The Marks of the Church: Holy Baptism

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear baptized saints: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Wherever Baptism is rightly taught, believed, and used according to Christ’s institution, there God’s holy people are. Baptism is a public mark by which God’s people are made holy and washed clean from sin and death, as we are made clean by the innocent, holy blood of the Lamb of God. Wherever you see the mark of Baptism, know that the Christian holy people must certainly be there.

Is Baptism, then, always certain? A controversy arose in the Early Church about the certainty of Baptism if performed by a bishop or pastor who denied Christ under persecution. A group called the Donatists said that if a pastor denied Christ under persecution then he does not have the Holy Spirit. If he does not have the Holy Spirit, he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to those he baptizes. If he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to those he baptizes, those Baptisms must be invalid. They thus questioned the validity of God’s Word and sacraments if administered by an unfaithful pastor.

This is a relevant matter for us today also. Today is a day of scandal, as we hear news of one pastor after another who has fallen into great shame and vice, even getting entangled in abominations that would make an unbeliever blush. Today is also a day of false teachings, as it seems like every other pastor speaks his own mind rather than the Word of God. A common question then comes up: “That pastor who has fallen into scandal baptized me. Is my Baptism valid? That pastor who now teaches something completely contrary to Scripture baptized me. Does my Baptism count?”

The answer is that you should not be concerned about the person who baptized you. Baptism doesn’t belong to the one baptizing, but to the one baptized. Baptism is given as a gift to the one baptized, not to the one who is baptizing. Baptism was instituted by Christ and has His command and promise, therefore it cannot depend on the one who administers it, as long as it is administered according to Christ’s institution.

If Baptism depended on the one administering it, you could never be certain that your Baptism is valid. You cannot see the heart or faith of the pastor who baptizes. Baptism cannot depend on the faith or piety of the one whose hands God uses to administer His gift. Baptism depends on the institution of Christ and His promises.

Luther writes that this is true even if the Gospel-denying pope baptized you himself. So long as Christ’s institution is followed, that water is used and you are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, it is a valid Baptism.

The Donatists were wrong in saying that if a pastor does not have the Holy Spirit then he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to the one he baptizes. It is not the pastor who passes the Holy Spirit on to the one baptized. A pastor has no such power. The Holy Spirit is not at the pastor’s beck and call to come and go as the pastor sends Him. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, not the pastor. The Holy Spirit effects faith where and when it pleases God, and God has so decided that Baptism is an instrument through which He gives faith.

Further, you are not baptized in the name of the one who administers Baptism, but in God’s name. To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God Himself. Although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act (LC IV.10).

Baptism is valid if Christ’s institution is followed, regardless of the one who administers the Baptism. Therefore, in cases of emergency, anyone can administer Baptism. The pastor has no special power to make Baptism valid. It is God’s Word that makes it valid.

For proper order and administration, the church calls pastors to baptize, but where there is danger of someone dying without Baptism and a pastor is not immediately available, it falls on every Christian to step in and perform the Baptism. Because Baptism is a public mark of the church, such Baptisms will be reported to the pastor and recognized publicly by the congregation, but such a Baptism is valid and certain because it is God who Baptizes through human hands.

Baptism is therefore a mark of the church. You can recognize a Christian church because you find Baptism there; Baptism through which we are saved.

Scripture says, “Baptism now saves you.” (I Peter 3:21) Baptism saves because it delivers from sin, death, and the devil, and brings the baptized into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with Him forever. Baptism saves because it gives the forgiveness of sins that Christ earned by His death on the cross.

Because Baptism saves, it is necessarily found in the Christian church. A Christian church is recognized as such because the mark of Holy Baptism is found there. God’s holy people cannot be without Baptism and Baptism cannot be without God’s people because Baptism saves and thus creates and brings into being the people of God. So where Baptism is, there God’s people are, and where God’s holy people are, there Baptism is treasured and held like a most precious gift from God. That is how you can recognize the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

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