In our Lent midweek series we’re looking at how the Small Catechism equips us with the essential practices for living as Christians—“the art of living by faith.” So we’ve considered confessing the Creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. This week we looked at Holy Baptism. I’ve written before about remembering your Baptism, but it remains a one-time thing, doesn’t it? How could it form and inform our present discipleship?
It does so because Baptism isn’t only the entrance to the Christian life, it’s also the pattern of the life of faith. And what is that pattern? Here’s how Martin Luther puts it in the Small Catechism section on Holy Baptism:
“[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.”
In short, what Luther is expressing here is that the pattern of Baptism means dying daily.
By “dying daily” I mean that we daily recognize our failures, repent of our sin, and receive Christ’s forgiveness anew. Dying daily means forsaking ourselves—our wants, our needs, our desires—for the sake of our Savior. As Jesus puts it in the Gospel of Luke, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23).
We call Jesus the Great Physician, but that might not sound like a very salutary prescription. I need to die every day? How could that possibly be a good thing? I’d like to suggest that it is a very good thing indeed. And so I want to give you three benefits that come from taking this hard medicine: by dying daily we 1) transcend the past, 2) brave the future, and 3) cherish the present.
1. Transcend the past
You hear from time to time of people who fake (or attempt to fake) their own deaths. Why in the world would anyone want to do that? In nearly every case, it’s because the person is trying to escape something in their past: a crime they committed, a jealous lover, financial difficulties.
You and I don’t need to fake our own deaths to transcend our pasts. In Romans 6.7, Paul writes that “one who has died has been set free from sin.” In Holy Baptism, the sins of your past were buried with Christ. And each and every day, as you die daily to your self, you shovel dirt on any skeletons left in the closet.
2. Brave the future
The theologian Will Willimon (one of my teachers at Duke) tells a story. He was leading a Bible study and asked the question, “Have any of you ever had to die for being a Christian?” At first, no one speaks up. But then a woman sheepishly raises her hand. She says, “I was always afraid to be in the house alone. When my husband went away on overnight business trips, I always went with him, or else took the kids to a friend’s house. But since the day my daughter died of leukemia, I’ve never been afraid to be alone again.”
Willimon says, “I am so sorry to hear that. But forgive me, I don’t see the connection.” And she says, “Well, when you’ve had to let go of the most precious possession of your life, what else could happen to you that would be worse? When you’ve died,” she says, “what else is there to fear?”
Christ Jesus already has died and been raised from the dead. And in Holy Baptism, you have been joined to His death. By dying daily, you inoculate yourself to the fear of the grave. You can brave the future in hope. As the woman said, when you’ve died, what else is there to worry about?
3. Cherish the present
In his new Netflix special The Tennessee Kid, comedian Nate Bargatze relates a darkly humorous story. His aging hound dog had skin cancer and wasn’t long for this world. Bargatze has a 6-year-old daughter, and he and his wife were concerned about how she would deal with the death of their dog. So he got the idea to sit his daughter down and talk to her about their pooch's imminent demise, so that she would cherish every moment that she got with him. He resolved to do this every day, since 6-year-olds tend to have short memories.
Little did he know that their dog would go on to live for six more months. Nevertheless, true to his commitment, he told his daughter their dog was about to die…about 180 times. That being said, I think it’s safe to say she got more out of her time with the dog in those six months than in her previous six years combined.
As we die daily, we’re like Bargatze’s daughter: continually reminded of how precious each and every day is. We cherish the present in a way that we might not otherwise. Every evening becomes its own memento mori, “remember death”—even as every morning is also its own remembrance of resurrection.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca was a Roman statesman and a contemporary of Christ. He once wrote, in words that could’ve come from the pen of Martin Luther,
“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”
Whether we like it or not, we’re all dying daily. We’re all on the long, slow march to the grave. What’s different for us Christians is that we embrace it. Not because we’re morbid, but because we know that through Holy Baptism we belong to the One who already has the victory over death. We might die daily, but in Christ we’ll live eternally.