Posts tagged ‘Lutheranism’

Thoughts on Baptism

augustines-baptism

The Baptism of Augustine

Yesterday, I got to preach on an encounter that a disciple of Jesus named Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road.  Through Philip’s witness, this eunuch was moved to faith and to baptism.  In my message, I answered some common questions people have about baptism, but there was much I wanted to say about baptism that I didn’t get a chance to.  So, in the interest of further exploring the richness of what baptism offers, I figured I’d repost some thoughts on baptism that I wrote several years ago.  I hope you enjoy!

What is baptism?

Baptism is a divine ordinance, instituted by Christ Himself, whereby He makes disciples through water combined with God’s name.  Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  The participle “baptizing” can be translated as a participle of means.  Baptism, therefore, can be seen as a means by which disciples are made.

It is important to recognize that baptism is something God does for us and not something we do for God.  This is why Paul says of baptism, “We were therefore buried with Christ 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).  Notice the passive voice of the verbs:  “buried,” “raised.”  These are divine passives, indicating that God is the One burying our old, sinful natures and raising us to new life in Christ.  We are passive in the matter.  This runs contrary to the teaching of some who describe baptism merely as an act of obedience while denying its divine power.  Consider this quote from a large denomination’s confessional statement: “Baptism is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”[1]  Two things are especially notable about this statement.  First, while obedience is emphasized, the blessings of baptism are not mentioned.  Second, this statement references Romans 6:4, but relegates Paul’s language concerning burial and resurrection to that of symbolism, emphasizing the believer’s faith rather than God’s action.  Paul, however, nowhere indicates that he is speaking symbolically in this verse.  Rather, his language indicates that he has a lively confidence in an actual new life, offered by God through baptism.

Does baptism save?

Yes, baptism does save.  Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).  Peter could not be clearer:  Baptism saves you.  However, it is important to note not only that baptism saves you, but how baptism saves you.  It saves you “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Without the resurrected Christ, baptism is emptied of its power and promise.

There are some who object to the teaching that baptism saves, saying, “Faith in Christ alone saves you!”  They often quote Scripture passages such as Romans 10:9:  “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They then argue:  “Paul says that faith in Christ saves you and nowhere mentions baptism in Romans 10:9.  Therefore, faith in Christ, and not baptism, saves you.”  This type of argument engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.”  In this game, people line up their favorite Bible verses to support their favorite pet positions and then, when shown Scriptural testimony which calls into question their position, rather than seeking to reconcile the verses and take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word, they simply declare, “Because my pet Bible verse is true, you must be incorrect!  My Bible verse sunk your Bible verse!”  We should never use Bible verses to “sink” other Bible verses.  Rather, we should assume that all Scripture speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith.  Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Peter 3:21, we ought to take his words as complimentary, and not contradictory, to what Paul says in Romans 10:9.

So then, how do we understand Romans 10:9 and 1 Peter 3:21 harmoniously?  Like this:  baptism does not save simply because it’s baptism, but because it has the promise of Jesus’ presence attached to it (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).  This is why baptism is regularly referred to as a “means of grace.”  God works through simple things such as water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and words on a page in Holy Scripture to speak to, meet with, and provide gifts for His people.  Martin Luther explains wonderfully:  “Without God’s word the water [of baptism] is plain water and no baptism.  But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”[2]  Thus, to say that baptism saves you is simply to say that Jesus saves you because Jesus is doing His work in and through baptism!

Why do Lutherans baptize infants?

Lutherans are not so interested in baptizing infants as we are interested in baptizing all people in accordance with Christ’s commands to baptize “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  The Bible teaches that all are born into sin and deserve God’s condemnation (cf. Psalm 51:5).  Therefore, babies need the salvation Jesus gives in baptism just as much as adults do.  The Bible nowhere prohibits baptizing babies.  In fact, we are told specifically that the promise of baptism is indeed for children: “The promise [of baptism] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

There are some who maintain that a profession of faith must precede baptism.  And because a baby cannot profess his faith in Christ, he should not be baptized until he is old enough to make such a profession.  In response to this objection, I would point out three things.  First, I would question the assumption that a profession of faith is a necessary prerequisite of baptism.  It often happens that that a person in Scripture confesses his faith before he is baptized, but common occurrence doesn’t always necessarily indicate a divine mandate.  Just because the Bible offers a description of certain things and events (e.g., a person offering a profession of faith before baptism) does not necessarily mean that the Bible is mandating a universal prescription.  Second, I would question the assumption that children cannot confess their faith.  The Psalmist reminds us, “From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2, cf. Matthew 21:16).  Children can and do praise God, even if it is with broken grammar and babble.  Finally, from a historical perspective, from the early days of the Christian Church, it was common practice to have parents or sponsors confess the Christian faith on behalf of their children.  The Roman theologian Hippolytus writes this concerning baptism in AD 215:  “The children shall be  baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.”[3]

Baptism is a joyous gift from God.  For through it, God meets us with His gifts.  Luther sums up the joy and promise of baptism nicely when he writes:  “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”[4]  Thus is the blessing and gift of baptism!


[1]The Baptist Faith and Message,” VII.

[2] Luther’s Small Catechism, “Baptism,” 3.

[3] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.4.

[4] What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 61.

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September 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

You’re A Saint!

"The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico (1423)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Fra Angelico (1423)

This past Friday, Melody and I dressed up our daughter Hope as an owl and, with great anticipation of the delight we were about to see in her eyes, took her out trick-or-treating. It was a fun evening. She was grinning ear to ear. But as much fun as we had during our Friday evening excursions, the day after held an especially poignant place in my heart. Saturday, according to Church tradition, was All Saints’ Day, a day on which we both remember those saints in Christ who have gone before us and celebrate how we have been made saints through Christ’s death and resurrection.  When I think about all the saints who have gone to be with the Lord in glory this past year, my heart can’t help but be warmed even while my eyes get a little misty. It’s a special time of remembrance.

A traditional prayer for All Saints’ Day encapsulates the meaning of this day well:

O almighty God, by whom we are graciously knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, our Lord, grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who sincerely love You; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen!

I love this prayer for two reasons.  First, it appropriately reminds us that there is much to learn from the saints who have gone before us.  Their ways of “virtuous and godly living” ought to be celebrated by us and their insights into God’s Word and Christ’s gospel ought to be studied by us.  There is much to be said for remembering – and practicing – the ways of the saints of old.  At the same time, we must understand that we do not become saints by remembering and practicing the holy ways of these historic Christians.  Rather, we become “sainted” by being “knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ.” Everyone who is a member of Christ’s body is properly called a saint, even as the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  How are we made saints?  We are sanctified and called by Christ.  Who are the saints?  They are everyone, everywhere who calls on the name of Jesus.

It is this definition of sainthood that the Church has believed and confessed for millennia, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”

This phrase, “the communion of saints,” carries with it two meanings. On the one hand, this phrase refers to all Christians from all times in all places, both in heaven and on earth.  Nicetas, a fourth century Serbian bishop, explains:

What is the Church but the congregation of all saints? Patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, all the just who have been, are, or shall be, are one Church because sanctified by one faith and life, marked by one Spirit, they constitute one body.  Believe, then, that in this one Church you will attain the communion of saints.[1]

On the other hand, the Greek word for “saints” in the New Testament can be either masculine, referring to people, or neuter, referring to things.  Thus, “the communion of saints” can be taken to mean “the communion of sainted, or holy, things.”  This is the way that Peter Abelard, the great twelfth century French theologian, understood this phrase.  In this case, the phrase, “the communion of sainted things,” was understood to mean the holy things of God:  His Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  The Lutheran confessors incorporate both understandings of “the communion of saints” when they write, “The Church is the congregation of saints [sainted people], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered [sainted things].”[2]  Thus, the Church is made up of the sainted people of God gathered around the sainted things of God!

But there is even more to this phrase, “the communion of saints.”  The Greek word for “communion” in the Creed is koinonia, a term that, even in secular Greek, describes not primarily communion with other human beings, but communion with God.  For example, the first century Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of the noble man in his “poor mortal body thinking of his fellowship (koinonia) with Zeus.”[3] Even in the pagan mind, man desires to have koinonia with god, albeit with a false god.  This word koinonia was subsequently commandeered by Christians to describe communion with the true God:  “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  We have koinonia with Christ.  The phrase, “communion of saints,” therefore, refers not only to the communion we, as Christians, have with each other, but to the communion we have with Christ.

Finally, then, to say, “I believe in the communion of saints” is to say, “I believe that I have communion with Christ and with others who are in Christ.  I believe that Christ meets me by His Word and holy gifts, cleanses me by His blood, and sanctifies me by His Holy Spirit.”  But saying all this is a mouthful.  So we simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”  It’s a simple phrase that means so much.  For it describes not only who we are, but who we are with.  We’re with Jesus.  And being with Jesus makes me feel like – well – a saint.

____________________

[1] Nicetas in Charles Augustus Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 193-194.

[2] AC VII 1

[3] Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.27

November 3, 2014 at 5:00 am Leave a comment


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