“The Catechism in Six Parts: The Sacrament of Holy Baptism”
So far in our series on the catechism, we’ve covered the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Tonight we come to the sacraments. We begin, fittingly enough, with the sacrament with which we begin the Christian life, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. What I want to say about Baptism I can summarize in two words: It works. It works! It is effective. It actually does something–quite a lot, really. Holy Baptism works, and it works in your life.
Tonight we want to answer three questions about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism: 1) Why does it work? 2) What does it work? And 3) How long does it work? First, then, why does Holy Baptism work? The clue is found in the term “Holy Baptism.” Wherever you see the word “Holy” used like this, you can substitute the word, “His,” referring to God. Holy Baptism is His Baptism, God’s Baptism. It belongs to him. He’s the one who came up with it. He’s the one doing the work.
Christ himself instituted Holy Baptism. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” the risen Lord says. And then he commissions his church to act with his authority: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” How are those disciples to be made? By baptizing them and teaching them. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The name of the triune God stands behind Baptism. God is the one doing the baptizing; he just uses the minister’s hands. God is at work in Baptism, making disciples of Jesus. God is at work in Baptism, and that is why it works.
This biblical view of Baptism stands in contrast to the prevailing view in many churches in America, which teach that Baptism is our work–that God is not the one at work in Baptism, that instead we are the ones doing the work, making our decision for Jesus. Those churches deny that Baptism works, that it actually does something. They turn Baptism from Gospel–God giving us his gifts–into Law, just another work that we have to do for God.
Turning Baptism into a work that we have to perform, in obedience to God’s ordinance–that robs Baptism of being the great gift and treasure that God has made it to be. We know that our works cannot save us. Only God can save us, and he does so through the means he has appointed. Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “Our works, indeed, do nothing for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s. . . . So you see plainly that there is no work here done by us, but a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps.”
Yes, we maintain that Holy Baptism works, and the reason it works is because God is the one doing the work. To that end, he has attached his Word to Baptism. Whenever God attaches his creative, powerful Word to something–even something as lowly and common as water–it does great things. The Holy Spirit works through this Word, connected to the water, to bring forth new life, a new creation. There was water, the Spirit, and the Word at the first creation, when God created the heavens and the earth. And there is water, the Spirit, and the Word at the new creation, every time God creates a new Christian! The Word of God is powerful and life-giving, and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, uses this means of water and the Word–Holy Baptism–to make new and living Christians out of old and dying sinners.
That brings us to our second question: What does Holy Baptism work? Here we recall what we read a few moments ago from the Small Catechism: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” Notice that, the first two words in that answer: “It works.” Baptism actually does something. It saves us. It gives us all of God’s gifts. God gives us his benefits through Baptism.
And lest you think this was just something that Luther came up with, I will remind you of what the Bible says. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we need to be born again, “born of water and the Spirit.” St. Paul echoes this same thing when he tells Titus that God “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” That’s Baptism, the new birth by which God saves us. St. Peter tells the crowd on the Day of Pentecost that they should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of sins,” and that they will receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit–“the promise is for you,” Peter says, this wonderful promise God attaches to Holy Baptism. Likewise, St. Peter says in his epistle, “Baptism now saves you.”
Baptism works. “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” Do these words remind you of anything from earlier in the Catechism? Yes, they sound very much like the Explanation of the Second Article of the Creed, where it says that Jesus Christ has redeemed us “from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil,” that we may live under him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Do you get the point? Do you make the connection? The same benefits that Christ won for us on the cross–forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and the devil, everlasting life and salvation–these same benefits are given to us in Holy Baptism. Or to put it the other way around: The benefits that Baptism gives are the very same things that Christ won for you on the cross! The whole gospel, all the gifts that God has for you, everything that Jesus Christ purchased for you by the shedding of his blood–it all comes to you in the waters of Holy Baptism. What does Baptism work? Everything Christ won for you by his saving work–all of that is what is poured out upon you.
“Therefore,” Luther says, “every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to do all his life. For he has always enough to do by believing firmly what Baptism promises and brings: victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with His gifts.” Dear friends, you can take comfort in knowing that God has poured this great treasure upon you in Baptism. Remember that you are baptized, that you belong to God. He claimed you as his own by putting his name on you.
And so Luther writes: “So when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say, ‘Nevertheless, I am baptized. And if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’” “I am baptized.” Notice that. Not “I was baptized,” back on such-and-such a date, as though that past event has no relevance for my life now. No, I “am” baptized; I am in a baptized condition.
That then brings us to our third question: How long does Holy Baptism work? Answer: It keeps on working, as long as we live, every day, until we reach our final goal.
Baptism is a dying and a rising. It happened on the day you were baptized. Your old sinful self was put to death and buried, and a new person came out alive, alive with Christ, alive in the Spirit. And then this baptismal dying and rising continues to happen every day that you live as both sinner and saint. Each day, that old Adam hanging around your neck–the sinful flesh that doesn’t want to listen to God, that wants to be his own god–the Old Adam needs to be put back under the water, over and over again, and die. Daily repentance, sorrow over sin, denying the sinful self–that is Holy Baptism at work every day. As is the daily rising with Christ, living the new life in the Spirit. That’s baptismal living. Being the new person you are in Christ. That too is Holy Baptism at work in your life. The dying and the rising are inseparable–dying to sin, rising to righteousness and new life. Now, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, you can say “yes” to loving God and loving your neighbor. God gives you new desires and new impulses, to live the way God created you to live. That’s walking in newness of life. Baptism keeps on working.
It continues to work every day until you reach the final goal. And that is the resurrection of the body. Yes, God redeemed both your soul and your body in Holy Baptism. That’s one reason the water was poured over your head: to show that God has claimed this body that he created but that sin infected with death. God has committed himself to reclaim your body for eternity, for eternal life. He will give you a new and glorified body at the resurrection of the dead, when Christ returns. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead with a glorified body, no longer subject to death, so it will be for you at the Last Day. Your baptism assures you of that. In Holy Baptism, you were joined to Jesus, in his death and resurrection. The body God created, the body Christ redeemed, the body the Holy Spirit sanctified through Holy Baptism–this body, corrupted by sin, will be raised incorruptible, imperishable, whole and glorious. This is the sure hope you have, the hope of the resurrection and eternal life! This is the hope into which you have been baptized!
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism: It works! Coming back now to our three questions: First, why does it work? Because it is God’s Baptism, Holy Baptism, His Baptism. He’s the one doing the work. Second, what does it work? Everything that Christ won for you on the cross: forgiveness for your sins; rescue from the devil’s domain into the new life in the Spirit; resurrection from the dead and eternal life and salvation. And third, how long does it work? Every day, as long as you live–and then some. Luther sums it up like this: “In this way one sees what a great, excellent thing Baptism is. It delivers us from the devil’s jaws and makes us God’s own. It suppresses and takes away sin and then daily strengthens the new man. It is working and always continues working until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.” Yes, Holy Baptism works. It works, and it keeps on working, for you!