Baptism: the waters in which we live

My previous posts (1 | 2 | 3) comparing the Lutheran approach to baptism with that of many Anglican conservative evangelicals have focused on “theological” issues: what is the meaning and purpose of baptism? How do we receive its benefits?

However, probably the greatest difference I’ve encountered in the Lutheran church compared with my previous experience as an Anglican evangelical is not so much over the theology of baptism as in the role that baptism plays in the Christian life and the life of the church.

The fourth Q&A in Luther’s account of baptism in the Small Catechism reads as follows:

What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

First of all, this statement clearly shows that the high view of baptism’s power and benefits described in the previous answers is not intended to encourage laxity or “nominalism”. Baptism should lead us to daily contrition and repentance and a daily emerging of the “new man”; not a distant, “weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter” relationship with Christ and his church. (Not that we should “despise the day of small things” when that’s where people are.)

Nor, I think, is Luther preaching “law” here in the sense of “rules for Christian living”. Rather, he is describing what the Christian life looks like: a daily return to our baptism, in which our repentance re-enacts our burial with Christ in baptism, and the Holy Spirit renews our resurrection with Christ (see Romans 6:4, cited by Luther as the “proof” for this answer). Baptism isn’t just an event that occurred in the past: it is the daily reality of our lives.

This finds expression in every aspect of Christian life as envisioned in the Lutheran tradition. We make the sign of the cross in our prayers and at the start of the Divine Service, as a recollection of our baptism. We sing hymns such as God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It or All Who Believe And Are Baptized. Sermons draw out the relationship between the gospel and our baptism so often it almost becomes a cliché (E and I will often joke of a biblical text that “Pr Jon would say it’s about baptism”).

The effect of all this is to make baptism a living, ongoing reality in a way that I had never previously encountered. There is a virtuous circle between theology and devotion regarding baptism, with each reinforcing the other.

Before I became a Lutheran, I assumed that the heart of “Lutheran spirituality” was justification by faith. That’s certainly the doctrine on which the church stands or falls, but I’d go so far as to say that in practice the true heart of Lutheran spirituality is baptism – though from a Lutheran point of view that’s just another way of saying the same thing.

So if someone wanted to know how to be more conscious of their baptism and of its place in their life as a Christian, I’d be inclined to recommend they start using the sign of the cross when they pray, rather than recommending this or that book on the subject. Live as if God had done something in your baptism – as if Romans 6:3,4, say, was actually talking about that event – and see how that changes things.

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3 Responses to Baptism: the waters in which we live

  1. Devona says:

    I’ve enjoyed this series on Baptism. Particularly because Cressida is going to be baptized on Sunday and I’ve been able to reflect on the great blessing Baptism is. And also what a blessing it is to be a Lutheran and have our understanding of it.

  2. Tevildo says:

    “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.”

    Not “wherein I was Saved/Justified/However One Wants To Express It”. All are _admissible_; many are _not admitted_. I feel that your recent articles have expressed the basic Protestant interpretation of the ceremony very effectively indeed.

    (NOTE: I only found this site because you like Sellar and Yeatman. But – you’re a good theologian, too. 😉 )

  3. John H says:

    Tevildo: thanks for your kind words – good to find another Sellar & Yeatman fan! 🙂

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