“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church of Christ in Rome. Dear friends in Christ: I watched many movies growing up, and I especially enjoyed watching the old movies that Grandma and Grandpa had: old westerns and cartoons. But there was one old movie in particular that I, like many others, probably watched only once: Old Yeller. Very few people watch this movie today, but for several generations of children, watching it was almost a rite of passage, and its story, especially the ending, is so well known that it’s almost proverbial. The beloved dog saves the family from a rabid wolf, but in the process is himself bitten. They lock him in the corncrib and watch to see what will happen. Just as the boy Travis and all the viewers feared, in a few weeks Old Yeller confronts his beloved owner with snarls and deadly teeth. He has rabies. There is only one thing to do with a rabid animal. You cannot reform it to cease from violence, as desperately as you want to. You cannot train it to be better; rabies has so damaged its brain so that it cannot even recognize loved ones. It will not stop doing evil or start doing good. Only one solution will suffice; and I, along with generations of other children, shed my tears with Travis as he pointed the gun at his beloved friend. Old Yeller needed to die.
Travis knew reality; part of him growing up was realizing what had to be done for his friend’s good and the good of the family. A death needed to occur; nothing short of that would suffice. It was wishful thinking, a denial of reality, to think that a rabid dog could be reformed or trained to be better. But we engage in the same sort of wishful thinking every day regarding our sinful nature, denying reality and thinking that reformation or training can suffice instead of death. We are corrupted with sin, filled with its stain, infected with a disease that is far worse than rabies. It controls our actions, inclining us toward violence and hatred, polluting our thoughts and poisoning our words. And if left untreated, this disease of sin will not lead simply to depravity and death, but ultimately to eternal judgment and the very wrath of the living God. We know that our problem is sin—that the good we want to do we do not do, and the evil that we wish to avoid we cannot elude—but we, unlike the boy Travis, cannot grasp the solution. We think that we can reform our sinful nature, teaching it to avoid evil, or train it to seek after the good; we think we can handle it ourselves.
Our intentions are good; they truly are. We want to be rid of sin, because we see just how much damage it can do to us and to those around us. We sincerely want to live a better life, and cease from letting our friends and family down, or hurting them in thought, word, and deed. So we try to reform our sinful nature, putting it into submission through our own brute strength. We punish ourselves for evil thoughts, sometimes quite violently, like the monks and their whips, but most often more subtly, by denying ourselves some pleasure. We get angry with our sinful flesh, we give it a stern talking to, we catalogue every wrong and bring it forth to shame ourselves. Or, on the positive side, we put our flesh into training, seeking to inculcate the habits that lead toward the good. We read the great moral philosophers and we try to emulate them, we look at ‘good’ people and attempt to copy their habits. We try, on the strength of our own will, to think good thoughts and seek after good actions. But every attempt fails. The more we fight against sin on our own strength, the more we find. Our sinful nature is a multi-headed monster; and with each head we lop off, it seems that four more emerge, each stronger than the last. We may achieve some sort of outward obedience through strenuous effort, but we know that seething beneath the surface is a cesspool of sin, just waiting to bubble up again.
The solution doesn’t lie in our power; it is sheer foolishness to attempt to reform or train something that simply needs to die. And only Jesus Christ has the ability to do the job, not with a pioneer’s rifle, but with a font. His weapon is water and the Word. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried 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.” Our sinful nature cannot be reformed or trained, any more than you can reform or train a rabid dog. It must be put to death, and Christ does the work, because we have neither the will nor the ability to do it ourselves. Only He has the will, because He submitted to the Father’s will for our salvation, and freely gave Himself up into death. Only He has the ability, because as true man He stood in our place, even unto death, and as true God He offered the sacrifice sufficient for the sin of the world. “For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God.”
Christian baptism has an unbreakable connection with the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. Notice how often the word ‘with’ is used in our text. “We were buried therefore with Him;” “If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His;” “Our old self was crucified with Him;” “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” Baptism unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus it is a real drowning, and a real rising again to life. In Baptism, Christ’s death and resurrection become our own, with all that He won for us there. Christ puts us to death in His death, and He raises us to new life in His resurrection.
He sets us free from the bondage of our sin; what we could never do through our own efforts or strength He does in the drowning and resurrecting waters. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” You who have died in those waters have been justified, declared righteous by God almighty because Jesus paid the price you deserved in your place. He didn’t come to give you a better method to reform and train your sinful nature; He came to put it to death, to crucify it with Him, thus justifying you and setting you free from your sin.
This fact, this present and abiding reality in our lives, thus changes completely how we deal with sin. We do not attempt to reform or train our sinful nature, but we put it to death, daily, in a return to our baptism. There we died, and each and every day we push the old self back beneath those killing waters in repentance. In one of his great insights, Martin Luther teaches us to confess in the Small Catechism: “[Baptism] 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.” That is what we do with the old self, the Old Adam in us, our sinful nature: we drown it, day by day, by repentance and faith in a return to the waters of drowning. Only there did Christ bring about the death we need.
This font doesn’t look much like a place of execution, but that is what it is; here we are put to death and laid in the tomb, crucified with Christ. But if the font is a place of death, a burial chamber, then it is also an empty tomb, the place of resurrection. Many baptismal fonts look like mausoleums, especially those with covers; but when the cover is removed, they look much like an empty tomb, for that is what they are, our empty tomb, preaching to the entire world that our graves will one day look the same. “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.” Death has no lordship over Christ, it does not rule over Him. He died once, and He will never die again. There is nothing else to die for. And it is the same with you. Because you died with Christ, you will live with Him; death has no lordship over you. Having died in the font, there is nothing else to die for, and thus your natural death is simply the final destruction of your sinful flesh in anticipation of resurrection to new life; death does not rule over you. You belong to Christ. As He rose, so you too will rise. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.