ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
As we gather for our 62nd annual convention, it also happens to be the 450th anniversary of Luther’s catechisms. Our synodical essay this year will remind us of the historical background and doctrinal content of the catechisms. May it serve to lead us into a deeper understanding and appreciation of these confessions of the Lutheran Church!
As beneficiaries of these two remarkable confessions of faith from the pen of the blessed Reformer, we Lutherans should indeed be grateful for the doctrinal heritage bequeathed to us in the catechisms. A church historian has correctly said: “If Luther had done no more than to write the two catechisms and to introduce them in the homes, schools, and churches, the world could never sufficiently pay nor thank him for his work.” The Small Catechism in particular has been an effective tool of instruction in the main truths of God’s Word these many years. In a masterful way Luther sets forth the six chief parts of Christian doctrine in the form of questions and answers in a manner that a child can understand. What a blessing this has been to our church! God grant that we may continue to use this “gem of the Reformation” in instructing our children in the One Thing Needful.
One of the doctrines which the catechisms so beautifully expound is the doctrine of baptism. In a day when the Reformed influence is making inroads into the Lutheran Church causing some of our people to have a “low view” of baptism, it is well for us to be reminded of the importance and blessedness of our baptism. I recently received an anonymous letter addressed to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod berating the Lutheran doctrine of baptism. Ridiculing the idea that baptism is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit works faith, the letter goes on to say: “BAPTISM ONLY PICTURES OUR SALVATION CONFESSION TO THE WORLD AFTER WE TAKE. CHRIST AS OUR SAVIOUR. We must first invite Christ to come into our hearts, then we must be immersed to show to the world our confession that our sins are dead and we are new creatures saved by grace, NOT BAPTISM.” This attitude is not new. Luther had to contend against this kind of thinking in his day, and his writings have much to say on the matter. Our message will quote freely from the catechisms to show how highly Luther prized the Scriptural doctrine of baptism.
I want to begin by saying that I could not agree more with a statement in a recent issue of AFFIRM which says: “The most efficacious event in life for a Lutheran is his baptism. This sacrament is the means by which he is incorporated into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13); and the object of a Lutheran’s faith is the promise of God appropriated to and by him when he goes through the waters of regeneration.” That statement echoes what Luther says in the Large Catechism: “It is through baptism that we are first brought into the Christian community.” Holsten Fagerberg in his book, A New Look At the Lutheran Confessions, states that “Reformation theology is baptismal theology. The Christian faith is born in baptism, whose effects are felt throughout the Christian life.”
Baptism is so important because it was instituted by Christ and has His command and promise. Shortly before His ascension into heaven, He gave the command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). In his Large Catechism Luther has much to say about the institution and blessing of baptism. I hope that the following quotations will whet our appetites to read and study the Large Catechism. something that has perhaps been neglected in our midst. Luther says, “Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God Himself.” “It is of the greatest importance that we regard Baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted.” “It is a treasure greater and nobler than heaven and earth.” “In it we obtain such an inexpressible treasure.” “No greater jewel can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we obtain perfect holiness and salvation, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire.” “It is a most precious thing, even though to all appearances it may not be worth straw.”
Luther emphasizes the fact that the triune God is present in baptism and bestows upon us all of the blessings of Christ’s redemptive work. “We should not doubt at all that whenever one is being baptized the heavens are assuredly open and the entire Trinity is present and through its own presence sanctifies and blesses the person being baptized.” In the Small Catechism he answers the question: “WHAT DOES BAPTISM GIVE OR PROFIT?” “Baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” And in the Large Catechism he sums it up by saying, “In short, the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether it could all be true. Suppose there were a physician who has such skill that people would not die, or even though they died would afterward live forever. Just think how the world would snow and rain money upon him! Because of the pressing crowd of rich men no one else could get near him. Now, here in Baptism there is brought free to every man’s door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.”
Our baptism should be a daily comfort to us that we are God’s children and heirs of eternal life. Luther says, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.” “It is so full of comfort and grace that heaven and earth cannot comprehend it.” One day a friend came to him deeply distressed and Luther reminded him, “Don’t you know that you have been baptized?” His friend later confessed that those words were of more comfort to him than an entire sermon. And Louis the Pius, a king of France, knew the value and comfort of his baptism when he said, “Those three handfuls of water poured over my, head in Holy Baptism are worth more to me than the crown I am wearing.” And when an elderly Christian who had experienced much joy in life was asked what the happiest day in his life was, he answered, “It was on the day on which I was baptized.”
Dr. Koren in his remarkable essay, “CAN AND OUGHT A CHRISTIAN BE CERTAIN OF HIS SALVATION?” beautifully shows his agreement with Luther when he says, “In Holy Baptism God has sealed his call to us and consecrated its into participation in Christ and thereby to be ‘heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’ If it seems to us that it is a long time since we were baptized, to God it is as though it had occurred today, and we are to comfort ourselves each day with this inviolable testimony of God’s will toward us.”
Our baptism is of so much comfort, too, because “it (Baptism) always remains valid and retains its integrity.” Even though we may fall from our baptismal grace, God’s covenant still stands and we can in repentance and faith “crawl back to our baptism.” Luther also compares baptism to a ship. “The ship does not flounder, since as we said, it is God’s ordinance and not a work of ours. But it does happen that we slip and fall out of the ship. If anybody does fall out, he should immediately head for the ship and cling to it until he can climb aboard again and sail in it as he had done before.” Our Savior assures us: “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). When our conscience accuses us—as it often does—and when the law of God condemns us—as it often does—then may we say with Luther, “Ego tamen baptizatus sum!” “But I am baptized!”
Our baptism should also be an incentive to remain in our baptismal grace unto the end and to serve our Lord in His kingdom these years we are permitted to live in this world. Very likely these words were sung at your baptism:
“Grant us to grow in grace each day
By holy baptism that we may
Eternal life inherit.”
We need constantly to remember that even though we are baptized children of God, we still have the old Adam, our sinful nature, which is corrupt and deceitful. Our old Adam is not interested in spiritual things; it is easily tempted and deceived and no one knows this better than Satan, the enemy of our souls. He uses every trick in the book to lure us away from the Savior. As baptized children of God we are marked people in this world and, therefore, we need to heed the admonition of our Lord, “Watch and pray” and “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith.”
Therefore, we need to drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance; if not, the old Adam will drown the new life of faith which we received in our baptism. Someone has wryly remarked that “the old Adam swims;” and that makes him so difficult to keep under control. The tragedy is that many baptized Christians have not heeded the admonition of the Lord. Instead of living in daily contrition and repentance, they have permitted themselves to be misled and deceived and have joined the children of the world on the broad road which leads to destruction. It was this sad situation which prompted Brorson to write:
“Come, Jesus, come and contemplate
Thy vineyard’s sad estate:
Baptized are millions in Thy name,
But where is faith’s pure flame?
Of what avail that we
Know of Thine agony,
So long as we do not o’erthrow
In faith the wicked foe.” (Hymnary No. 245, v. 2)
How important, then, that we remain in our baptismal grace unto the end! And if we faithfully use the means which God has given to preserve us in that grace, namely the Word and the Lord’s Supper, then we can have the assurance that “he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). May our prayer be:
“Keep us, how’er the world may lure
In our baptismal covenant pure;
That every yearning thought may be
Directed only unto Thee.” (Hymnary No. 179, v. 7)
May our baptism also be an incentive to lead a Christian life which will bring forth much fruit in our lives. “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8). In baptism we were so intimately united with Christ that we both died and rose with Him. St. Paul reminds us, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4). A godly life should be the fruit of our baptism.
Finally, our baptism should motivate us to serve our Lord in carrying out His command “to make disciples of all nations” and to do this by baptizing and by teaching. Do this now during our time of grace, while it is day before the night cometh when no man can work. Now that the Lord has blessed us with a new seminary building and has moved the hearts of several young men to prepare for the ministry, we need to open more missions. “The harvest truly is plenteous” and while we do not at the moment have an oversupply of pastors, we could possibly in the near future be faced with the unhappy problem of men standing idle in the marketplace for lack of calls. I would like to propose that we set as a goal the opening of two new missions a year, or at least three every two years. If we had the money, we could start two new missions immediately. The work of missions at home and abroad is unlimited. Nothing is more urgent than to go forward and proclaim the precious Gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. It is my special prayer that at this convention we can adopt a statement on the doctrine of the church so that we can devote more energy to the work of the church.
As baptized Christians who by faith hold a deed “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Peter 1:4), may our hearts be opened to give generously, cheerfully, and sacrificially to the Lord’s work “to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved!” (Ephesians 1:6).
Wilhelm W. Petersen, president