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but of unclean spirits. Can the same mouth be used by the Holy Spirit and unholy spirits? Indeed, that was what happened to Peter, who one moment confessed Jesus as the Son of God, and a few moments later told Jesus that he would never be put to death and rejected, to which Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Yes, you can be a Christian and still have the devil make use of your lips to cause harm to the kingdom of God, to other believers. It happens in the church every day.
Revivals and conversion experiences look like something is happening. But we only have one sure guide when it comes to knowing where and when God is at work. Our one guide is His Word.
That is what we need to pay attention to, first and foremost, in Baptism. Not just the water, nor what the Baptism appears to accomplish or not accomplish. Pay attention to the Word.
What is baptism? Not just water, but water which God has commanded. Not just water, but water that is joined with God’s Word.
Because it is water that God has commanded, we can defend ourselves against the tricky thinking that keeps us from comforting ourselves with Baptism in times of suffering. During those times, we need to be able to say with certainty: “God is for me. I am His child. I have eternal life and the forgiveness of my sins for certain.” But it is during those times that we are most likely to doubt that God is for us, or to say, “Maybe, but here and now God is just going to let me suffer.”
What we need to be able to do is take hold of Baptism. As Luther says it in the Large Catechism,
Thus we must regard baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body. (LC IV: 44)
In Baptism God promises. It’s not human beings who invented Baptism. God commanded it. Since God commanded it, set it up, it’s really His work, not mine or yours.
God set up marriage and procreation. As a result our parents were married and conceived us. But that wasn’t their work; it would never have happened if God did not institute marriage in the garden of Eden. It’s the same with baptism. Your parents brought you to be baptized and the pastor did it, but it’s God who commanded Baptism. It’s His work, not man’s work.
Because God instituted baptism, it is great and glorious. It is far more great and glorious than any works human beings come up with or do. When we are suffering, we tend to say, “So what if I’m baptized? A lot of people are baptized who are going to go to hell. How do I know that God is really for me, that He loves me and forgives me, that He’s going to deliver me from this pain?” Then we are often tempted to think that if we just didn’t struggle with this sin or that, or if we read our bible more or put more in the offering plate, then we could be sure that God is on our side.
But if you take it to heart that God commanded Baptism and that it’s His work, all of that thinking gets short circuited. “God instituted and commanded Baptism. That means it’s no small thing. It’s a great and glorious thing, even if to our way of thinking it doesn’t seem impressive. God’s work is far more important and glorious than any human work, so it can’t be a small thing that I’m baptized. Nor should I be more certain of my relationship to God if I were to do more or experience the feeling of grace more. His Word is far more solid and far more important than my work or my feelings. His Word endures forever.”
And since God commanded Baptism, we can also comfort ourselves in this way: “Jesus didn’t come to earth to give us new laws. He didn’t come down from heaven to bring a new law. God gave His law already through Moses. Jesus came to preach the Gospel, to give gifts, to give us freedom and joy and everlasting life. If Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ he couldn’t have been just establishing another rule for us or making up an empty ritual. He instituted Baptism so that I could take comfort from it when I am in trouble, not throw it away as worthless.”
Even though Baptism may look only like a handful of water, it is a handful of water that God commanded to be poured out on people in His Name. If God commands something, it is not to be despised. If God commands something, it is more important than our ideas because of the greatness of the one who commanded it.
Secondly, not only did God command that we pour water on people, but He attached His Word and His Name to the water. If God commands something, that already makes it more important than any human thoughts or opinions. But when He joins His Word or His Name or His promise to something, that makes it holy.
When you are suffering, you can say, “I am baptized. There God promises that He is for me, that my sins are forgiven, that He will help me, guide me, hear my prayers.” But our flesh and the devil says, “Really? Lots of people are baptized, yet they don’t know God. It’s not enough just that you’ve been baptized. Just because you have been baptized doesn’t mean that your heart has changed and you have faith. And if you don’t have faith and a new heart, God isn’t pleased with you, doesn’t love you, doesn’t forgive you. His face is still against you.”
But God’s Word is joined with the water. God’s word is not a dead thing. It is not weak. It is “living and active.” God’s Word is mighty. Heaven and earth will pass away, but His Word will never pass away. It endures forever. Through His Word God created heaven and earth. Through His Word Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and Lazarus came to life.
Baptism has that word of God joined to it. It is mighty and powerful. It creates. It gives life in the midst of death. You remember how the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness for forty years even though there was no food or water? But God’s Word sent them bread in the wilderness. And God’s Word preserved them in the midst of wandering. Their shoes didn’t get holes and their clothes didn’t wear out. God’s word told Joshua and the Israelites to walk around the city of Jericho for awhile and blow horns. Horns and parades don’t win battles, but God’s mighty word knocked down Jericho’s walls.
So God’s Word in Baptism is strong even if it is weak in the sight of the flesh. It is the eternal Word of God, powerful to save, powerful to comfort and sustain and give us life in the midst of death.
It is so powerful that none of your sins can ruin it. That’s why we never do it over again. It happens once and it holds good forever. In the passion reading, when Peter finds out that Jesus has to wash him if Peter is going to belong to Him, Peter says, “Lord, don’t just wash my feet but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus says, “A person who has had a bath doesn’t need to bathe again, just to have his feet washed.” That’s how it is with Baptism. We don’t do it again and again. It makes you clean the first time. We need Jesus to serve us—to daily forgive our trespasses—to absolve us. But we don’t need to be baptized again. Jesus died once and it takes away sins forever. Baptism is powerful because of God’s Word; it washes us the first time. Our lives as Christians are going back to God’s work that He accomplished—to our Baptism, where His finished work was given to us
Baptism is nothing else “than a divine water” says Luther, “a heavenly, holy, blessed water, and …whatever [other] terms we can [use to] praise it, all on account of God’s Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word, which no one [can praise enough]…[God’s Word] has, and is able to do all that God is and can do.” (LC IV: 17-18)
God Himself and all that He is and can do is joined to the water of Baptism. That is shown in the Baptism of Jesus. In what other place in the Gospels do all three persons of the trinity appear at once? Only in Baptism.
Finally, in addition to all this, it is not just any word of God that is joined to the water of Baptism, but His holy Name.
Putting your name on something even among human beings always has consequences. If you sign your name to a contract or a letter, it’s on you. You are responsible for the contents of the letter. You have to fulfill the terms of the contract. If you don’t, your name is dishonored.
God has put His name in the water of our Baptism. That means that He says we are His possession. It also means He has put His name on the work of Baptism. If I tell my wife I’m going to be home at a certain time, my name is on the line. If I don’t get home when I said, my wife will have reason to doubt me in the future. Unfortunately, I am a bad representative of God in that respect. But even if I was better at it, we also understand that people can’t always do what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can’t. Their plane gets stuck at the airport. They have a family emergency.
It’s not like that with God. God is always able to do what He says, and He always keeps His Word. When He puts His name on Baptism, it means that He will fulfill His promise.
What is His promise? To save us. To have us as His own forever, not as slaves, but as sons. The reason you are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is because all three persons of the Trinity are at your baptism just like at Jesus’ at the Jordan.
The Father is there saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”
The Spirit descends on you and stays upon you, just like Noah’s dove didn’t come back to him but stayed out in the world once the flood was over.
The Son? He’s there with you. You are placed in Him. You put Him on and wear Him just like Jesus put you on and wore you—first at His baptism and then at His passion.
These things are pledged by God in Baptism. It is His command that the Baptism be done, and it is His Word and Name that is in the water.
This is the first thing to remember and hold on to so that Baptism may be a daily comfort to us, especially in our times of greatest need.
We remember: Baptism is not just a handful of water; it is water that God commanded be poured. It is water that is joined with His Word that created heaven and earth. So it is not a weak, cheap, common thing. It is God’s work. So it is more strong and powerful than heaven and earth. Whatever it promises must happen.
And Baptism promises you that Christ is yours, always. Your sins don’t change God’s promise. So you can rely on it when your thinking and your senses tell you that it’s up in the air whether God loves you are not.
There stood the Son of God in love, His grace to us extending
The Holy Spirit like a dove upon the scene descending;
The Triune God assuring us, With promises compelling
That in our Baptism He will thus among us find a dwelling
To comfort and sustain us.
May Almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indeed grant us the daily comfort of His holy Baptism.