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Advent Midweek 3

Battle for the Soul book, Baptism section

December 20, 2023

The last section of the book, “Battle for the Soul,” teaches us how to arm ourselves for the battle against vice. And this battle is not one we can fight alone; it is not one we can fight without the armor of God which He provides us.

It’s important to understand, however, that as people of God we must fight this battle. Consider the many, many passages in both the old and new testaments, from the prophets, the apostles, and even throughout our Lord’s own preaching and teaching in the Gospels, we are called by God as His people to put off our old selves, to live a regenerated life, to turn away from the old nature, the world, and the devil, and to live a new life.

But as is typical with people, with us, we tend to travel from one diametrically awful pole to the other diametrically awful pole. And we find this everywhere in the church, that people either believe they must do good works, they must be good, they must be obedient to be saved, that salvation is an act of will or an attempt to revive and redeem the old nature….OR at the other end of the pole, people believe doing good works is useless, unnecessary, and even limiting, and that because of Christ, man has been freed such that he can live as he pleases, living entrenched in the vices, giving into the pleasures and passions of the old nature and still be a child of God.

And we see this, not only out in the world, but we see it in our own families; we see it in our church. “I’m a pretty good person, I’m a good Christian, I try to do good, so God will accept me as long as I try,” or “God is love, love is love, so whatever I do, however I live my life, God will just love on me, and I can keep on living as I please and still be saved.”

But you must understand that both of these philosophies are damning; they will not save you. You cannot be saved by being a “good Christian” who means well and tries hard to be obedient, and you cannot be saved by saying “IbelieveinJesus” really fast and then trampling on God’s holiness and His law as if it has no place in your life.

To think that you can be saved by being good leads to either great pride or great despair. To think you can be saved while living as if you’re not leads to apostasy and to theological liberalism.

Good, confessional, historic Lutherans, we always aim for the middle on most matters of the Christian faith and life. Why? Because the middle is the straight and narrow way. It is the way that says, “I cannot be saved by my good works, but only through faith in Christ who has graciously giving His life for me.” It is the way that says, “As a believer, as a child of God who has been redeemed by His blood, I can only respond in humble thankfulness and in good works for my neighbor.” And upon THIS narrow path is where we deal with our old nature, putting it to death as we learn to live by our new nature, being a people wrapped in Christ.

Baptism is so much more than water being thrown on your face when you’re a baby so that your parents can have a photo shoot of your cute dress or 3-piece infant suit. We just heard in our reading from Romans that in baptism we are buried with Christ. We also heard from Peter’s own words that the flood of Noah was a type, a symbol of baptism, the archetype, that saves. That in the flood, Noah and his family were saved while the rest of the fallen and evil world was drowned and killed. In baptism, the old nature in us is drowned and killed while the new spirit, the same spirit which raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit covers us in Christ and a new nature rises and lives.

It’s like taking a shower after a long hard day at work. All that crud is washed away and what remains is clean and renewed.

Baptism is the mark, the sign, the etching of God’s holy name upon our foreheads and our hearts where He marks us as redeemed people in Christ.

But how does this moment in our lives where a pastor sprinkled water on us or where we were immersed in a pool of water, how does this event that we may not even remember, continue to be meaningful for us today?

Think of Holy Baptism as a state of being, and not so much a historic event. You ARE baptized, right? Baptism is who you are. Peter writes “Baptism now saves you,” and not “Baptism once saved you.” You see? It’s present tense. It’s not a one and done thing but an ongoing thing. You were baptized, formally, at one moment in time, but that baptism lingers on throughout your life.

And as I’ve said, this is about being, not about time. Your being, your identity is Christ. It is no longer you who lives, but Christ in you. You, who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, to never be taken off again. And man, if I could get teenagers and confirmation students to understand this, they’d be in church every Sunday. But as with all people, especially teens and youth, they see their identity, their being, among the world, among worldly things and ideas. And parents, because they don’t know what to do about it, say, “Well, maybe if we make the church more like the world, they’ll come…,” but that’s not how it works.

See, you who have been clothed in Christ, who have a new identity in Christ, you are no longer living for this world; this world is dead to you and you to this world. And this is why, as Christians, we are called to be more than people who say, “IbelieveinJesus” really, really fast, and then go on living as if nothing changes. God calls us to more.

So, we cannot be legalists and think we are saved by works or keeping the Law, and we cannot be anti-legalists who think that the law of God doesn’t matter. We must live in the center, the narrow way.

Luther writes, “In these last times it is no less necessary to admonish the people to Christian discipline and good works and to remind them how necessary it is that they practice good works as a demonstration of their faith and their gratitude to God than it is to admonish them that works not be mingled with the article on justification. For people can be damned by an Epicurean delusion about faith [that is thinking we can live however we want without regard to God’s commands] just as much as by the papistic, Pharisaic trust in their own works and merit.”

So, what does this mean? Well, remember what the foremost of vices is? Pride, right, idolatry. It’s the prideful, self-centered idea that you are better than what you really are, that you are worthy of God’s attention, maybe even more than worthy, and that your works will ultimately save you, even as you live out, day in and day out, a life enslaved to every vice of greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

True Christianity is about humility. It’s not self-protection, it’s not self-worth, it’s not about feeling good about your sins or being so “filled with the Spirit” that you turn a blind eye to your haughtiness. But when pride gets in the way, you become the god of God’s church, of God’s people of God’s gifts. When pride gets in the way, you determine for yourself what is good and what is evil. When pride rules your being, you decide what is true worship and what is boring or uninteresting or “won’t bring in the kids,” because that’s what pride is all about – it makes everything, especially the things of God and His Church, about you.

And we don’t do this in life, not nearly as much as we do it in the church, do we? Let’s say you won 100 million dollars. Would it matter at all how the money was delivered to your front door? No, you wouldn’t care how the free gift of 100 million dollars was given, be it a check or a direct deposit or cash in the hand. It’s 100 million dollars (minus taxes and fees). But when it comes to the gift of God given in Christ through faith, how many rules do we create for ourselves to hinder God’s giving of the gift?

“I won’t go to church until you bring in a praise band. I won’t go to church until you get a different pastor. I won’t go to church until you have more things for my kids to do. I won’t go to church because I have to work on Sundays and need money more than I need Jesus.”

Pride just doesn’t know when to stop, does it?

And yet Peter writes, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

See, if you make Jesus all about you, if you make His gifts all about you, if you make church and worship all about you…then you are missing the wonderful and gracious gift of God given FOR you. But if you wake up every day and you “remember your baptism,” and what God has done for you – that He sent His only Son to suffer and die for you, that He has done all the work necessary to save you of your sins of which you commit every day, then pride dies, it is killed, and humility is made alive.

And as with Pride, daily remembering your baptism and what God has done for you, also creates a shield between your new, redeemed life, and the old life of vice and sinful passions. When you feel the vice of wrath and anger trying to take over your mouth and your ears and your thoughts, stop and pray. Repent by acknowledging that the vice of wrath is sinful, and ask the Lord to help you express yourself in love and kindness toward your neighbor. When you feel the vice of lust trying to take over your body and your mind, stop and pray. Repent by acknowledging that the vice of lust is sinful, and ask the Lord to help you express yourself toward others’ bodies in a respectful, godly, and loving way. When you feel the vice of sloth trying to take over your steps and priorities, stop and pray. Repent by acknowledging that making church and worship and the Sacrament and time with God’s people less important than all the concerns of this world is sinful, and ask the Lord to guide your steps and reset your priorities to be in line with Him.

And with every other vice, it’s the same thing. Repent, pray, and remember what God, in Christ, has done for you in your baptism, that He has marked you, set you apart, redeemed you, and made you a saint in His eternal kingdom. Amen.