One of my favorite remarks from esteemed Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson comes from his Christian Dogmatics Volume II, in the abstract of chapter 4 on baptism. He says:
We are canonically commanded to initiate into the church those whom the mission proclamation brings to penitence, by washing them in the triune name. To those who have been initiated, baptism promises the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. (p 315)
This is obvious enough. But then he adds at the end of this abstract this interesting statement:
The task of the church at the present moment is to recover the integrity of baptism. The task of believers is always to use their baptism“. (p 315)
This is curious statement: quite obviously the church is to administer baptism, but what does it mean for the Christian to use their baptism?
Jenson, as one might expect of a good confessional Lutheran, is borrowing from Luther’s ethic of the daily use of baptism, or, put another way, the daily return to baptism. This is most prominently outlined in Luther’s Large Catechism.
In the section on baptism, Luther first defines what it is: baptism is no normal water. Rather, it is water sanctified by God’s word and made thereby holy. He says it thus:
What is baptism?…It is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them. It is nothing else than God’s water, not that the water itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it…
[And again,] Baptism is a very different thing from all other water, not by virtue of the natural substance but because here something nobler is added, for God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might on it. Therefore it is not simply a natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water… (LC, 4.14,17)
Notice that for Luther, a sacrament is something taken up into God’s Word and made holy thereby. So before the sacramental word is spoken, it is natural water; but after the Word is spoken over the elements, it is sanctified.
Next Luther asks: what does baptism give? Luther says simply: “This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves” (LC 4.23). Wow! How can baptism do such a thing? For Luther, the water, when it is gathered up into the Word of God, is made holy, made to participate in and bestow God’s life. Thus, when baptism is applied, it gives what the Word names: the life of Father, Son and Spirit.
OK then, but still, how do we use this holy baptism? He answers this by asking in the third part of this section: what does baptism signify and why did God ordain it?
This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water, which covers us completely, and being drawn out again. These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life (LC, 4.65)
This imagery is incredibly important to Luther. Baptism signifies and works the slaying of the old man and raising up of the new. And this work of slaying and resurrection, as Luther says, must continue “our whole life”.
Here we come to the use of baptism. Thus, says Luther,
a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth (ibid)
For Luther, the Christian life is not a metaphysical improvement from being less to more holy. Rather, sanctification is living within the gift bestowed in baptism, never moving from the reality of dying and rising. Every day is a living out of the reality of baptism. There is no ascending to heaven. There is only death and resurrection.
Finally, Luther mentions the sacrament of penance, which for the medieval church was “another chance” at grace, as it were. If, after baptism, you sinned “mortally”, you could always go to the confessional and make penance. But for Luther, penance and baptism are not two different realities.
Penance…is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. (LC 4.75)
Now we may come to what Jenson meant by “using” baptism. He meant: do not progress past it. Always live in it. For in baptism is the very life of God given; the life of Father, Son and Spirit; living out the reality of baptism. And thus, the Christian life, as Luther says, “is nothing else than a return to baptism” (LC 4.77).
Jenson I think gets to the heart of what Luther means with this daily use of baptism in his little treasure of a book, A Large Catechism. He says this:
“Sanctification,” “Christian life” after baptism, is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, “creep” back to it and begin anew. (p 50)
If I do become more sanctified as time goes on, if my life does less fight against communion with Christ in the church, this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic. (ibid, 51)
This is at the heart of Luther’s “daily use” of baptism. What a treasure!