Repent & Be Baptized
December 4, 2011
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When God draws close to us, everything isn’t set right. Instead
we’re told to change that we might meet him as we should – we’re told to
repent [μετανοια] and be baptized (Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:2, 28:19). So
Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of the
But just how do these two new components – repentance and baptism – go together to improve or perfect us? (2 Corinthians 13:9). In his Large Catechism (1529), Luther says: “If you live in repentance… you are walking in Baptism.” And repentance is an “an earnest attack on the old man and an entering upon a new life.” In this attack, repentance reverses “what is born in us from Adam, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud, yes, and unbelieving” (BC, p. 445). This linkage to repentance makes baptism “very stern [and] strict” (LW 51:183). So we can’t let it be “taken captive” (LW 36:70) as some sweet rigmarole to fluff-up our kids for our friends, or whereby adults try to make themselves look good. For Luther baptism is doubled-up by repentance. It’s what cleanses us (Titus 3:5) by drawing us into the sufferings of Christ (Mark 10:37-39; Matthew 10:25). So Kierkegaard adds that baptism only takes care of “the past [sins]; later sins [have] to be atoned for by good works” [Journals, ed. Hong & Hong, 1:543].
Baptism’s No Joke
Luther also pushes this doubling in his Small Catechism (1529). First he sings its praises by saying that it “effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation” (BC, pp. 348-349). This he calls, the year before, “the transcendent excellence of baptism” (LW 51:185) – and later, in the decade of his death, what makes baptism “our highest and most precious treasure” (LW 51:324)! Its greatness is this rescuing that the water and Word of God does for us – turning us into “children of God” as the liturgy says [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) p. 121], by delivering us [eripuit] from the ways of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:13)!
Then Luther ends his discussion by saying that baptism also “signifies that the old Adam in us… should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death” (BC, p. 349)! This, he says, is the point of Romans 6:4 about baptism meaning “being buried with Christ into death.” This is the ghastly side of baptism – working out “your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – if you will! No wonder then that we’re tempted to “abandon [and] resist” our baptisms (BC, pp. 446, 445)! But Luther doesn’t back down. Therefore he adds these sobering words at the end of his 1523 Order of Baptism (LW 53:101-102):
I… ask all… to take this wonderful work [of baptism] to heart in all its seriousness [and note] how it confesses before God that [the little child] is possessed by the devil and is a child of sin and wrath, and [how it] prays very diligently for aid and grace through baptism that he may become a child of God…. Therefore… it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy.
This is the glory and the gravity of Holy Baptism! It licks the devil when it comes to original sin, but tangles with him over our new sins! So regarding this battle, Luther rightly says that baptism “is not enough. [So] it must be your concern… to be upright inwardly in your heart and outwardly in your life [otherwise you’re] baptized in vain” (LW 22:197; 29:138)! And Kierkegaard adds, that with our baptized kids, we must “vigorously see to it that rebirth becomes a decisive determinant,” as they age (Journals, I:537)!
But if this baptismal battle is all that we see in the blessed sacrament of Holy Baptism, we could easily end up giving up. Baptism then could quickly be reduced to one of those “heavy burdens” Jesus warned us against (Matthew 23:4)! To ward this off, Luther points us to 1 John 5:6 which links the waters of baptism with the blood of Christ. John wants to “mingle the blood” of Jesus in this verse with the “pure white water” of baptism, says Luther, in order to turn it into the “rosy-red blood of Christ.” And that’s because
holy baptism was purchased for us through this same blood, which he shed for us and with which he paid for sin. This blood and its merit and power he put into baptism, in order that in baptism we might receive it. For whenever a person receives baptism in faith this is the same as if he were visibly washed and cleansed of sins with the blood of Christ. [So John] takes this forgiveness of sin and tucks it into baptism (LW 51:325).
This is the faith that makes Holy Baptism majestic and miraculous! And that is why this sacrament depends on it. So Luther adds
if some one had not been baptized, but did not know it and firmly believed that he had been rightly baptized, that faith would be sufficient for him. [But even so] the Word of God is greater… than faith, since faith builds and is founded on the Word of God rather than God’s Word on faith…. [For] faith may waver and change, but God’s Word remains forever…. [So while it’s] true [that] one should add faith to baptism,…. we are not to base baptism on faith (LW 40:260, 252).
So cling to the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14) which is the very foundation of baptism. Do not depend on yourselves to clean up your lives. Trust instead in Christ – and repent in his name, so that your sins may be forgiven and you can escape from being punished in hell for all of eternity because of those sins (John 3:36; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; LW 3:274). With this foundation in place, Luther could then blurt out and say – and may we too:
I dare to be baptized [for] if I am baptized on [God’s] bidding I know for certain that I am baptized. Were I to be baptized on my own faith, I might tomorrow find myself unbaptized, if faith failed me…. [For] my faith and I make this venture. If I believe, this baptism is of value to me. If I do not believe, it is not of value. But baptism in itself is not therefore wrong or uncertain, [and] is not a matter of venture (LW 40:253; and BC, pp. 443-446 on being valid but not beneficial).
So Luther also famously encourages us that “when our sins or conscience oppress us,… we must retort, ‘But I am baptized!.... [and so] I shall be saved and have eternal life’” (BC, p. 442)!
With this great confidence, receive also the Lord’s Supper today – which is the very flesh and blood of Christ who offered up his life for us (John 6:53-56; Hebrews 9:26). And note well that this subsequent sacrament is for the baptized (BC, p. 456). And so Evan James and Simon Davis, who are baptized today, may bow down before the Altar of the Lord and received the Lord’s Supper today – for the first time – on their baptismal day. That’s because even though “baptism leads us into a new life on earth; [it’s] the bread [of this sacrament that] guides us through death into eternal life,…. and [is] instituted for a strengthening against death and an entrance into eternal life” (LW 35:67). So come – eat and drink!
Fight for Baptism
Then, having been strengthened through the Lord’s Supper, let us return again to Holy Baptism, that we may take up the struggle, as Luther says, to “live in harmony with it.” He explains the first way we may do this is to avoid what “poisons” baptism, namely “the repose, ease, and prosperity of this life,…. for in the easy life no one learns to suffer, to die with gladness, [and] to get rid of sin…. Instead there grows only love of this life and horror of eternal life, fear of death and [the] unwillingness to blot out sin” (LW 35:39).
And the second way is to uphold infant baptism – since infant baptism “is most certain because of the Word of Christ, where he commands [us] to bring [children to baptism] [Matthew 19:14], whereas adults come of themselves” [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker (1988) 2:90-91; LW 40:244]. On this Luther offers four lines of defense. The first one is that in the early church whole households were baptized – which included children (LW 40:245; Acts 16:15, 33, 18:8). The second is that John the Baptist believed in Jesus when he was still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41; LW 40: 242, 257) – which puts the lie to the view that infants can’t believe because they can’t talk (LW 40:242). The third is that while “children are not baptized in the faith of the sponsors, [their] faith… prays and gains faith for [the baptized], in which they [can then] believe for themselves” (SML 2:85). And the last has to do with sleeping adult Christians. On this Luther asks: “If faith can thus continue without the aid of reason so that the latter is not conscious of it, why should it not also begin in children before reason knows anything about it?” (SML 2:89)! Well put, Luther! Amen.