† Christ Becomes the Greatest Sinner…For You! †
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV) Matthew 3:13-17
The following sermon from Martin Luther on the Baptism of our Lord proclaims the substitutionary atonement of Christ, delivered to us through Holy Baptism.
As John is preaching like this and baptizing, as St. Matthew goes on to say, Jesus comes to him at the Jordan from Galilee and desires to be baptized [Matt. 3:13]. How marvelously backward this is! The Pharisees and scribes who were full of sin and condemnation deny they have any sin. They know nothing of repentance and refuse to be baptized. On the other hand, there is Christ, who is without any sin and who alone bears the distinction of having Christ, who is without any sin and who alone bears the distinction of having never sinned.
But why does He come to be baptized, seeing that He is without any sin or impurity for Baptism to take away? What a blessed Baptism that must be! Here John gets a sinner who has no sin so far as His own person is concerned, and yet He is the greatest sinner, who has and bears the sin of the world. That is why He, too, undergoes Baptism and confesses by that deed that He is a sinner—not with respect to Himself, but with respect to us. For here He steps into my person and yours and stands in the place of all of us who are sinners. And since no one admits to being a sinner, especially not the proud saints, it is necessary that He become a sinner for all. He assumes the form of sinful flesh, and in His suffering on the cross, as many psalms testify, He laments the burden of the sins that He bears. . . .
[Christ] comes to be a sinner as Isaiah 53 [:6] says: “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” For since we (the prophet says) “all like sheep have gone astray” [Isa. 53:6], God found this remedy: He took the sins of all human beings and hung them all around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. He thus becomes a great sinner—indeed, the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth—so that there is no other. For the text says that the Lord has laid on Him the sins of us all.
Because He has become the Sinner who has all of our sin placed upon Him, He truly does need Baptism and must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins—not with respect to His own person, which is innocent and spotless, but for the sake of us, whose sins He bears. He plunges them into His Baptism and washes them away from Himself (that is, He washes them from us, since He has stepped into our person) so that they must be drowned and die in His Baptism. . . .
Therefore, He is both the greatest and only sinner on earth, for He bears the sins of the whole world, and also the only righteous and holy One, since no one is made righteous and holy before God except through Him.
Excerpted from Luther’s Works, vol. 58, pages 44–45.
† A Matter of Death and Life †
The best way to express it is, “I am baptized!” It’s a present reality. Speaking historically, of course, one can say, as I do, personally, “I was baptized,” in that it actually happened on Holy Trinity Sunday, May 31, 1953, at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church on the North Dakota prairie some four miles north of Niagara, North Dakota, at the hand of my father, then pastor of that congregation. Though it happened over 60 years ago, however, it is still a present reality, so “I am baptized.”
It was not something I did. It happened to me and it has shaped reality for me ever since. My parents brought me up in the faith, teaching me the Word of God. The Lord Jesus has brought into my life so many people to show me His grace (my wife, Faith, being the most important) and to flesh out for me what it means that I am baptized. All of this is pure gift of God in Jesus! All of this comes from living each day in the God-given confidence, I am baptized.
How does our Lord’s apostle put it?
Do you not know that all of us who were 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 (Romans 6:3-5).
Let’s parse this a bit. You “have been baptized.” It’s a gift. It happened to you. It is essentially God’s doing, no matter what age you were when it happened. What happened? What did God do? “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death…” It happened to us. God buried us with Christ. Why? So that “as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” This brings the great promise for all so united with Christ: “if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” That’s what we are called to believe. All of us have to die. But in Jesus Christ, God is in the business of raising the dead. In fact, this is the only game in town. This is what God does – He raises the dead, in Jesus, all who are united to Him.
How does that work out in daily life? As we remember, I am baptized. Many of you know the catechism:
What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. (Small Catechism IV:11ff).
Christian living truly is a matter of death and life! It’s a daily dying to sin, and a daily living in the forgiveness of sins, raised to new life each day. Again, the Word of God:
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 (Romans 6:9-11).
One of God’s means for keeping us in His grace as His baptized children is the practice of confession and absolution. We confess our sin before God. In other words, we agree with the judgment of God’s law that we are dying sinners. That law puts us to death. And then, remembering God’s business is to raise the dead, we hear the Word of absolution as God’s pardon for Christ’s sake, as God’s Word to raise the dead, to call us back to life in Christ. It happened when we were baptized: we died with Christ and were raised to life. It happens over and over again when we confess sin and hear the Word of forgiveness: we are raised to life again with Christ. It is simply a repetition of what God did when we were baptized.
It happens in the public confession and absolution in our worship. It happens when Christians forgive one another in the name and for the sake of Christ. It happens in pastoral care, particularly in private confession and absolution. We die to sin and are raised to life in Christ as we hear in the voice of another the voice of Christ, I forgive you all your sins. The Lord Himself is delivering it. For we have died and lived again, as we each can say, I am baptized! And then we are called to give away to others the same mercy we have received in Christ. He never runs out, for there is always more.
Yes, it’s a matter of death and life – in Christ!
Rev. Herbert C. Mueller