As a Lutheran Pastor, when I look at a bulletin and see the word “baptism,” it conjures up a warm nostalgia. When I look out at parishioners in the pew, I suspect they are experiencing the same feelings because the baptismal rite in the Lutheran church has a way of bringing a person back to the past. As the newly baptized child is washed, we see the white garments often passed down from the previous generation. We hear the baby’s cry echoing off the old concrete walls. We see the parents’ smiles. It’s indeed a warm, nostalgic event—the kind of event that romanticizes the past.
On the other hand, for many contemporary churches that use a band and a big stage with a pool, baptisms generally don’t have that nostalgic, warm feeling. Instead, baptisms are viewed with feelings of commitment, dedication, and willpower. In fact, it’s common in these contemporary churches to see someone dunked under the water for baptism and then come out of the water with their hands raised and cheering like they just hit a game-winning home run in the World Series.
Regardless of the Christian denomination, it’s safe to say that most Christians in the world have a favorable disposition toward a person being baptized. However, even though there are positive views towards baptism, many Christians may not fully realize its potency. Baptism isn’t merely a nostalgic event remembering the distant past, nor a celebratory event marking a Christian’s commitment. Rather, it’s a violent act of God.
You heard that correctly; baptisms are violent, fierce, and destructive. Take a closer look at the Lutheran baptismal liturgy, for example, and you will see what I mean.
The Lutheran church has long mentioned two biblical accounts from the Old Testament in the baptismal liturgy. In our Lutheran Service Book (i.e., hymnal), we hear about Noah’s Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea. The Lutheran Church sees the water in both of these accounts as figures of baptism. The water that covered the earth and the water of the Red Sea that drowned Pharaoh foreshadow the ferocity of baptism.
With Noah, we read in the Old Testament that after the ark was built and the animals gathered, water burst from the earth and poured down from heaven. And the water—it wasn’t a nice warm shower, and it wasn’t a spa treatment. Instead, it was destructive power. The water destroyed and condemned all evil that had filled the earth. The flood drowned idolatry, perversion, and evil. Sure, in children’s books, we’re used to seeing happy Noah and happy animals in the ark waving their hands like they are on a Caribbean Cruise. We’re often unaware of the evil being drowned underneath the ark in the mighty violent waters.
Consider also Pharaoh and his great army. After the Hebrews left Egypt for the Promised Land, Pharaoh and his great army pursued. At the Red Sea, though, the Lord parted the water so that the Hebrews could walk through it. But Moses was commanded to stretch out his arms to make the sea come crashing down upon the pursuing Egyptian army to destroy every last one of them. And the water did exactly that. This was no accident but the intentional destruction of Pharaoh’s evil army through violent water.
In both of these accounts, the point is that the water was fierce: it drowned and destroyed. Water was not portrayed as a gentle, smooth stream but as a mighty destructive power. The same is true for Christian baptism. Baptisms are violent toward sin, death, and the devil.
Consider some of the fierce and destructive words used from the Scriptures and the Lutheran heritage:
- When you were baptized, you were plunged into the water so that you were snatched from the jaws of the devil. (The Large Catechism, IV:71 & 83)
- The power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam. (The Large Catechism IV, 65)
- In baptism, you have been baptized into Jesus’s death. (Rom. 6:3)
- In baptism, you were buried with Christ into death. (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12)
- The old creature therefore follows unchecked the inclinations of its nature if not restrained and suppressed by the power of baptism. (The Large Catechism, IV:71)
- Baptism means death to all your selfishness and sin. (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, p. 302)
- We pray . . . through this saving flood all sin in him, which has been inherited from Adam and which he himself has committed since, would be drowned and die. (Lutheran Service Book: Holy Baptism, p. 269)
- Baptism sets the rhythm for your daily lives . . . how you daily drown the old Adam. (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, p. 302)
Plunged, snatched, slayed, buried, restrained, suppressed, and drowned—these are the words that characterize the gift of baptism.
Now, perhaps you haven’t thought of your baptism with such strong and aggressive words before. And perhaps these strong and aggressive words cause a bit of discomfort or fear. But you and I do not want an apathetic, calm, and incapable baptism because you and I don’t have an apathetic, calm, and incapable Savior.
Your baptism is fierce, destructive, and violent because Jesus is the final conqueror of sin’s condemnation, the antidote to death, and the victor over the devil. Mark this: your baptism is fierce, destructive, and violent towards sin, death, and the devil—and that is a great thing!
Baptisms are not just warm spa water applied to a child for nostalgic reasons. Neither are baptisms a symbol of human dedication toward God. Instead, baptism is a mighty flood that drowns your sin, washes over your death, and destroys the devil’s power. God sanctified your baptism to do this because of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River one day long ago. In his baptism, Jesus shows you how he’s not afraid to identify with you. He began his ministry by stepping into the pollution of sin and receiving John’s baptism for sinners, and his whole ministry is one where he identifies and dies for sinners.
And so, we Christians remember our baptisms and remember them often. We never forget that Christ instituted baptism as a mighty work against the devil, death, and our sinful nature. Furthermore, we must not forget that baptisms are not only violent but also wonderfully powerful. In other words, in baptism you were raised with Christ to the newness of life. In baptism, the Lord gave you the Spirit and made you his own. He marked you as one of the redeemed. He did this to keep you secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church as you approach the promised rest of eternal life at the end of your pilgrimage. Remember, the same water that condemned the unbelieving world also preserved Noah and his family, eight souls in all. The same water that drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his hosts in the Red Sea also granted Israel freedom on dry ground. Dear Christian, the water that drowns sin’s condemnation and the power of the devil also clothes you with Christ’s righteousness so that you may stand without fear before the judgment seat of Christ on the last day. As Christians, we regard our baptisms not only as violence to sin, death, and the devil, but the daily garment that we wear at all times—the righteousness of Jesus wrapped around us!
Your baptism is violent and powerful. It’s mighty because your Jesus is mighty.
May you be strengthened through the mighty waters of your baptism today and until your last day. May you always be reminded to whom you belong and what you have been given in baptism. In your baptism, you are called out of darkness and into the marvelous light, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.