In the movie Moana (2016), a young woman sets off on an epic voyage across the sea to save her people who are suffering on an island cursed with death. Along the way, she discovers who she truly is. It’s more of a story about Moana’s internal conflict in finding her self-identity than it is about any of the external battles she faces. Combined, this makes for a great and compelling story.
Apart from the water (which totally didn’t get the credit it deserved in the film because it literally saved Moana),1 what does Moana have to do with Baptism? Well, nothing. But, it seems, many view Baptism as the spiritual equivalent to Moana’s journey to discover her identity.
OUT OF CONTEXT
Identities result as a product of the society in which we live and the relationships we have with others, but usually require a person to take up an identity actively. For instance, a person born in Wisconsin will naturally be prone to be a Packers fan. If, however, all their friends are from Minnesota, they might begin to choose a new identity and eventually put on a Vikings jersey. Or a person like Moana, who is born on an island of people afraid of the sea but has a grandmother who teaches her to love the sea, must now actively choose how to solve this identity conflict. A person can wear multiple identities at the same time, some even in conflict with others.
For many, Baptism is seen as that step of actively taking up an identity. Once a person of the world, by choosing Baptism, they can now identify with Christ. Baptism, like Moana’s journey across the sea, is seen as a crucial part of an individual’s faith journey. They can now wear the jersey of “Christian.” This makes for a great and compelling story. But is Baptism really like this?
The reality is, it’s more. “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Baptism doesn’t just give us a new identity like a sports jersey or a new title would. No, Baptism actually kills and buries our old identity and give us a new one. The identity that was killed? That’s the old Adam with its sins and evil lusts. The new identity? That’s the new Man which shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
This identity is different because it’s not temporary or self-chosen or one of many conflicting worldly identities we may have. It is no more self-chosen than a dead person choosing to be alive again. This identity is given to us by God, through the death and resurrection of His Son. It is our whole self, the reason why God calls us His children. Baptism washes away everything that once marked us as an enemy of God and conflicted our identity. It delivers us from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
But how can something as simple as water do this? This is where most people go wrong with Baptism, failing to give it the credit it is due. Water is physical. How can it do something spiritual? If it doesn’t actually do anything, then the water in Baptism must simply be the sign of a decision a person has made to take a new identity for themselves. Baptism even may be something a person may need to do over and over until they are assured of their choice in their identity.
The Bible doesn’t understate the power of Baptism however, explaining how it isn’t something that we do, or even something the water does by itself. Rather it is the Word combined with the water: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Because Baptism is the power of God through the Holy Spirit working through the Word and the water, it is much more than a sign or step in a person’s faith journey. Faith isn’t a journey where one has to wonder how far they need to travel to come to God. When a Christian has traveled to the font, God has come to them and united with them. They now have the identity of Jesus: pure, holy, and righteous. Faith is the assurance that “Baptism has the strength divine to make life immortal mine.” Because Baptism is God’s work, there are no doubts in its validity.
“Our Baptism abides forever,” writes Luther in the Large Catechism (LC V:77). “Even though someone should fall from Baptism and sin, still we always have access to it.” Baptism is a reality, our whole identity, not an event that is over and done with. It’s a good thing too, because the world, our flesh, and the devil constantly try to conflict us and make us give up our identity. The Old Adam still comes forward when we sin, and if he is unrestrained, would overcome us.
Baptism is something we live in. It is the power to subdue the Old Adam, which is done through repentance. “Repentance, therefore, is nothing other than a return and approach to Baptism. We repeat and do what we began before, but abandoned” (LC V:79). Baptized into Christ is our entire identity. Baptism forms and shapes everything we do, it gives us the power to stand firm against sin, Satan, and death, and it carries us from our island of misery and death to our paradise of eternal glory.
Reverend Jeff Hendrix
Calvary Lutheran Church, Ulen, MN
Grace Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
1As a metaphor of baptism, for a more theologically correct, but definitely less dramatic version of Moana, check out the YouTube channel How It Should Have Ended.