Baptism of Our Lord Sunday is often celebrated around the world with Christians making the sign of the cross on their foreheads as the pastor stands by the waters saying, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” People regularly confuse this to mean, “Remember the events around your baptism…what it felt like, what you were wearing, which friends and family were there taking pictures of you.” But if that’s what it means to remember your baptism, why baptize infants, who can’t remember anything?
Let’s first look at Jesus’ baptism. Christians have long understood it to be a moment where water and the Holy Spirit revealed an invisible truth, as the heavens proclaimed, “This is my son, whom I dearly love. I find happiness in him” (Mtt 3:17). Those same words are spoken over all who are baptized as we form a union with Jesus Christ: you are a dearly loved child of God. God finds happiness in you. This is a holy mystery, we call a sacrament, where visible signs reveal invisible grace. Mystery is bigger than our understanding, and therefore it is our responsibility to spend a lifetime learning about what this holy mystery means for our daily living.
Martin Luther inherited and maintained the ancient tradition of baptizing infants. During the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists were reformers who taught that only believer’s baptism was effective. They taught that repentance and confession of faith in Christ must precede baptism, and this cannot happen for infants. The Anabaptists insisted that Christians be baptized as a profession of faith, even if they had been baptized as infants. Luther rejected this idea, and taught that there can be only one baptism, teaching in the Larger Catechism:
…our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, although the operation and signification continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, that we repeat and practise what we began before, but abandoned. –Luther, The Large Catechism, Holy Baptism, 77-79.
Luther argued that baptism by water and the Spirit is an act of God’s grace upon the individual, regardless of that person’s ability to understand what’s happening at the time. The congregation that baptizes infants, or people with severe mental disabilities for that matter, does so making the promise to raise that person in the faith into which they were baptized. Romans 6 highlights the death and resurrection that takes place in baptism, where our old ways are crucified with Christ, and we are raised to be a new creation. For Luther, and for all who practice infant baptism, this is something that must be renewed daily. Remembering your baptism means daily returning to the waters, daily putting to death your old ways, daily taking up your cross and following Christ.
Luther acknowledged that the battle with our “old ways” is lifelong, and does not end simply because a person converts to Christianity. But even our greatest post-baptized failures cannot discredit our baptism. The loss of belief or the greatest moral failure does not undo your baptism. As long as there is water on the earth, there is the opportunity to remember that you are baptized, there is the tangible reminder that God’s love surrounds you, keeps you alive, brings streams to your desert places, drowns and demolishes your sin.
This is anything but a call to complacent Christianity. If God’s love never lets you go, if your baptism follows you no matter how strongly you deny it, Luther says, “we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body …” That’s good news for even the most miserable failures like me.
For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits, that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new. For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians. But if any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy-seat, does not recede from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. If, therefore, we have once in Baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck.