Trinity Sunday| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 11, 2006
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” John 3:5
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” Nothing has changed. Meteorologists still can’t predict the weather with sufficient accuracy that you can count on it. We don’t understand earthly matters. Men don’t understand their wives. Women don’t understand their husbands. We often don’t understand ourselves.
Yet, we who know so little about earthly things that we can see, experience, measure, and analyze, presume to think we know all about spiritual matters that are so far above us that we cannot possibly understand them. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” Who are we to apply our own human reason to God’s clear revelation and then to contradict him? But this is precisely what we do!
Jesus says that we must be born from above, born anew, or we will never see God’s kingdom. We will never enter eternal life. You must be born again. That is true. Until we are born again we cannot know God. We will try to create our own god in our own image and he will be an idol. We are flesh. God is Spirit. God brings about the new birth. When He does so, we are born from above. We receive the almighty name of the only true God, the Holy Trinity. God places His name on us and he claims us as his own. We die. We rise. We are clothed with Christ. We are forgiven of all our sins. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives.
This is what God does by His gracious choice. We do not choose to be born. We cannot choose for ourselves to be born again. Jesus explains why. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” St. Paul reminds us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. So if we are to find God’s kingdom now and in eternity, we must be born again. Is must be a heavenly, spiritual birth – a birth that God himself causes. And he surely does. We are born again by the Triune God. We are born again in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
The fact that God does this through Holy Baptism is clearly taught here in our text. Jesus explains that the new, spiritual, heavenly, divine birth is “of water and the Spirit.” He does not say, “Unless one is born of water and born of the Spirit” as if He is talking about two births. No, He says “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He is speaking of one birth that is of both water and the Spirit. Now God inspired these words recorded by St. John. We must take them very seriously. Jesus is our teacher, too, not just the teacher of Nicodemus. Jesus himself joins the Holy Spirit to the water of Holy Baptism. What God has joined together let not man put asunder!
Many people who claim to believe in the Bible don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is joined to the water of Holy Baptism in such a way that this washing becomes the means by which we are born from above. They see only water. They reason that Baptism has only symbolic value. But we must not subject the teaching of God’s word to the judgment of human reason. Instead we must subject human reason to the clear teaching of Holy Scriptures. The Bible teaches that God gives us this new spiritual birth from above by means of the washing of Holy Baptism. This is why we believe this, teach this, and confess this. The Bible calls Baptism a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5) The Bible calls Holy Baptism “the washing of water by the word” and says that this is the means by which Christ sanctifies and cleanses his Church that she may be without any spot or wrinkle or blemish of any kind. (Ephesians 5:26-27)
This doctrine that we are discussing is called “baptismal regeneration.” Through Holy Baptism we are born again to eternal life. The sad fact is that most Protestants deny baptismal regeneration. They often assume that we Lutherans believe in it because we haven’t fully broken away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. But we don’t believe in baptismal regeneration because the Roman Catholic Church teaches it. We believe in it because the Bible teaches it. And where Rome is right, she is right because she teaches the biblical doctrine.
We don’t claim that everyone who is baptized must automatically be born again. We cannot see the Holy Spirit at work and we certainly know that many people simply reject the gospel even when hearing it again and again. Holy Baptism does not make everyone who is baptized into a Christian. The Augsburg Confession states it rightly when, in talking of the Holy Spirit, it says that he works faith “when and where it pleases God.” Why some people believe the gospel and why others in unbelief reject it, no one but God knows.
But God knows. God the Son – who calls himself the Son of Man – came down from heaven, while remaining in heaven, because he is and will always be the omnipresent God over all. He came and he spoke of heavenly things, things so far above our ability to understand that we must simply bow before his teaching in humble submission and believe his words as the little baby receives his mother’s milk. Jesus directs us to our baptism, to where water and the Holy Spirit were joined by his own words and institution. He invites us to believe that in that holy washing we were born anew. That holy washing is the washing away of all our sins by the blood of Jesus. That holy washing is our burial with Jesus in Joseph’s tomb. That holy washing is our resurrection from the dead, never to die again.
The people in the Sinai desert deserved to die. They had spoken against God and God’s prophet, Moses. So God sent poisonous snakes to bite them. They were dying. They cried out for help. They needed mercy. They couldn’t survive. As they were dying, God told Moses to put a snake up on a pole. The people were told to look at the snake. Those who looked lived. If they thought to themselves that this was a foolish requirement and refused to look, they died. Only those who looked lived. God saves us in his own way. Not in our way. We are flesh. He is Spirit. We need to take his teaching to heart and to silence our rationalistic objections by his clear and compelling words.
We have complained against God. We have despised his promises, just as the children of Israel did. We have questioned his word as if we know better than he what we need to believe and do. We deserve the same death that the children of Israel were suffering when God commanded Moses to lift up the bronze serpent on a pole. That sign signified that Jesus would be lifted up on the cross to bear our sins. God directed them to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. God directs us to Jesus. Our baptism directs us to Jesus. When Jesus died, water and blood flowed from his pierced side. This teaches us that the water of Holy Baptism covers us with the blood of the Lamb. This is how our sins are washed away. We trust in the name given us in Holy Baptism, the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Heaven is our home. As the hymnist describes the saints in heaven:
Behold a host, arrayed in white, like thousand snow-clad mountains bright,
With palms they stand – who is this band before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame, who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood are cleansed from guilt and blame.
God the Father is our God and he is our Father. He has become our Father through Holy Baptism where we were joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. There, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, came into our lives, giving us the new birth from above.
But our faith is so very weak. It lives with our flesh. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and though we Christians are born again, we still carry around with us our sinful flesh. This flesh must be killed every day. It is by means of Holy Baptism that he is put to death. He is drowned. Every day we are born again. Every day the Holy Spirit creates us anew. With David we pray, “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with thy free spirit.”
The name of God is a powerful thing. It is his authority. Any religious person knows that God has the authority to demand, and to judge, and to condemn. Those who deny that are simply godless. But only the one who is born again, born from above, knows that God has the authority to forgive. Only the Christian knows he is in God’s eternal kingdom. And he knows it. He knows it because God has given him this knowledge. He knows it because he knows God the Father who sent his only Son into the world to die. He knows it because he knows God the Son who picked up his cross and walked to Golgotha to bear the sin of the world as the Lamb of God. He knows it because he knows God the Holy Spirit who has brought him to faith, who works in him the desire to serve God and to love him above all things, and who comforts him with the gospel of the forgiveness of sins every day.
This is the holy teaching of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to bear the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, whom we, with all Christians everywhere worship as one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. This is the one and only God. All other gods are idols. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.