What is Baptism?


You've all probably tried to hide a special gift by its wrapping. You've put small presents in big boxes; square shaped gifts in round boxes; short gifts in long boxes. The old adage about not judging a book by its cover applies at Christmas. It's even more applicable when it comes to Baptism. It's an eternal gift that keeps on giving and giving all the way through death itself, but is wrapped so plain, so ordinary.

That's why the first thing we confess about what Baptism is, is that it's not plain water. What? Isn't it the Catholics who have holy water? Don't we in fact use just plain water? We don't even use bottled water or water from the holy land. We use water right out of the tap. And if that's not plain water, what is it? If you had a Baptism, took the water from the font and put it in under a microscope, science would tell you that it is just plain water!

That's not what we believe. This is what we believe Baptism is according to our Large Catechism: "Baptism is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water" (LC, IV, 17). And again, "Baptism cannot be ordinary, mere water for mere water could not do such a thing So Baptism may certainly be called a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water" (LC, IV, 26, 27).

Did you catch that? If you parse these words correctly you'll hear that we confess Baptism is holy water. You can point to the water in that font and say that water is heavenly, holy, and blessed. That water is divine, fruitful, and gracious! The Large Catechism goes on to say that "whatever others terms we can find to praise it" we should use them (LC, IV, 17). How about powerful, glorious, awesome, miraculous? You know how in movies about Jesus there will come a dramatic moment when Jesus is reaching out His hand to touch a lame or blind person? You almost jump when the touch happens. That's how you should feel about the water of Baptism that has touched you whether last month, last year, last decade, or last century!

But it looks, feels, tastes and smells like just plain water. The water is the plain wrapping, the wrong sized or shaped box. Don't judge the water of your Baptism by the water, but by the Word the Lord Jesus attaches to it. That's the second thing we confess about what Baptism is. Not only isn't it just plain water, but it is the water included in God's command and combined with God's Word. You don't judge a present based on the wrapping it comes in but by the present itself. The water itself is not the present; it's the wrapping that the real present comes in.

The Lord has joined His Word to the application of plain water. The English verb baptize is the Greek word baptizo. If we were translating it rather than transliterating it as we do, Jesus would command, "Go and make disciples of all nations, applying water to them" Yes, that's what the word baptizo means "apply water." It is not a word Christ or Christians later made up. It is an ordinary word people used everyday. For example Mark 7 says this, "The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eatunless they baptizo. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the baptizo of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches."

Jesus attaches His all powerful Word, the Word that created all things out of nothing, the Word that stops the sea from flooding the earth, the Word that causes the sun, moon, and stars to stay in their orbits to the application of water. Note well, Jesus doesn't qualify this. He doesn't say only the application of water by immersing, by sprinkling, or by pouring has My Word attached to it. Jesus doesn't qualify the application of water by amount. So whether you were baptized by dunking, sprinkling, or pouring whether with a whole flood of water or just a thimble full, God's Word included that water.

Now if you look at your Baptism apart from the Word, then water is water. Then God hasn't said anything about the water that you were dunked in, sprinkled with, or had poured on you. Then what you have is the wrapping without the gift. This was the scene on Christmas at my house when the kids were young. There was a mound of wrapping paper, actually in my house it's newspaper, but just the same it was a mountain of paper with no gifts. It didn't bring a gleam to anyone's eyes. No one eyed that mound with anticipation, hope, or joy. In fact, the only question on anyone's mind was, "Who's going to take this mess out of here?"

That's all Baptism is when you leave God's Word and His institution out of it. Then it is nothing more than tap water. And everyone knows to make tap water appealing you've got to add something to it like sugar, lemons, coffee beans, tea leaves, grapes, hops, etc. People do that with Baptism. They add professing faith to it, or Bible Study, or even Confirmation. Then Baptism becomes something important. Without my profession of faith, my studying the Bible, or my being confirmed, Baptism isn't anything. They take away what God says about Baptism and add what they think.

What Words of God are we suppose to be regarding, evaluating, looking at our Baptism in light of? We answer in our Small Catechism, "Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: Therefore go an make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The first thing you should note is this a Word of command to make disciples by baptizing, and it's a word of promise, Gospel, not Law that disciples can and will be made by baptizing.

When water is included in God's command and combined with God's Word, you have Baptism. That's because the same Word of God that is described elsewhere as sharp, powerful, living, creating and recreating is now attached to, included with, and combined with water. Consider the Christmas story. There's a Baby different perhaps because He is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, but in all other respects no different than any other newborn no glowing hallo, no singing angels. But the Word of God declared this Baby was the Son of the Most High God, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. And so shepherds, wise men, Simeon, and Anna all worshipped Him. The Word not sight, not senses, not human opinions determined how they would value this Baby. Likewise, the Word of God determines how we value Baptism.

The specific Word from God we site in our confession is Matthew 28:19. As all Words of God dealing with sacraments, it's both a command and a promise. God's command is to make disciples by the waters of Baptism and promises thereby that this is what happens. Think long on this. This is saying a lot. How do you know you've been made a disciple of Christ? Is it because you do certain things, say certain things, believe certain things? Don't get me wrong; it's true that disciples of Christ do certain things, say certain things, and believe certain things, but this is not what makes them a disciple. Baptism does. It's the same with your biological children. It's true that because their your children they do, say, and believe certain things, but what makes them your children is the fact that you gave birth to them.

Push this all the way through. You gave birth to your children without any cooperation on their part. They didn't decide to be your children. They didn't ask to be your children. By a miracle of God, you gave birth to your children. That's how it is with Baptism. You don't become a child of God by deciding to be His child or by asking to be His child. No, He must make you a child by giving birth to you in Baptism.

And once He does, it's a done deal. True; you can sin against your new birth; you can reject your new birth; you can proclaim you're no longer God's child. Again go back to biological children. Your child can sin against his birth; he can reject you as a parent; he can proclaim he's no longer your son, but what really matters is what you say. If you the parent claim that misguided child, he is yours.

In Baptism, God claims you as His child, His disciple. During times of crisis, when the devil, the world, or your own flesh are tormenting you with how do you know you're a child of God, you will go back to what you think makes you a child. If you say, "I know I'm a child because I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior," you will try to go back to that point and relive it. If you say, "I know I'm a child of God because I believe in Jesus," you'll examine your heart to see if you really believe, but that is the very point the devil, the world, or your flesh are tormenting you with.

What we think, decide, accept believe is always suspect, always less than perfect. What God does is always sure and certain. God does Baptism. By water applied to your body, He made you a disciple of Christ. He took the blood, sweat and tears that Christ shed to pay for your sins and applied them to you in Baptism. When you're in doubt, worried, or fearful about being a disciple, run to your Baptism where you were made one.

God commands that by the waters of Baptism disciples are made and God promises that Baptism does it by bringing you literally into the Triune God. Movement happens in Baptism. The Water with the Word moves over your body and you, body and soul, move into the Triune God. There is only sin, death, and the devil outside of the Triune God. But inside there is no sin, no death and no devil. When you're in your Baptism, you're in the Triune God.

So praise your Baptism, not for the sake of the water wrapping but what that water contains, the Word of God. When your Baptism seems weak or powerless, you can be sure you're looking at the water only not the Word, and that's the same as looking at Baby Jesus apart from the Word. You're left with a holiday filled with family, food, and gifts, but no Savior. You're left with empty wrapping and no eternal present. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Midweek Advent II (20061206); Baptism I