The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 7 & 10, 2013
Baptized, Alive, and Free
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:3-11
The central truth of the Christian religion is that unworthy sinners are justified by God, forgiven of all their sins, rescued from death, and delivered from the devil and hell, solely on account of God’s unfathomable grace in Christ Jesus who offered his life of obedience to God as our righteousness, suffered and died for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day as the Bible says. This gospel is not a message about what we are obliged to do and not do. It is a message about what God freely gives us. God forgives us. God justifies us. God saves us. We don’t deserve it. He forgives us freely for Christ’s sake. We receive this forgiveness, this verdict of justification, not by doing anything, but simply by believing it.
This precious truth is known among us by the theological shorthand: justification through faith alone. To be justified is to be reckoned by God to be righteous. If God reckons you to be righteous you are righteous. God’s reckoning is not based on fiction, but on fact. Jesus Christ obeyed God and was perfectly righteous. His righteousness is what God reckons to us when he justifies us. This means that we are just or righteous, not by what we do or by what is done in us, but solely by what Jesus did for us. We are justified through faith alone because faith, that is, believing or trusting in the gospel, is the only way of receiving this gift. Since we are justified through faith alone and not in the slightest degree by what we do, we are sure that we are justified by God. We know that God regards us as righteous for Christ’s sake. We know that we’re going to heaven. We are sure of it. We know that we have eternal life. If we were to die today we would spent eternity in the joys and glory of heaven. Only those who know they are justified through faith alone have this assurance of salvation.
While this is the central truth of the Christian faith, it is also the most commonly denied. People think much of themselves. They don’t want to acknowledge that before God they must be beggars. So they are lured away from the purity and simplicity of the gospel to rely on their own works, struggles, prayers, and religious exercises of various kinds. The doctrine that gives all the glory to God and gives no credit at all to sinners for their salvation is of tremendous comfort, but it draws the most vicious attacks. No teaching of our holy faith is more precious and no teaching is more hated.
The most potent attack against this sacred truth is identified by St. Paul in the first verse of this chapter of Romans where he asks, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul raises this question because this question is raised against the truth of the gospel. Here’s the argument. Since our good deeds do not help to save us and since God delights in being gracious to us we should continue to sin so that God will be all the more gracious. Now nobody actually believes this. It is raised in mockery of the Christian gospel. But St. Paul addresses it because it is an effective argument. It appears to carnal reason that the doctrine of justification through faith alone is a license to sin, an encouragement to feed the desires of the flesh. After all, if good works don’t get you to heaven, why not live in sin?
The apostle answers this slander against the gospel by pointing to the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The faith that receives the forgiveness of sins in the gospel is not the faith that rejects Holy Baptism. It is the faith that holds to the promises of Holy Baptism. Remember this. To reject baptism is to reject Christ for it is Christ Jesus who commanded baptism, saying, “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and it is Christ who gave the promise concerning baptism, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” When Jesus says something faith believes it. Faith trusts in the promises God joins to Holy Baptism.
So what happened when we were baptized? What does the Bible say? I don’t ask what the Church says because the Church has no other authority than that of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is over the Church; the Church is under the Bible. I don’t ask what the Catechism says because the Catechism is drawn from the Bible. I ask what the Bible says. It says that when we were baptized we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We were joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. We shared in his death. We shared in his resurrection. We died with him. We rose with him. This happened. What happened matters.
Christianity is not a timeless philosophy of spiritual principles that we put into practice. It is a faith grounded in historical facts. Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead. It happened in space and time. It is an historical event, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Theologians like to talk about sacred history to distinguish it from ordinary history. That’s just fine as long as we are sure of the historicity – the real historical truth – of Christ’s death and resurrection. It happened.
Our baptisms are also historical events. On Sunday, August 16, 1953, when I was nine days old I was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost at Harvard Square Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Pastor Robert David Preus. He poured water over my head and he said to me, “Rolf David Preus, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” That’s when I died and rose from the dead. I died with Christ. I rose with Christ. Jesus died the death to destroy sin. God joined me to that death. He gave me the benefits of that death, namely, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, after facing sin, bearing sin, and in his innocence conquering sin, rose from the dead free from the sin that he bore. God gave me the benefits of that resurrection. Sin no longer rules over me. The sin in which I was born, that led me to embrace evil thoughts, words, and deeds, and that hounded me and mocked me cannot claim me or govern me. Even as God has reckoned me to be righteous by clothing me in Christ’s blood-bought righteousness, so can I reckon myself to be dead to sin but alive to God in Christ.
When God says you are righteous because of Christ two things happen to you. The first thing is that you become righteous by imputation. The second thing is that you become righteous by dying to sin and rising to a new life. Let’s consider both of these.
To be righteous by imputation is to be righteous by God’s word. He says it and that makes it so. When God baptizes you he says to you that your sins are washed away. That means that your sins are washed away. They aren’t imputed to you; instead Christ’s righteousness is imputed to you. That means your sins aren’t reckoned to you. They were reckoned to Christ and he died the death to sin on the cross as the sin of the whole human race was reckoned to him. When you were baptized, God pronounced you to be righteous, perfectly righteous, by reckoning to you the righteousness of Jesus’ obedience and suffering.
Since you are already righteous by imputation, you begin to be righteous by being set free from the control and power of sin. Your baptism gives you this. The old sinful flesh still clings to you. This is true. That’s why you sin. That’s why you follow the cravings of your body when your body’s desires go against God’s holy desire for your life set forth in the Ten Commandments. You choose death. That’s what sin is. It is doing what brings death. Your sinful flesh – also called the old man, because we inherited this sinful condition from Adam – won’t listen to God, won’t trust God, won’t love God, and is bound and determined to claim you and enslave you.
Your baptism is power to drown that old Adam. By joining you to Christ’s death and resurrection, where your sin was drowned and your righteousness was purchased, your baptism destroys the flesh that would destroy you. Baptism is not just a sign of our devotion to God, though it certainly does identify us as Christians. But it is more than a sign of our faith. It is a sign of God’s grace and power that actually gives what it signifies. It joins us to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in such a way that Christ’s death becomes our death and his resurrection becomes our resurrection. As we learn to confess in Luther’s Small Catechism:
What does such baptizing with water signify? It signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Baptism isn’t a magical washing that makes people into Christians all by itself. The power of baptism is the power of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. When St. Peter says that baptism saves us he goes on to say that it is the answer of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When the Roman soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’ side, water and blood came out, signifying that the blood of Jesus and the water of Holy Baptism go together. Where we have the water we have the blood.
This means that your baptism is God’s power in your life to live a Christian life. It is power to resist the temptation to sin and when you have failed and given in to sin it is the power to deliver you from sin’s claim on you.
Every Christian knows that God calls us to live holy lives. To say that we can continue in sin as if grace is license to sin is to twist the gospel into the very opposite of what it is. The gospel sets us free. It doesn’t keep us enslaved. It sets us free to live a new life. This is what our baptism guarantees us. God is the One who baptized us. The life we now live is the life he gave us to live. The holy life of sanctification is not our achievement. It is God’s gracious work in us that he works in us every day and throughout our lives by the power of Holy Baptism.
The central truth of the Christian faith, that we are justified by God and forgiven of all our sins freely by God’s grace on account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and that this forgiveness is ours through faith alone is not an excuse to live in sin. It is the very opposite. This precious truth is what makes Holy Baptism God’s power in our lives to set us free to live new lives. And when our old Adam claims us, we drown him in our baptism, and go on living as God’s dear children in righteousness and purity forever.
Rolf D. Preus