The fourth and fifth centuries were a time of great change for the Church. At the beginning of the fourth century, the Church went from facing the worst empire wide persecution it had ever seen under the Emperor Diocletian, to being the favored religion under the Emperor Constantine who himself became a Christian. By the end of the century, it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius.
These changes provided the setting in which the Church found herself receiving large numbers of people into her membership. This presented a challenge as the Church worked to receive a much larger volume of people, while still teaching people the faith and forming them to understand what happens in the worship service.
In order to handle this situation, the Church modified the process of the catechumenate. She created a process for catechumens that began on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, and that ended at the Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday. At the Vigil, the catechumens received Holy Baptism and then received the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time. A person could become a catechumen, but in order to to become a full member of the Church who received the Sacrament of the Altar, they had to go through the Lenten process leading to baptism.
However, it soon became clear that this had created an unintended consequence. A person who was a catechumen, but who had not yet entered into the Lenten process leading to baptism was considered to be part of the Church in a general way. At the same time, since the Church still practiced a rigorous process of church discipline for communing members, including public penance; and because it was recognized that baptism forgave all sins, people were becoming catechumens and then waiting years before they actually received baptism.
The logic of this was that individuals who had the status of being a catechumen were considered part of the Church – even if they weren’t yet in full fellowship. At the same time, they were exempt from any form of church discipline, and so they could do what they wanted. And by holding off on Holy Baptism, people believed that they had the guarantee of forgiveness for whatever they did while they were a catechumen.
The most famous example of this was St. Augustine. He became a catechumen as a young man, and then it was many years before he was actually baptized. He said of this time that his prayer was, “Give me chastity … but not yet.” And once he became a bishop, he found out what it was like to be on the other side of the process. Like all bishops of this age, he found himself during the time leading up to Lent urging people to present themselves for the Lenten process that led to baptism.
There was in this abuse of the system, a fundamental misunderstanding of baptism and what it means for our life. Romans 6 makes it clear that baptism calls us to a life that turns away from sin. As the apostle Paul says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:1-3).
Baptism connects us with the saving death of the crucified Lord and risen Lord. It brings about rebirth by the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead (Romans 8:11), and therefore it means that the resurrection of power of Christ is already at work in us. As Paul goes on to say, “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.”
Yet the very fact that Paul has to write these words indicates that baptism does not bring about an end to sin. After all, he writes to baptized Christians in our text and tells them, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:12-13).
We know this from our own experience as well. We are baptized Christians, and yet so often Paul’s words in the next chapter describe our own life: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). We know that we fail to fear, love and trust in God above all things. We know that we fail to call upon God’s Name as we should and faithfully to receive his Word. We know that we fail in the vocations where God has placed us. We know that we hate and covet and gossip.
So what are we supposed to do? The answer is that as baptized Christians we go back to the water. This doesn’t mean that we need to be baptized again. Instead, it means that we return to our baptism and what it means for us. We return in faith and listen again to what God’s Word tells us about baptism. We trust in faith that this is in fact true. And strengthened by the Spirit through this we go forth to live as the forgiven child of God baptism has made us to be.
We return to the fact that through baptism we have died with Christ. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:3-4). Through baptism you shared in Jesus’ death and therefore you are forgiven. And what is more, in baptism God has begun to put to death the old Adam in us. Paul writes, “We know that our old man was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
Martin Luther once quipped that the old Adam is a good swimmer. He is in the process of dying, but he doesn’t give up without a fight – our fallen nature continues to be there as we live in this fallen world until the Last Day. And so we need to continue to return to our baptism. For in our baptism we find forgiveness for the sin that continues to be present in our life. And in our baptism we find the power of the Spirit present to help us live more and more like Christ.
We do this by repenting, confessing our sins and returning in faith to the promises God has made in baptism. Writing in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther employed the method of baptism used in his day to explain what this means. Coming out of the medieval period, baptisms were commonly still done by immersion. The infant was actually dipped into the water of the font (see Mark’s thoughts: Putting baptism back into “the forgiveness of sins” of the Apostles’ Creed).
And so in the fourth question in the Small Catechism about baptism, Luther asks, “What does such baptizing with water indicate?” – by which he means the action of being dipped into the water. He then provides the answer: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
How do we drown the old Adam? We do it by repenting and confessing our sins as baptized Christians. And when we do this with faith in what God did in baptism, we also receive the power for the new man to come forth. Luther put it this way in the Large Catechism: “These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of a new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth” (IV.65-66). We repent and return to the water and what God did for us there. For as Luther teaches us, “Repentance therefore is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what has earlier been begun but abandoned” (IV.79).
Baptism is therefore a present reality in which we live. It is reality that we are to use in faith daily. There we died with Christ, and there the life giving Spirit began His continuing work in us. It is always true. It is the blessing that is always ready to be received in faith. It is the gift that has meaning for us every day until the Last Day. And so, may the words of the Large Catechism always describe our lives: “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time. Every day they should be found in faith and with its fruits, suppressing the old creature and growing up in the new” (IV.84-85).