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Back to the Catechism: Holy Baptism

September 27, 2017 No Comment

This article reflects on the section of Luther’s Small Catechism dealing with the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Read the relevant portion online in contemporary English here.

Baptized into Christ

by Edward G. Kettner

Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River. Woodcut from the 1558 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism.

As Luther continued to consider the need for a catechism, he initially focused on what would become the first three parts: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. But he soon realized that more work was needed to help people understand what was necessary to be a Christian. Therefore, he went on to add sections on Baptism, Confession (to which was later added the Office of the Keys), and the Sacrament of the Altar. Since both Rome on the one hand and other Protestants on the other had confused some important points and thus missed out on the comfort and sweetness of the Scriptural understanding, Luther discussed these issues simply and directly, showing how they deliver God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation to us redeemed sinners.

Rome understands baptism as an act performed by the church which imparted power to people to begin to work out their salvation in them. In Rome’s understanding, baptism does its work simply by the performance of the act. Many Protestants on the other hand believe that baptism is simply an ordinance given by God that must be obeyed—a demonstration of one’s commitment to Christ.

Luther rightly recognized that baptism is an ordinance, but it is not something that we do merely because God requires it. Rather, God requires it because He actually does something through it, something for our benefit. The imperative attached to baptism is an invitation, and as Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet shows us, spurning God’s invitation is a serious matter. To spurn the invitation is to spurn the blessings that God attaches to baptism. Christ commissioned the apostles to make disciples by baptizing; when we are baptized, it is in fact God Himself who is doing the baptizing, making us His children.

Luther reminds us that baptism is a means by which God gives us the gift of the forgiveness of sins—and therefore life and salvation. Baptism is not simply water, but water attached to the Word and promise of God. Through baptism we are made members of Christ’s body. We are buried with Christ into His death and raised with Him to new life.

Baptism is not simply water, but water attached to the Word and promise of God. Through baptism we are made members of Christ’s body. We are buried with Christ into His death and raised with Him to new life.

When we talk about our baptisms, we often say that we “have been baptized.” This points to the one baptism for the remission of sins—an event not to be repeated. By this we are born anew, born from above, born of water and the Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:3,5). Peter tells us that just as Noah and his family were saved through water when the rest of humanity was destroyed, so also baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:18-21).

We can also say “I am baptized.” Once the act has taken place, we exist in the state of being baptized people. Because of that, we daily die to sin and are raised to newness of life. (To see the beauty of this, look to hymn 594 in the Lutheran Service Book: “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It.”

Baptism is a word of Gospel to the troubled sinner. It is not an excuse for continuing in sin, an attitude which needs to be addressed with a call to repentance. As St. Paul says, “How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). But Paul adds to this admonition, noting that in baptism we are actually united to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-11). Indeed, baptism brings us into a relationship with Christ which is as intimate as the relationship between a bridegroom and his bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). We are made members of His bride, the Church. (This is brought out in hymn 644 of the Lutheran Service Book: “The Church’s One Foundation.” See especially stanza 1).

It is clear, simple, and wonderful. Baptism unites us to Christ by water and Word, delivers us from sin, death, and the devil, and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation. What a comfort this is, and what joy it is to know this!

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Rev. Dr. Edward G. Kettner is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Concordia Lutheran Seminary (Edmonton).

This article is the fourth in a series exploring the six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. See them all (as they are published) here.