The Baptism of our Lord| February 6, 2005| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Peter 3:18-22
When we think of the flood that God sent to destroy the world during the time of Noah we naturally think of it as a terrible thing. The recent destruction wreaked by tidal waves in the Indian Ocean killed hundreds of thousands of people. That’s a tiny fraction of the number of people who perished in the worldwide flood of which Noah warned the world. It is likely that billions of people were killed. Only eight were saved. Water is usually symbolic of life. But the flood brought death. It destroyed. Noah’s flood was a bad thing.
But that’s not exactly the way St. Peter puts it in our text. He speaks of the eight people who were saved through the water of the flood. The same water that destroyed the world saved them. It saved them from the sin of the world. God got rid of the sin of the world by getting rid of the sinners in the world. The water of the flood washed away the sin of the world by washing away the sinners. That’s a very effective way of getting rid of sin, don’t you think?
But it didn’t work. Sin remained in the world because it remained in Noah and his family. They were sinners and their sin was transmitted to their descendents after them. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man who found grace in the eyes of the LORD. He found grace. This is what made him righteous. It’s not that he did not have a sinful heart and sinful desires. He did. So did his children and grandchildren and every other child of Adam. Sin remained in the world after Noah and seven others were saved through water.
And sin remains in us who are saved through water. But this does not mean that baptism does not wash away sin. God sends water to wash away sin. He did so in the worldwide flood of Noah’s day. He does so in Holy Baptism. The flood washed away sin by washing away sinners to their deaths. Baptism also washes away sin. How can this be? Many assume that it cannot be so and they reject the word of God when it says that it is so. But when God speaks in the Holy Scriptures we must listen and not subject God’s word to the judgment of human reason. If God says it that settles it and God most certainly does say that baptism washes away sin.
Ananias said to Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16) Baptism washes away sins. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Baptism washes away sins. St. Paul also writes in Titus 3, “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, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6) Baptism washes away sins and brings us a new birth by the Holy Spirit. This is what our Lord Jesus teaches us in John 3:5 where He says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Baptism washes away sins. It is the means by which the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and makes us Christians. What we see in Holy Baptism is only water. It is ordinary water. It has no magical powers. What gives baptism its power to wash away sins is the command and institution of Jesus Christ Himself. He instituted a baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This baptism joins us to the same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so clearly revealed at the baptism of Jesus. The Father’s voice spoke from heaven. The Son stood in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descended from heaven like a dove and alighted upon Jesus. It is in baptism that the Triune God is revealed. It is in baptism that we are joined to the Triune God. The Father calls us by name and says that we are His dear children with whom He is well pleased. The Son unites us with His death for our sins and His resurrection from the dead. The Spirit comes into us bringing new and eternal life so that we are born again, born from above, spiritually born to live with God forever.
Baptism washes away our sins. It saves us. So says St. Peter in our text. He writes, “There is also an antitype which now saves us: baptism.” The flood was a type of baptism. A type in the Old Testament is fulfilled by an antitype in the New Testament. Just as the flood saved Noah and his family from the sin of the world, even so the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world has given us a washing that saves us from our sins.
People raise questions about the power of baptism to wash away sins. If Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, how can baptism wash away sin? Either Jesus takes away sin or baptism does. Did not Jesus bear our sins on the cross? Did He not suffer and pay for our sins when He died? So is it not Christ’s death that takes away our sins? How then can baptism wash away sin if it is Christ’s suffering on the cross that takes away our sins?
We must answer these questions because they are sincerely raised and they indicate that there is much misunderstanding about the relationship between Christ’s suffering and Holy Baptism. Our text clarifies matters for us. St. Peter makes it clear that Christ suffered for our sins once and for all on the cross. The righteous One died in the place of the unrighteous ones. Jesus was our substitute. We did not do those righteous things that God requires of us. Jesus did. This righteous man took the place of all sinners. He obeyed the law in our stead and He suffered the due penalty of the law in our stead. He took our place. This is how He brings us to God. We don’t draw God to us. Jesus does. He does so by taking upon Himself the sin of the world.
The fact that Jesus fully succeeded in bearing the sin of the whole human race and reconciling this world to God cannot be denied, though the devil would love to do so. But after Jesus died on the cross, St. Peter tells us that He descended into hell to preach to those who were disobedient and unbelieving during the time of Noah. Noah preached God’s grace and the entire world – with the exception of eight people – rejected that preaching. But Noah preached the truth and Jesus descended into hell to tell the devil and his angels and the spirits of those people who rejected the gospel that the gospel was fulfilled. Hell is called prison because in hell one must pay the debt of sin, even though Christ paid that debt for everyone. Christ’s descent into hell was to declare His victory over sin, death, and the devil and throw into the devil’s teeth the fact that his head had just been crushed on the cross.
Now you and I were not there when Jesus died on the cross, descended into hell, and rose from the dead. But by our baptism God has joined us to those events. When St. Peter explains how it is that baptism saves us he writes, “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” How can our conscience be cleared so that we can answer God without being afraid of Him? Our text tells us that baptism saves us, giving us the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died He took our sins away. When Jesus rose, God announced the forgiveness of sins to the whole world. As St. Paul puts it in Romans 4:25, “Who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” Baptism saves us by joining us to the death and the resurrection of Jesus. This is how St. Paul puts it in Romans 6:
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. (Romans 6:3-5)
Baptism takes us over time and space and brings us back to when and where Jesus took away our sins on the cross and rose from the dead victorious over sin and death. Our baptism is God’s way of joining us to the central event of human history where the righteous Man brings His righteousness to us and makes us saints. Baptism is not a human work. It is a divine work. Baptism is not a good deed that we do. It is a good deed that God does. The flood of baptism washes us in the flood of Jesus’ blood, shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
The fact that many receive baptism with indifference and live unrepentant lives does not mean that baptism has no power. St. Paul writes in Romans 3:3-4, “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.” Noah had a son named Ham who, some time after the flood, turned out to be a thoroughgoing unbeliever and mocker. He tossed aside the salvation that God provided by the water. And so it is today. People receive Holy Baptism, but not in faith. They regard it only as a religious ritual. They deny the new life to which God called them by denying the Savior whose blood has bought them. Jesus does not cease to be the Savior of sinners when sinners deny Him and refuse His salvation. And baptism doesn’t cease to save sinners when some who are baptized reject the blessings that baptism gives. God is not to blame for unbelief.
But He is to be credited for our faith. Apart from the Holy Spirit we could not know anything but spiritual blindness. Left to ourselves we stumble through life without knowing God or how to be His children. And no matter how far we think we have progressed spiritually we never progress beyond our baptism because it is only when God Himself washes us that we are clean. Any effort at self-sanctification is like a blind man washing his face with an ink-soaked wash cloth, thinking that he’s cleaning himself. Only God can cleanse us and He does so in Holy Baptism. Whenever we come before God and confess our sins and lay claim by faith to the righteousness of Jesus our only Savior and Mediator God brings us back to our baptism and washes away our sins, giving us a new life to live. This is why we return to our baptism every single day of our life. We treasure our baptism as God’s gracious washing of life flowing as a pure river through our lives, leading us on our way to heaven. Amen.