Fourth Sunday after Epiphany January 29, 2023
296, 301, 298:1-4, 298:5-6
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://anchor.fm/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Gracious Lord, we give thanks that in Holy Baptism we receive forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. Bless us continually by Your Word and Spirit that we may faithfully keep the faith into which we have been called, boldly confess our Savior, and finally share with all Your saints the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
“May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.” Amen. (1 Peter 5:10)
Dear Fellow Christians:
It’s pretty much the promise of every candidate who runs for office, and since someone always seems to be running for office, it is therefore a promise we seem to hear almost daily: “Change.” We get the idea, of course. Candidates have to promise to give us something we don’t have, or promise to correct an existing problem, or no one would bother to vote for them. So they promise that if we will just elect them they will usher in that magical, cure-all they call “change.” We’ve learned the hard way that “change” isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Change isn’t a one-way street. Change can be good, but change can also be very bad.
There are also times when things seem to get so bad that the general populace will support change of any kind. “Anything,” they foolishly reason, “would be better than what we have now.” History is full of examples where citizens opted for change because they were convinced things couldn’t get any worse, only to find that things could actually get much worst—infinitely worse. The Confederacy opted for change in 1861 and got 4 years of bloody civil war. That “change” destroyed forever their way of life. Germany opted for change in 1933 and got Nazism. America opted for change in 2015 and got gay marriage.
Clearly there are few situations in life where things just couldn’t get any worse—where change of any kind is preferable to the status quo and therefore absolutely and unquestionable necessary. There is one such situation, which was recognized and addressed by God himself. The Apostle Paul spoke of that critical need for change in our text for this morning, found recorded in his Letter to the Romans, the Sixth Chapter:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (ESV)
So far the very words of our God. What comfort is inspired by the knowledge that these words are true and right in every regard, and therefore worthy of our intense study and meditation. That we might gain the full benefit of these words through our study this morning, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Did you recognize the change that our text outlined as absolutely necessary? The problem, according to our text, was that mankind was “enslaved to sin.” Hell is the only possible destination for anyone enslaved by sin, so our condition absolutely qualified not just as “bad,” but as intolerably bad. Not only was mankind enslaved to sin (and therefore existing in unbelief) we had no understanding of the problem and therefore no will to resist. It was, quite literally, the worst of all worlds. We were enslaved to sin, headed for hell, didn’t care, and couldn’t do anything about it even if we did.
God himself knew that change was absolutely necessary if mankind had any hope for survival. The “change” he brought was Jesus Christ. Then, knowing as he did that human beings couldn’t even do their part to accept Jesus as their Savior and live, he gave us that simple and yet incredibly powerful gift called baptism. God himself promised to work faith in the human heart when we applied simple water and connected it to God’s Word. This absolutely changed everything. Satan didn’t have a chance.
Yet as in any epic struggle, just when you think that one side has gained an insurmountable advantage (some advantage or power that would surely guarantee success) the other side counters with some valiant effort or unforeseen strategy and the struggle continues. Such was the case also in the ultimate struggle between God and Satan over the souls of men. When God instituted baptism, first with John the Baptist and later with all of the New Testament disciples, he gave to the Church a most formidable weapon. Again, how simple, and yet how powerfully complex was this great gift to mankind. Through this gift amazing things could be accomplished—spectacular, supernatural wonders. Souls previously “enslaved to sin” could be rescued and placed instead on the shining path of life eternal. When God gave such a simple and powerful weapon to mankind, the depths of hell itself must have been shaken by the raw power and potency of this simple sacrament. Surely baptism, powered by the Word of God, would act as a terrible scythe that would decimate the ranks of Satan’s legions.
How then is it possible that such a powerful, life-changing tool has fallen into such disrepair? How is it possible that something so great, so powerful, so wonderful has been more or less discarded as an outdated religious relic by our modern society? We ought not be surprised. In any such struggle (where one side fights with the fury of the damned) if we have learned anything at all it is that the devil will spare no effort in this epic confrontation. We should have known that he would hurl himself against this great weapon, this humble miracle of baptism, with all of his considerable fury, wrath and cunning.
And hurl himself he did. What is more, his success has been nothing short of astounding. Where God intended the sacrament to be a pure and powerful working of the gospel, Satan has succeeded in convincing those both inside and outside of the Christian Church of everything but the truth. Countless millions now regard baptism as a good work that man does to earn a spiritual benefit. Others believe that it is just another obligation or legal requirement (law) that man must fulfill before he can be considered worthy of heaven in the eyes of his God. And those are just the attacks from within the Church. The world condescendingly dismisses Christian baptism altogether as quaint mythology for the simple-minded—a cute little custom with all the charm and power of four leaf clovers and dream catchers.
Baptism, as God himself describes it in his Holy Word, is “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) Because of the Word of God connected to the simple water, Baptism represents a power beyond the comprehension of mortal man. Its very simplicity, however, belies its great effectiveness. This too ought not surprise us. Mankind has always rejected God’s simple solutions to even our most debilitating problems—beginning with the gospel itself.
This is certainly part of the devil’s strategy. If he can convince mankind that the gospel is too childish to actually work, he will have succeeded in persuading man to slam shut and deadbolt the only door to paradise.
The fact is the gospel in general, and baptism in particular, are that simple. God himself is complex beyond our comprehension or imagination, but not so with the plan he established for our salvation. That plan is simple. Though we rebelled against him by sinning, he sent his only Son to pay our spiritual debt—our sin debt. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, paid our debt by first becoming man, then living a perfectly sinless life, and finally by giving that life as a blood sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. God the Father accepted that gift as payment in full for all sins, and he credits that payment to each of us. The credit becomes our personal own the moment the Holy Spirit works saving faith in our hearts. Believing that Jesus has indeed paid for your sins, forgiveness and salvation are yours, fully and completely.
That is where baptism comes into the picture. How does the Holy Spirit create such faith? Through his Word, including that Word connected to baptism. Though exactly how God works the miracle of faith in the human heart is beyond our comprehension, it is enough for us to know that he does, in fact, create such faith. God has chosen to work faith in our hearts through “means.” That is, he did not choose to work directly (from heaven to heart) but through the divinely inspired words of the Bible (the “means”). “Faith comes by hearing,” we read in Romans 10:17, and the message we need to hear is found in our Bibles. In other words, faith comes not directly from heaven, but by hearing the message of the gospel—the very message that is contained in the words of God recorded in the Bible.
Baptism, then, is a simple tool that God gave us for the application of his powerful Word. As Luther put it, “Without the Word of God you have simple water only—no baptism. With the Word of God, it is baptism; that is, a gracious water of life and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is a means whereby even the smallest infant can experience the application of the word of grace—the very power that can and does bring a dead soul to the spiritual life of saving faith. Many are confused as to how an infant can come to faith. The misunderstanding actually lies not in baptism but in faith itself. Man naturally credits himself with coming to faith, imagining that it is some sort of rational acceptance of facts— something apparently therefore beyond the ability of an infant. The miracle of faith, however, is accomplished by the Holy Spirit working through the Word in the heart of man. Sinful man is the recipient of this miraculous gift, not the source or provider of the miracle. Note all the passive verbs throughout our text. The miracle of baptism was not something we did, it was something God did to us—a miracle God himself worked in us.
You and I desperately needed the change that God worked in us—from slavery to freedom, from death to life. That’s the sort of change we want to keep, of course, but there’s a problem. Our old Adam wants to keep dragging us back to the old ways, and the chain by which it would again be enslaved is sin. That’s why Paul in our text takes such great pains to identify the change that has taken place and what it means for God’s children. He began with a question: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” That is the change, isn’t it? When we were brought to faith we “died to sin.” Paul then went on to explain the change that has taken place, what he means by telling us that we “died to sin”: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” And he sums up with this conclusion: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
In effect, then, the Holy Spirit is here telling us to “keep the change.” The change we have been given is freedom, where once there was only slavery. Where once we could only do those things that pleased Satan, our master (a truly terrifying reality), now the shackles of sin have been broken and we are free to serve the God who created us. No power on earth can drag you back into that loathsome servitude—except you. Satan can’t do it; God won’t do it; only you and I have the terrible power to throw away the relationship we now have with our God and to shackle ourselves again to the devil.
How or why would anyone ever do something that ignorant, that foolish? Because there will always remain in us that part that loves sin so much that it willfully blinds itself to the consequences. Because Jesus Christ has broken the power that Satan held over us, you are the only one who can destroy you.
So, how can we possibly survive when our natural tendency is to ruin everything that we touch? The power to keep the change that God has brought into our lives and to continue in the freedom and life that is now ours must also come from God. The good news is that all the help we need is readily available to us, right there on the pages of our Bibles. The same Word of God that worked that necessary and miraculous change in us can and will also preserve that change in us. The same power that broke the devil’s hold on us can protect and perpetuate the freedom that is now ours. There, in God’s Word, is where we learn to “put off the old Adam” and to “put on the new man.” There we read the promises of God, like the promise that Paul gave at the end of our text: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Go to God’s Word, find him there, and there experience the power that will allow you to keep the change that he has worked in you. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.