This is a guest posting from Rev. Jesse Jacobsen of the ELS.
Where have you seen the words in this post’s title? If you were confirmed as a child, then you memorized them from the Small Catechism, where it cites Matthew 28:18-20 as the word and command of God concerning baptism. You may not have recognized the title right away, though, because this excerpt from that passage doesn’t mention baptism. In the full quote, Jesus says:
All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.
This command has several facets. Jesus is commanding His apostles (and through them, His Church on earth) to “go.” There is one main thing He tells them to do: “make disciples of all the nations.” That includes every human being. But there are two sub-parts of this, or perhaps two steps in the process of making disciples. First, it’s “baptizing them.” Since it’s baptism in God’s name, the power behind it is really God’s power, yet He commanded His Church to do this as one of the two steps in making disciples. The other step is equally important: “teaching them.” How much should we teach? “All things” that Jesus has taught and commanded Himself. There is no minimum satisfactory requirement (like the catechism or Sunday school), beyond which all other teaching is optional. We are to teach it all.
These things are the business of the Church. It’s not meant to be entertaining or diverting. It’s not even meant to be particularly uplifting, though that’s usually a nice side-effect of the teaching. It’s meant to make disciples. That is, to make students of Jesus out of people who were His enemies. These disciples, of all ages, are the ones who live daily in repentance and forgiveness, and who have the God-given certainty of eternal life.
If you’d like to be a disciple of Jesus, then you need to consider this passage. It’s not enough to be baptized. You must also be taught. Lutherans do that in a number of ways. Three of these ways are urged upon us in God’s word: the preaching of the Gospel, formal catechesis or instruction in the faith, and the instruction of children in the Christian home. It is the church’s responsibility to see that these accompany baptism, so that Jesus’ command is followed as He said.
Baptism saves, but not magically, as though the act itself were powerful. Baptism saves because Jesus made it so, by connecting the divine name and God’s word to simple water. The power to save is in the word, not in the water, the outward motions, or any traditions that mortal man has attached to it. The same word is what Jesus has commanded us to teach, “whatever I have commanded you.” If we fail to teach the word to those who have been baptized, then we have neglected – or even despised – the very power in baptism that saves.
Among Lutherans, that teaching begins in the home, and continues through formal catechesis, or instruction connected with a congregation. When the youth in a church are ready to learn, we take advantage of their learning ability by having them memorize the chief teachings of Christianity, as summarized in the Small Catechism. It’s meant to be quite challenging, and since many schools no longer challenge children as much as in the past, catechism class is often the first time our youth must exercise such discipline and perseverance. Parents must also persevere, as they are the only ones providing the daily discipline their children need to complete the course and excel. It can be difficult for everyone involved, but the end result is worth the effort. When youth are finished and confirmed, they have a solid foundation for understanding our faith, their baptism, and the world around them. They are also prepared to receive holy communion together with the rest of the Church. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” This is what it looks like among Lutherans, and it has been a blessing for generations. Once confirmed, our youth are expected to continue learning as they regularly attend the Divine Service and take advantage of other opportunities with God’s word, such as Bible classes.
When adults come to our churches, drawn by the gospel to become disciples of Jesus, they must also receive baptism (if they haven’t already) and instruction in the word. Their instruction includes the same Small Catechism, as well as other resources. As part of their instruction, they are expected to demonstrate their genuine interest through regular attendance at the Divine Service. Adults are not required to memorize the Small Catechism, though it is certainly encouraged. They tend to find memorization harder than children, and since they often carry the responsibilities of providing a home for their families, it would be unreasonable to demand the hours needed every week for memorization. However, adults cover the biblical teachings in more depth than children do, and they more readily understand the importance of continuing to learn on their own as disciples of Jesus.
In these ways, the Lutheran Church has honored the command of Jesus. May they bless you as generations have already been blessed.
Rev. Jesse Jacobsen is pastor of Bethany and Concordia Lutheran Churches in The Dalles and Hood River, Oregon, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. He and his wife Erica have been blessed with five children, the most recent of whom were twin girls born last December. He graduated in 1994 from Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin, and in 1998 from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mankato, Minnesota. Before moving to Oregon, the Jacobsens lived in Madison, Wisconsin, where Pastor Jacobsen acquired the BMW K75 motorcycle that he now finds so useful in his weekly travels through the picturesque Columbia River Gorge. Besides preaching and teaching God’s word, he enjoys finding cheap-but-effective solutions to the technical needs of churches and ministers.