Baptism and Righteousness – Sermon by Pr Rolf Preus

The Baptism of our Lord
(Quinquagesima Sunday)
February 11, 2018
“Baptism and Righteousness”
St. Matthew 3: 13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a precious gift of God. Its benefits are greater than can be described in a single sermon. In fact, if we read and took to heart what the Bible teaches us about baptism, we would learn more than what could be written in many books.

Just consider this text before us today. In baptism the Holy Trinity reveals himself. The Father speaks from heaven. The Son is baptized in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. Baptism identifies God. When Jesus instituted this sacrament he said, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is about the Triune God. He is the only true God. All other gods are idols. The Father is the only God. The Son is the only God. The Holy Spirit is the only God. They are not three Gods, but one God. The Father is begotten of no one. The Son is begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This eternal relationship is revealed in time most clearly at the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus. If we wish to extol God, worship him, adore him, praise him, and give him the glory due his name, we will extol and honor the holy sacrament of baptism and trust in the promises God gives us in this sacred washing.

In baptism God’s righteousness is revealed. Everybody talks about righteousness even if few use the word or know what it means. When the child argues his case against his mother’s correction by explaining to her the true facts that justify whatever it is she is scolding him for doing, he is engaged in a theological conversation about righteousness. He is saying, “Mom, I am righteous.” Mom is saying, “No, you’re not.” Everybody talks about righteousness.

Jesus reveals true righteousness. When John, amazed and unsettled by the fact that the only sinless man in the world would come to him to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus explained to him why. He said, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does the baptism of Jesus have to do with fulfilling all righteousness? What did Jesus do right after he was baptized? Where did he go? The Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There, the righteous man withstood the temptations of the devil. He fulfilled all righteousness. He did what was righteous in the face of temptations to sin against God.

St. John explains what the fulfilling of all righteousness means in his first general Epistle, chapter five verse six:

This is He -who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth.

He came by water. He was baptized. He came by blood. He was crucified. He came by water, not only by water, but by water and blood. This is the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. After baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Christ’s baptism and his crucifixion go together. Water and blood are joined together. When Jesus died, water and blood flowed from his pierced side. When we are baptized into Christ’s death, we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, cleansed from all our sins, raised up from death to life, filled with the Holy Spirit, rescued from death and the devil, given new desires, new hope, and filled with love. In short, we are saved. St. Peter writes that baptism saves us, not by washing the dirt from the body, but by granting to us a good conscience by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. When Jesus rose, God absolved us. When we are baptized, we are made partakers of Christ’s death and resurrection.

“To fulfill all righteousness” means that Christ’s baptism gives to our baptism the merits, the virtue, the treasure of his holy life and sacrificial death. Do you want to be righteous? Be baptized. Why? Because by being baptized you are doing a righteous deed that will make you into a righteous person? No, but because God is the One who baptizes in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and when God baptizes you he clothes you with the righteousness of Christ, as St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

The biblical teaching about baptism is clear. It is a tragedy that most Protestant churches do not teach it. The Bible teaches that baptism is God’s work, whereby the Holy Spirit washes away our sins and makes us holy. But many teach that baptism is our work and as our work doesn’t wash away sin, doesn’t makes us holy, and doesn’t save us. They turn God’s work into our work. In so doing, they strip from baptism the treasures that God gives us in this holy sacrament. They turn baptism into an outward expression of an inner experience. It is a sign that doesn’t give what it signifies.

This is the main reason why many of these churches refuse to baptize babies. If baptism is our work, we need to know what we are doing when we do it. If we cannot explain why we are doing it we should wait until we are able to do so before we do it. That would make sense if baptism were our work, but it makes no sense at all when baptism is God’s work. A child who is born of his mother has done nothing to make himself alive. It was God’s doing. Likewise, a child who is born again in Holy Baptism has done nothing to bring about his new birth. It was God’s doing. But if baptism is our work and not God’s, obviously a baby can’t do anything.

But this is just the point! Our salvation is God’s work and not ours. The forgiveness of our sins is God’s work and not ours. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is God’s work and not ours. When you confess our faith in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, are you confessing your confidence in you or are you confessing your confidence in God? Baptism is God’s gracious, life—giving washing.

Your baptism places obligations on you. Yes, it is a gift. Yes, God graciously bestows it. But when you, through faith, receive this gift you obligate yourself to live a certain kind of life. This is why the first question asked of the candidate for baptism is, “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” We deny our baptism when we refuse to live the life of a baptized child of God.

The last question we ask and answer about baptism in Luther’s Small Catechism goes like this:

What does such baptizing with water indicate? 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.

Where is this written?

St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)

The Christian life is the life of returning to our baptism every single day. Baptism washes away all sin and gives us a new nature that wants to please God in everything we say and do. But until we die, our old sinful nature will remain. We will feel temptations to sin. When we yield to these temptations, our baptism calls us to repentance. It isn’t just a onetime event that is done and that’s that. It defines our relationship with God. It is the power to resist temptation to sin and when we don’t, baptism provides us with forgiveness of sin and the strength to resist in the future.

You cannot be baptized more than once. It’s not just wrong. It’s impossible. God’s covenant of baptism is sealed by Christ’s blood and God doesn’t renege on his promises. Let God be true and every man a liar. If you have fallen into sin, soul—destroying sin, vile, disgusting, damnable sin, and you think that this has brought your faith to an end and destroyed you as a Christian, stop and think. Consider two questions. First, does God’s promise depend on God or on you? Second, is your baptism God’s promise to you or is it not? Return to your baptism! No matter how far you have fallen, no matter how deep and offensive the sin, confess it to God and believe Jesus when he says that he fulfilled all righteousness for you. Take heart, sinner! Your baptism robes you in the righteousness of him who fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law.

Watch Jesus leave the water of the Jordan and do battle against the devil in the wilderness, opposing his lies with biblical truth. Watch Jesus submit to every law of God and man and remain the obedient Son in whom his Father was well pleased. Watch him stand before those who falsely accused him, who delivered him up to be crucified on a cross as if he were a criminal. Look to Jesus dying for you. See there that every lustful thought, every cruel and false word, every selfish deed you ever thought, said, and did was laid on him and he bore it all away. He fulfilled all righteousness. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for you so that you might become the righteousness of God in him.

Now look to your baptism where God’s name and your name were joined together. There is the forgiveness of all your sins, for you were baptized into Christ’s death. There is God’s promise to you of eternal life, for you were baptized into Christ’s resurrection. There is your innocence before God because there the Holy Spirit entered into you to stay.

There is nothing worth comparing
To this life-long comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring:
Even there I’ll rest secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising,
Still my soul continues praising:
I am baptized into Christ;
I’m a child of Paradise! Amen

About Pastor Rolf Preus

Pastor Rolf David Preus grew up on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the fourth of ten children, where his father, Dr. Robert David Preus, taught for many years. Pastor Preus graduated from high school in 1971, from Concordia College, St. Paul, Minnesota in 1975 and from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1979. He was ordained on July 1, 1979, at Trinity Lutheran Church, in Clear Lake, Minnesota. He served Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake (1979-1982), First Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1982-1989), St. John's Lutheran Church in Racine, Wisconsin (1989-1997), River Heights Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1997-2006), and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville, North Dakota and Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minnesota from (2006-2015). On February 15, 2015 he was installed as Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Sidney, Montana and St. John Lutheran Church, Fairview, Montana. Pastor Preus received his Master of Sacred Theology degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1987. His thesis topic was, “An Evaluation of Lutheran/Roman Catholic Conversations on Justification." Pastor Preus has taught courses in theology for Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Concordia University Wisconsin, and St. Sophia Lutheran Theological Seminary in Ternopil, Ukraine. Pastor Preus married Dorothy Jean Felts on May 27, 1975, in Coldwater, Michigan. God has blessed Pastor and Dort with twelve children: Daniel, David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, James, Mary, Samuel, and Peter. David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, and James are pastors in the LCMS. God has blessed Pastor and Mrs. Preus with sixty-three grandchildren so far.


Baptism and Righteousness – Sermon by Pr Rolf Preus — 17 Comments

  1. Now this is a sermon for terrified,wayward souls who have played the prodigal and journied to the far country even after being baptized in their youth. Thank you, Pastor Preus, for preaching such comfort to those of us who have, by God’s grace and mercy, been returned home to the Father. Isaiah 40:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 1:3 come to mind. Amen.

  2. Amen, Mark. Returning from the far country has been a great blessing for me, too. And thank you, Pastor Preus.

  3. “St. Peter writes that baptism saves us, not by washing the dirt from the body, but by granting to us a good conscience by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. When Jesus rose, God absolved us.”

    While the term “good conscience” is often understood to mean freedom from the weight of one’s sin, in 1 Peter 3:21 the term seems to mean, rather, good judgment about right and wrong along with the will to act accordingly. In the context of a longer passage that is exhorting Christians to remain upright in a time of persecution, the verse actually says that baptism saves you “as an appeal to God for a good conscience”. (ESV)

    Consequently, I understand these words to depict a convert who recognizes his waywardness and seeks God’s mercy. More than that, he earnestly desires to live as God would have him live, in good fellowship with the church. Humbly recognizing his weakness in seeing and choosing what is right, he makes “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (“calling on His name” in Acts 22:16). The appeal saves not as a meritorious work, but because of the faith it evidences and the mercifulness of God who hears the appeal (Luke 7:50; Romans 10:13; Col. 2:12).

    If the “good conscience” of 1 Peter 3:21 is the same as the “good conscience” of 1 Peter 3:16 — and I believe it is — then the connection between baptism and behavior becomes even clearer in this passage. For if having a good conscience means to have a heart free from the weight of one’s sin, how does that internal condition “put to shame” the slanderers? They are put to shame, rather, by what comes from having a good conscience (i.e., good judgment) — an observable pattern of “good behavior” (1 Peter 3:16) that exposes their falsehoods to anyone who judges fairly.

    “The Bible teaches that baptism is God’s work”

    I understand from the Bible that baptism is the church’s work. (Matthew 28:19) Using God’s name in the baptism, according to Jesus’ command, means that the mercy being demonstrated by the washing is God’s (not ours), the purposes served by baptizing are God’s (not ours), and the power to fulfill the identity bestowed in baptism is God’s (not ours).

    Baptism is pivotal but not conclusive. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mt. 24:13)

  4. Thank you for your comments, Carl H.

    It is perfectly true that the baptized child of God earnestly desires to live as God wants him to live. In this particular text, the appeal to God for a good conscience by the resurrection of Jesus is joined to baptism saving us. It is by saving us and forgiving us that God gives us a good conscience.

    On the matter of baptism being God’s work, Matthew 28:18 clearly teaches that it is, for it is done by the authority of Him to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Read Luther’s Large Catechism on this. He clearly and repeatedly defends the salvific power of baptism by pointing out that it is God who baptizes.

  5. I am confused about the Baptism with which our Lord was baptized, and the Baptism instituted by our Lord. Obviously, the one our Lord instituted, He instituted after the Baptism of John. We know that the Baptism our Lord instituted is part of the New Covenant. The Baptism of John is part of the Old Covenant, while at the same time, as I understand it, Baptism in the Old Covenant was mandated only for gentile converts to Judaism. Baptism for everyone, or for the forgiveness of sins, cannot be found in the Old Testament. Where did John get the idea that he should be baptizing? If he received a direct command from God to do so, one might expect to read the words somewhere, “The Word of the Lord came to John …”
    Since the Baptism of John, as I read this sermon, apparently brings the same benefits as the Baptism instituted by our Lord, are they one and the same? I know the answer to that one, because John definitely did not baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
    So why is it that these Baptisms are often portrayed as if they are one and the same?
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  6. @Rolf Preus #4

    Now I look forward to your answer to George! Reading him here, it has seemed to me that he has been “confused” about baptism for years.
    [E.g., if baptism under the Old Covenant was what John was doing, and that was meant for gentiles converting to Judaism, how is it that it’s recorded that “everyone” in Jerusalem was coming out to John to be baptized? Seems to be something else going on here….]

  7. I suspect that the person who has the definitive answer to this apparent dilemma is Rev. Joseph Abrahamson. I would love to hear his comments.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  8. The baptism of John was a baptism for the remission of sins.

    “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” Mark 1:4

    The word of the Lord came to John.

    “The word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin.” Luke 3:2-3

  9. The Baptism Peter proclaimed on Pentecost was also for the forgiveness of sins, but John’s Baptism apparently lacked the gift of the Holy Spirit.
    Or could it be that in the case of John’s Baptism, “for the forgiveness of sins” does not mean what we think it means. That is why I am very interested in Rev. Abrahamson’s view on this subject. As I understand it, Torah teaches that before going to the Temple with one’s sin offering, a Jew had to undergo a ritual bath. These bath were also mandated for other purposes. Now, when the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they obviously did not provide them with these baths, and I suspect that is how what in Greek is called “Baptism” became widespread among the Jews. If I am right, then “for the forgiveness of sins”, in this case, means that a person was now qualified to go to the Temple, make his sin offering, and receive the forgiveness of sins, but the Baptism by itself did not convey forgiveness.
    I find it difficult to believe that an “intermediate” form of Baptism, with forgiveness but no Holy Spirit, was introduced just for the mission of John. Would not the Pharisees and the scribes have objected vehemently to any forgiveness of sins that was not taught in Torah? As we know, in Acts 19, St. Paul rebaptized those “disciples”, who had “only” received the Baptism of John.
    I write this in the full knowledge that I may be very wrong on all counts, but at least I am fairly sure that the religious leaders would not have accepted a forgiveness of sins not taught in Torah. Remember, they got pretty touchy when our Lord forgave sins; would they simply have ignored John’s claim, if that is what it was?
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  10. In Luke 3:3, the Evangelist speaks of John’s baptism as being a baptism of repentance “for the forgiveness of sins.” In Acts 2:38, he speaks of Christ’s baptism as being “for the forgiveness of sins.” The same three words in the Greek, eis aphesin hamartioon*, are used in both instances. John’s baptism provided the forgiveness of sins just as Christ’s baptism does.

    What’s the difference? John’s was preparatory. It was not intended to outlast the ministry of John himself. It was a sacrament. It provided the forgiveness of sins. It directed the baptized to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Just as Jesus must increase and John must decrease, so Jesus’ baptism must replace John’s. This was the nature of the case. The fullness of the Spirit is poured out after Jesus has fully atoned for the sin of the world.

    As to what we can learn from the influence of the Babylonians over the Jews and how this might affect their view of John’s baptism, I think we would do better just to stay with the words in the Gospels that identify both John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism as being for the forgiveness of sins.

    *I am sorry, but I don’t know how to do Greek letters on my computer so I use our letters. The omega is rendered oo, but pronounced “oh.”

  11. @George A. Marquart #5

    George, I hope you are doing well. I’m not sure of your main question, but let me bring some texts on the particulars you asked:
    ” Where did John get the idea that he should be baptizing? If he received a direct command from God to do so, one might expect to read the words somewhere, “The Word of the Lord came to John …””

    With regard to how we know John received a direct call from God commissioning him to baptize we read from John chapter 1:
    “32 And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. 33 I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.””

    Note John says “He who sent me to baptize with water.”

    Your second set of questions:
    “Since the Baptism of John, as I read this sermon, apparently brings the same benefits as the Baptism instituted by our Lord, are they one and the same? I know the answer to that one, because John definitely did not baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
    So why is it that these Baptisms are often portrayed as if they are one and the same?”

    Before Christ finished His work God sent this one man with the commission to baptize “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) John’s baptism was instituted by God to be carried out by John, not by the Church as a whole, and not as part of the Ceremonial Law instituted through Moses. His baptism was the outward application of God’s forgiveness upon the person baptized by John. John was God’s appointed embassador/witness/emmisary authorized to baptize for the forgiveness of sins pointing to the fulfillment of that baptism in the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. The rest of the Church was not so authorized.

    After the Resurrection, in Gallilee Jesus gave the authority to preach and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to the Church through the Apostles.

    The difference is not in the power or authority between John’s and Christ’s baptism. Both are the same, a water baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). The difference rests only in that John received a special immediate call to preach and baptize, whereas under Christ’s institution the whole church now has the authority to preach and baptize. The Church in the ordinary/regular carrying out of Christ’s institution does this through the mediate call to pastors (Romans 10:14f). But the Church recognizes that in casu necessitatis any Christian needs to fill this office to preach the forgiveness of sins and baptize. Thus we confess in the Treatise #67

    “For wherever the Church is, there is the authority [command] to administer the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the Church to retain the authority to call, elect, and ordain ministers. And this authority is a gift which in reality is given to the Church, which no human power can wrest from the Church, as Paul also testifies to the Ephesians when he says, Eph 4:8: He ascended, He gave gifts to men. And he enumerates among the gifts specially belonging to the Church pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Hence, wherever there is a true church, the right to elect and ordain ministers necessarily exists. Just as in a case of necessity even a layman absolves, and becomes the minister and pastor of another; as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after Baptism then absolved the baptizer.”

    Regarding the conjecture on what the Jews might have done during the Babylonian Exile or what their captors might have allowed, this is not relevant to John in what God directly instructed him to do. Nor is it relevant to what Christ instituted for His Church to do. We don’t have to guess nor try to figure out some kind of historical background. The Scriptures are sufficient.

    I have to go do pastory things now. I hope this helps.

  12. @Pastor Joseph Abrahamson #11

    Thank you both, Rev. Preus and Rev. Abrahamson.
    I find myself disagreeing with both of you on two points:
    1. The Baptism of John in Mark and Luke is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It should be clear that the forgiveness is the result of repentance, not of the baptism. The baptism was a public proclamation of those who were baptized, that they had repented. Their repentance resulted in the forgiveness of their sins. As I understand it, fundamental to the Jewish faith is the belief that repentance results in forgiveness, even before sacrifice. Several OT citations could be made. However, this repentance was only for sins in the past, and therefore had to be repeated time and again. The repentance preceding Baptism into the Christian faith, according to our Lutheran Confessions and according to the teaching of C.F.W. Walther, is a once in a lifetime event. Subsequent repentance or contrition are not of the same order. The Baptism of our Lord itself, as a Sacrament, conveys forgiveness. Even though, in part, the same Greek words are used, the Baptisms are clearly different.
    2. Acts 19, in which St. Paul re-baptizes those who had “only received the Baptism of John”, clearly show that the Baptisms are different. Here John’s Baptism is referred to as a “baptism of repentance.”
    My concern here is not with nitpicking about words. My concern is that we do not always distinguish clearly between the Old Covenant and the New. The Baptism of John clearly belongs in the Old; it is not part of the Kingdom of Grace. Confusing the two leads to confusion about the difference between repentance under the Old Covenant and under the New.
    I should also note that what I wrote in 1 and 2 above is not something I knew all along, but was trying to trap you in some way. The controversy about the nature of both Baptisms is something that has played a significant role in my life, but only through this exchange of opinions was I forced to study the matter in detail. What I wrote about ceremonial cleansing was part of my conjecture, but now I see that it has nothing to do with this matter. On the other hand, from what I have read, there is no doubt about the rise of the popularity of some form of baptism among the post-exilic Jews.
    Finally, having searched the Lutheran Confessions, I can find nothing that clearly addresses this matter. Therefore, we are free to believe what we believe Scripture tells us, unless our belief defies clearly established rules of hermeneutics.
    Thank you both again.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  13. @Rolf Preus #10

    Regarding Greek letters: go to, look up the verse and specify the Greek. Then holding down left button, run your mouse over the words you want. Release mouse button, and holding down a ctrl key on your keyboard, type c. Put your mouse cursor in the message. Holding down ctrl, type p. It will put them in the message for you if the web site supports Unicode, and I think most do.

    εις αφεσιν αμαρτιων

    In other news, I had just discussed baptism with a Baptist friend today, so this sermon was very timely for me. I sent it on to her.

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