There are two means through which God regenerates men spiritually: the Word of the Gospel, which is accepted by faith, and the Sacrament of Baptism. When we say that God regenerates men spiritually, we mean that he gives both the remission of sins and also the Holy Spirit. That is why the Bible calls Baptism a “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3.
John 3 says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” There are two kinds of birth: carnal and spiritual. Those who have been born of flesh are flesh. Because they are born of a flesh that is corrupted and contaminated by sin, they are also polluted with sin, objects of God’s wrath and eternal damnation. Therefore, sin and the wrath of God are not able to be taken away, nor is the kingdom of God able to be acquired by one’s own strengths, merits, or works. Therefore it is necessary that we be reborn through Christ, who communicates his blessings to us through the Word and Baptism.
It follows that the kingdom of God, that is, righteousness and eternal life, is a spiritual thing, which is kindled and preserved only by God the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the heirs of the kingdom of God must be reborn of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is powerful, and he regenerates men both through the water of Baptism and also through the Gospel of Christ when it is received by faith. That is why Christ in John 3, after he has said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit, etc.” immediately adds a preaching of the Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
In Baptism, God gives believers the forgiveness of sins and makes it their own. He confers on them eternal salvation. He puts his seal of ownership on those who are baptized. All this he does freely and without cost because of his only-begotten Son.
There are many clear testimonies about Baptism in the Scriptures. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16). “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2). “Be baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22). “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (Ephesians 5 [: 25-26]). “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36 [:25-26]).
However, to rebirth, or the reception into the grace of God and the adoption as sons and heirs of eternal life, Paul adds this: Renewal by the Holy Spirit, who is just as powerful in Baptism as he is in the Word. Since he dwells in the one who is baptized, he gradually kills the nature polluted with sin and renovates by immediately increasing the new light and righteousness, until, when all sin has been driven out, the intact image of God may be restored in us.
The work and influence of the Holy Spirit is to drown and kill sin and also to renew righteousness and life. The external Baptism (being immersed down into the water and breaking forth from the water) illustrates this work of the Holy Spirit. The immersion signifies that the entire old and corrupt nature with all its sin, false opinions, perverse inclinations, desires and deeds is to be drowned and destroyed. The breaking forth from the water signifies that a new man whose sins are washed away by the blood of the Son of God is to be reborn and is to emerge. The new man possesses a new light that makes clear the true knowledge of God. He has new righteousness and is obedient to God without any sin. He is satisfied with his new life and delights in God.
Although on the other hand, this effect of Baptism is not yet completed entirely in this life. This is obvious from the fact that many sins remain in all those who are baptized and holy. Augustine piously says, “Sin is taken away in Baptism. This does not mean that sin does not exist in those who are baptized but it means that sin is not imputed to those who are baptized.”1 Nevertheless, this drowning and killing of sin is begun through the Holy Spirit, after he has been poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ (Titus 3, Romans 8). If you kill the actions of the flesh with the Spirit, you will live.
Saint Paul explains this effect of Baptism in Romans 6 [1-7]: “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through Baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”
So that young men might properly understand this lesson, I will offer this logical explanation. The position of this Pauline sermon is this: It is necessary that Christians both shun and kill sin and also produce a new obedience consistent with the will of God. This proposition is confirmed by proofs drawn from the ultimate purpose (causa finalis) and the productive cause (causa efficiens)2 and is illustrated by similar arguments drawn from Baptism and the death and burial of Christ. The first argument is drawn from the principle productive cause (causa efficiens). For the reason of the productive cause (causa efficiens), God receives us out of voluntary mercy because of Christ. We are renewed through the Holy Spirit both so that sin and eternal death might be taken out of us and also so that a new light and wisdom which knows God, and a new obedience and righteousness might be kindled in us. All baptized Christians and those who have been converted to Christ by true faith are justified and received by voluntary mercy only because of Christ. Therefore, it is necessary that Christians, after they have been justified, avoid sin. Those who cling to the sin in their flesh should abolish it and walk in a newness of life, that is, a new obedience and righteousness and begin a new life consistent with the will of God.
The second argument is from a productive cause (causa efficiens). A man’s actions will reflect his nature. He who has died has been freed from sin. In other words, whoever has died, does not do anything, and therefore does not sin. We have died to sin. In other words, sin has died in us. Our old nature, which is a lump of sin, has been drowned in Baptism. Because of the death of Christ, who was made sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God, etc., the old nature begins to be destroyed. Therefore, sin and the old nature ought no longer to do anything in those who are baptized and converted.
This proves the other argument. In Baptism, we are freed from sin because Christ has died and has risen for us. Sin is put to death in us and is buried by the imputation and beginning of the slaying and destruction of sin, so that henceforth, even though sin is not yet completely extinguished, nevertheless it does not reign.
The third argument is from a productive cause (causa efficiens). The thing that lives and reigns is always active, productive and powerful. A new righteousness and life is kindled through the Holy Spirit in those who are reborn and justified. For just as Christ, having risen from death, lives to God, so we also, in true repentance and the slaying of sin, are liberated through Christ from the captivity of sin and death. We are truly given a new life through the Holy Spirit, and new deeds are kindled in us according to that new life. Therefore, it is necessary for those who are reborn to henceforth shun sin and do good works and walk in a newness of life. Three similar arguments have been put forth, drawn from the effects of Baptism, and from the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
Just as in the Baptismal Rite a man is plunged into the water and emerges again out of the water, so also sin and the old man are drowned by the power of Baptism. And then immediately, a new man, new life and obedience ought to emerge and come to power.
Just as Christ has risen from death and lives to God: so also in true repentance and the slaying of sin through Christ, we who are freed from sin by the death and resurrection of Christ, ought not to sin any longer, but live to God. We ought to begin a new life and obedience that is pleasing to God.
Just as the buried Christ rose; so also we, who have been buried with Christ, also rise through Christ. We rise out of the sin that has died and been buried in us. And now we carry out the duties of a new life pleasing to God.
Up to this point, we have said concerning regeneration and renewal that, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit works in us through the washing of Baptism. However, the most extraordinary, ultimate and highest benefit of Baptism that Paul puts forth in this lesson is this: eternal life and salvation. For God saves us through the washing of regeneration so that we who are justified by his grace are heirs of the hope of eternal life. Mark 16: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
1 Peter 3 [:21]: “This water symbolizes Baptism, that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The Greek word, eperh?t?ma, which Peter used here, signifies a personal covenant, not a simple promise of part of one another, but a mutual obligation, a contract drawn from a question and response of both parts. Just as in a treaty each party expresses its will and intention with words and each side is bound by certain conditions, so also God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit binds himself, because of Christ the Mediator, to receive the one who has been baptized and to cleanse him from sin and give him righteousness and eternal life. The baptized embraces this promise by faith and in turn promises and resolves to be obedient to God.
The words of Baptism are recorded in Matthew 28. “Baptize them eis to onoma, in the name of, the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is as if the minister were to say, “I baptize you into the Name, that is, into the knowledge, invocation and celebration of the true God. He has been revealed to us by his Son whom he gave as mediator, and by the Holy Spirit whom God has sent. You will know that this one alone is the Creator of the universe. You will call upon this one with the boldness of the Son your mediator, who commands you to be cultivated by his Word, handed down through the Apostles and Prophets.” Just like circumcision long ago, now Baptism is called a covenant and a sign of a covenant that God ratifies with each one who is baptized.