“Baptism: Death and Life”
There are many things that we share in common with other Christians. Depending on the denominations – most recognize the Trinity. Most believe the Bible is, at least in some sense, God’s word. Most still believe in heaven, some still believe in hell. And many would share our beliefs about creation, Jesus’ birth to a virgin, and his resurrection.
But one of the doctrines of Scripture that seems to be a real dividing line for many Christians, a real watershed, if you’ll pardon the pun, is Holy Baptism. Just what is it, and what does it do? What does it mean?
For starters, we deny the idea that baptism is merely symbolic. That it is an empty and outward act which simply recognizes or signifies some spiritual change within us. Scripture never speaks of it this way, but rather, always talks of baptism as actually DOING something. You just have to look at the verbs. Moreover, close attention to the language shows us that baptism is not something that we do, a human act or work – but rather, it is something that we receive – a gift from God. Look at the passive language about “being baptized” not, “baptizing yourself”. And if baptism is a gift from God, that means that babies, too, can receive it.
On this day in which we honor and recall the Baptism of our Lord, we also have one of the most important Epistle passages about Baptism from St. Paul – in Romans 6. Let’s focus on Paul’s explanation of Baptism today as sort of a sideways treatment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
Anytime you have a statement like, “therefore”, or “in light of this” or “what shall we say, then?” You should ask what the author was talking about right before this passage – the near context. And to answer, in the first 5 chapters, Paul has been discussing first our predicament of sin, and then the righteousness of God that comes through faith, apart from the law. He shows how we are freed from the law, or by trying to be righteous according to the law. It’s the very Gospel itself – salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, and not in any works of our own.
But such a pure and free no-strings-attached gospel has led many to the question, “well, then can I just go on sinning? If salvation is free, if I don’t have to DO anything to get to heaven or be in God’s good graces, then I can do what I want, right? I can sin and not worry about it!” And so some have even accused us Lutherans of teaching. But Paul makes it clear that the Christian response to the gospel is not to go on sinning that grace may abound. And he proves his point with baptism.
You have died to sin. You’ve been baptized into Christ Jesus, and that means that you are baptized into his death. You are not the same as you once were. Something is different about you, Christian, something big.
One of the most important details about someone is whether they are alive or not. We just had another New Year’s observance, and one of the lists you often see about this time is all the famous people that have died in the last year. It’s one thing with celebrities, but quite another with people in your life, your loved ones. Their life and death matters much more to us. Nothing changes your life quite as much as when a child is born into the family, or when a loved one dies and is no longer with you. Birth and death are firm markers, bright lines in the course of time, turning points beyond which nothing is quite the same.
So too with baptism. It’s a life and death matter. Dead to sin, but very much alive in Christ.
Of course, it is only seen spiritually, for now. You can’t tell, outwardly, if a person is baptized. You can’t see it like a mark on their forehead or a tattoo on their arm. But the name of God is upon you. The seal of God is upon your brow. You are marked and redeemed by Christ the crucified. You know it, and more importantly, God knows it.
And so, according to the spirit, you have already died and been made alive in Christ. You’ve been drowned and resurrected. But since this is a spiritual reality, it didn’t only happen then, it happens every day. Our catechism puts it this way:
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?
Saint 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.” Romans 6:4
The other aspect of baptism that Paul highlights here, is our being united with Christ. Here’s is how Christ’s baptism and our own are sort of two sides of a coin.
In our baptism, we are united with Christ. We get what Christ gets. We get his death, but also his life. Our Old Adam is drowned, and our New Adam arises – and that New Adam is the one who is united with Christ, the Second Adam. Just as Jesus is without sin, we are cleansed of sin. Just as he is righteous, so we are made righteous. What God says of Jesus, he now says of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
We are so united with Christ that elsewhere Paul speaks of baptism as being “clothed” with Christ. And so also where Jesus goes, we go, not just to death, but to life. Therefore even the grave has no hold over us, for it didn’t over Jesus. He rose on the third day, and we will rise, bodily, on the last day. In so many ways baptism unites us with Christ, identifies us with him, as one of his people, even the very body of Christ, the church.
But in Jesus’ baptism we see the other side of the coin. In Jesus’ baptism he is united with us. He identifies with us. John was right, in a way, to balk when Jesus came to be baptized. He said, “wait a minute, Jesus, I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you! You don’t need any cleansing. You don’t need any washing away of your sins – you don’t have any! You’re the Lamb of God, spotless and blameless. You take away the sins of the world. What are you doing here, asking to be baptized? This is all backwards”
And in a way, Jesus acknowledges this, by saying, “let it be so, now…” As if to say, “Normally, John, you’d be exactly right, but now, just this one time, let it be so – for there is a special purpose here – to fulfill all righteousness”. You see, by submitting to baptism, Jesus was uniting himself with us sinners, in order to save us sinners. He was initiating the great exchange – giving us what he has – his righteousness – and taking what we had – our sin, our guilt, and eventually, our death. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
Of course Jesus would complete this process at the cross. There he would, in his body, put to death all sin. There, he would, by his death, literally take our place. And then, by his resurrection, burst open the grave not just for himself, but for all of us who have been united with him, he, with us, in his baptism, we, with him, in ours.
And so Paul winds up by exhorting us: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. Just as we can’t see our baptism, but trust in its power and promise, so also we must consider what we can’t see to be true: we are dead to sin. Sin has no power over us. We are slaves no more. We have, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the ability to fight temptation, to flee from wickedness, and begin to live a life worthy of our calling. The paradoxical mystery is that we will fall and fail, but the comfort of the cross of Christ is always at hand to restore us. For even as we consider and regard ourselves as dead to sin, we must also trust that we are, even now, alive to God in Christ Jesus.
The Christian life is different. It is as different as life and death. It is a life lived in the daily flood of baptismal blessings that flow from Christ and his cross. It is for young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, and for sinners of all nations. All who are subject to death and the tyranny of the Old Adam.
And when this body of sin is finally placed in the ground, when our flesh and breath give up the ghost, then we will see the full measure of our baptism’s power, when Christ returns to raise the dead and bring his people to eternal glory. Then, and there, death will finally and fully be undone. There and then, we will know only life, united with Christ forever.
Baptism is death – and life – Thanks be to God. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.