Use the Gift not the Box
We've all seen it before. A child gets an expensive gift, plays with it for all of 30 minutes, and then sets it aside in favor of the box it came in. I think we're all like this when it comes to Baptism. We set aside the gifts in favor of the box. As a remedy to this, Luther quotes in the Catechism Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." But I'll bet most of you are bothered by that passage. It appears to make Baptism nothing and faith everything. It appears to separate them, and since only lack of faith damns, Baptism is not as important. In reality, that passage links the two. It puts the gift in the box and says no box, no gift.
The gift is Baptism, but Baptism is one of those gifts that has other gifts within it, like a bracelet with several precious stones. Our one Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation. That's what Luther says, but he only summarizes what the Bible says. Acts 2:38 says, "Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins." Galatians 3:27 says, "All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." And I Peter 3:21 says, "Baptism saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
How can Baptism give these miraculous things? How can Baptism wash sins off my soul, rescue me from the jaws of death and the devil, and give me who am born eternally damned eternal salvation? Because Baptism joins me to Christ who won forgiveness, defeated death and the devil, and merited eternal salvation. Luther said, "This blessed Sacrament of Baptism helps you because in it God allies Himself with you and becomes one with you in a gracious covenant of comfort." To point a person to their Baptism is the same thing as pointing a person to Jesus Christ because Baptism clothes us with Christ as Galatians says.
Christ's sinless life becomes yours in Baptism. Christ's payment for sins becomes yours in Baptism. Christ's defeating of the devil and death become yours in Baptism. Christ's right to live eternally in heaven becomes yours in Baptism. I Corinthians 12:13 says specifically we were set within the Body of Christ by Baptism. Everything Christ did, was, and is, we get credit for through, in, and with our Baptism.
These gifts of Baptism the Reform specifically deny. You probably have Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominational friends or relatives who speak a lot about being born again. But they never mention Baptism as the way they were born again. They talk about asking Jesus to come into their heart; a baptism of the Spirit; a decision for Christ. They speak this way despite the fact that the New Testament knows nothing of being born again apart from Holy Baptism.
The Reform only see Baptism as a sign, a symbol of what their faith, their decision, or the Spirit does. Listen how clearly Norman Olsen of "Back to the Bible" radio renounces the gift of Baptism. "I would never baptize anyone who had the idea that doing so would wash away his sin." Friends, St. Ireneaus, already in 185 A.D. said that Satan instigated men to deny the gifts of Baptism in this way, and that those who did were really renouncing the whole Christian faith. That's not an over statement because the Christian faith according to the Nicene Creed believes "in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."
"Hold on there a minute; back up. Didn't Luther say that Baptism forgives sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives salvation 'to all who believe this' and doesn't Mark 16 say, 'whoever believes and is Baptized will be saved?' That doesn't sound much different from the Reformed speaking about their faith and being born again." You're right; it doesn't sound much different, and this is the reason so many of us have abandoned the gifts of Baptism in favor of the box, faith, that they come to us in.
The Gifts of Baptism are forgiveness, rescue, and salvation. The box they come to you in is faith, but faith must always be in something. There is no such thing as faith apart from an object. Faith always trusts in something; holds on to something. You can't just believe. You must believe in something. Even when you say, "I have faith," you have some object in mind. "I have faith" in Jesus, in the Bible, in my salvation.
Faith, however, in the wrong object may be sinful and is always worthless. For example, many people have faith in their faith. "I know I have been forgiven." How come? "Because I believe!" "I know that I have been rescued from death and the devil!" How come? "Because I believe that Jesus did it!" "I know that I have been saved!" How come you know that? "Because I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me." "I know everything will work out all right!" Why? "Because I believe it."
Friends, those words sound so familiar to you because they have come from your own mouths. But those words express not true, saving faith but faith in faith. Don't you see the object of such faith is you, your conviction, your trust, your holding on. The object of your faith is not outside of you at all. Satan can wear such "faith" down just by hammering on the point, "Do you really believe Jesus enough? How come your faith is so weak? Do you actually trust Jesus as you should?"
Our believing is always deficient, suspect, open to attack. That's why we find Luther comforting himself and others with the fact that they were baptized not with the fact that they believed. It is no comfort to tell someone that everything will be all right because they believe. Their belief, your belief, my belief is a very weak peg to hang anything on. Baptism, on the other hand, is a strong, solid peg.
Baptism is God acting in your life. In Baptism, God takes the blood of Christ and scrubs you clean. In Baptism, God puts a river of His grace for Christ's sake between you, death and the devil. In Baptism, God places you into heaven. Baptism is not just a nail driven into heaven's wall; it's a lag bolt. You can hang your being forgiven and your being rescued from death and the devil on it. You can hang your eternal salvation on the bolt Baptism and it won't break or even bend.
Forgiveness, rescue, and salvation all come to you through faith, but faith is just the box that they come in. It's not the gift itself. Let's cease to be kids who discard the gift and play with the box. Let's stop being Reformed, Baptist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christians who dwell on the box, faith, not on the gift, Baptism. Listen to Reformed preaching; listen to Baptist prayers; listen to Pentecostal songs, listen to non-denominational testimonies. They never point troubled sinners where Luther always did: The gift Baptism. They point them to the box faith.
In the Large Catechism Luther says that it is the "would-be wise, new spirits who assert that faith alone saves, and that external things [like Baptism] count for nothing." Luther admits that without faith nothing can benefit us. But he goes on to say, "But these blind guides are unwilling to see...that faith must have something which it believes, of which it takes hold, upon which it stands and rests." If faith doesn't hang on to the things of God, what God does, then it is merely an empty box, empty of God's gifts.
Treasure the Gift not the box. Yes, faith brings to you all the benefits of Baptism, but in and of itself it is nothing. Faith isn't to be thought about, treasured, extolled in hymns and prayers, any more than you would extol the box the diamonds come in. What Baptism works, how Baptism rescues, what Baptism gives is to be dwelled on, treasured, extolled in sermons, prayers, and life.
Think about this. When Luther met a friend terribly depressed, he said, "Don't you know you've been baptized?" The fact that Luther said this is not nearly as important as the fact that we don't. We don't because we separate the box from the Gift. We try to use the box called faith against our sins, death, the devil, and eternal damnation rather than remembering that Mark 16 joins faith to baptism saying, "He that believes and is baptized will be saved." Mark 16 encourages us to use Baptism, to hang the heavy problems like sin, devil, death, and damnation on it because Baptism will never let us down. You can believe in Baptism; you can trust in Baptism; you can rely on Baptism for everything from daily life to eternal salvation.
You know why? Because Mark 16 doesn't say He who believes and doesn't sin will be saved, but He who believes and is baptized. That means I can set my Baptism against my sins. Sins that I can't get out of my mind or off my heart, I can sink in Baptism and know that they'll never resurface before God.
Mark 16 doesn't say He who believes and defeats death and the devil will be saved, but He who believes and is baptized. That means I can set my Baptism against death and the devil. Even though I feel death creeping up on me, breathing down my neck, I can know that my Baptism prevents death from swallowing me. And though the devil prowls around trying to devour me, I can be confident that the seal of my Baptism protects me from him too. The 3 handfuls of water on my head identify me as having been redeemed by Christ the Crucified. The Book of Revelation says the angels, both good and evil, know and respect that mark.
Mark 16:16 doesn't say He who believes and does good works will escape eternal damnation, but He who believes and is baptized. The waters of Baptism are able to put out the fires of hell. The waters of Baptism are a spring of living water welling up unto eternal life. They bubble in your life at the darkest, scariest moments. When hell belches sulphur in your face threatening you with damnation, your Baptism refreshes you with its living waters.
But what about the second part of that sentence? "He who believes not will be damned." Yes, that does teach that a lack of Baptism is not what damns, but it does not teach that faith in itself, without the external gifts of God is a weapon. It doesn't teach us to do battle with sin, devil, death and damnation with faith. Try and you'll find your faith unable to forgive some of your sins; it won't be able to believe you're really forgiven! You'll find your faith scared to death of death and the devil. You'll find your faith uncertain of eternal salvation.
Faith is not a strong peg. More accurately, faith is only as strong of a peg as the person who believes. I am in trouble then if my faith is the peg on which I hang my forgiveness, rescue, and salvation. But my faith is only the box which brings the gifts of Baptism home to me. Faith itself hangs on the lag bolt of Baptism which has been driven into heaven's wall by the heavy cross of Christ.
It's true; if the box is missing, so are the gifts. But I'll tell you a secret. Wherever God gives the gift of Baptism, He always gives the box too. Don't you? Do you go around giving gifts without boxes? Neither does God. But the box is not to be our focus; the Gift is. We are to use the Gift not the box. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II, Midweek (12-11-02)