Born of Water and the Spirit

Sermon for Festival of the Holy Trinity based on John 3:1-17

Dear people born of water and the Spirit: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

If there are many ways to heaven, then it doesn’t matter what you believe or to what church you go. Do what you like. Find your own way that suits you. Go to whatever church makes you most comfortable.

Jesus, however, says that the way to see the kingdom of God is through Baptism. Indeed, He says that if you are not baptized you cannot get into heaven. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said nothing about making a decision to follow Him in order to get to heaven. He said nothing about inviting Him into your heart and making Him your personal Lord and Saviour. He said nothing about praying a sinner’s prayer, being dedicated to Him, making an altar call, or being confirmed. He said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Being born of water and the Spirit is being born again. It is not a physical birth, like our first birth. If this second birth was a physical birth like the first, we would be no better off, since “flesh gives birth to flesh.”

Jesus makes it clear He is speaking of a spiritual birth. You must be born as a new creature and rescued from death and the devil. You must be born of water and the Spirit.  One might be tempted to ask, “How can water do such great things?” Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. Thus St. Paul calls Baptism “a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” and in the last chapter of Mark we read, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” And here Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

You can hear this as pure Law, as a command that you must be baptized along with your family. It certainly is Law, as Baptism is commanded by God. Rejecting Baptism is rejecting God’s promise to you.

Baptism, however, is the most beautiful Gospel. How much better of a promise could God make to you? “Baptism… saves you,” the Holy Spirit tells us through Saint Peter (I Pet. 3:21).

You are not saved by your own works or efforts. You are not saved by your own decisions, commitments, or prayers. If your salvation depended on these, it would never be certain. You could never know that you have worked enough, put in enough effort, made the right decisions, been committed enough, or prayed fervently and sincerely enough.

Thus, God makes salvation so easy for you. Baptism saves. He takes the guess work out of it and takes the work of salvation out of your hands and into His own, so that it will be sure and certain.

Baptism is not magic. It is God’s promise, and it is received by faith. That faith is also given by God in Baptism because He gives us His promise in Baptism. If you do not trust and believe God’s promise of salvation to you, then whose promise do you trust? Those promises that men make to you? Those promises that you yourself make? As opposed to all other promises, God’s promises are certain. Baptism cannot be useless, because what God institutes and commands and to which He attaches His promises cannot be useless.

Baptism was not devised or invented by men. It was not spun out of some man’s imagination, but revealed and given by God Himself, so we can boast that Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God Himself.

But here the devil sets to work to blind us with false appearances and to lead us away from God’s work to our own. It makes a much more splendid appearance when man is so dedicated that he goes on a difficult pilgrimage or when man dedicates himself to follow Jesus. It is impressive when someone makes a big donation to a charity or dedicates his life to serve those in an impoverished country. The achievements and merits of man are seen to be great and impressive. Mad reason rushes forth and because Baptism is not dazzling like the works that man does, it is regarded as worthless.

However, Baptism is such a great work because it is God who baptizes. It is performed by the hand and voice of man, but it is truly God’s own act. It is God putting His claim on the one being baptized. It is God forgiving sins. It is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit putting His name on the baptized and giving His promises.

So great is Baptism that it is the killing of the Old Adam in us and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which continue in us our whole life long. 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.

What is the old creature? It is what is born in us from Adam: irritable, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud – yes – unbelieving; it is beset with all vices and by nature has nothing good in it. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.

Where the old creature is given free rein and continually grows stronger, there Baptism is not being used, but resisted. Where Baptism is used, there is repentance. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in Baptism.

Baptism remains forever. Even though someone falls from it and sins, we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old creature. Baptism does not fade or wear out.

Baptism remains forever because God’s promises in Baptism remain forever. The Son of Man was lifted up on the cross and there paid for your sins and you receive the results of that payment in Baptism, because you receive forgiveness of sins in Baptism.

When you sin, remember your Baptism. Baptism saves. God has made salvation so easy for you. He has taken the guess work out of salvation by doing it all for you. Jesus died so that you will live, and He gives you this new life in Baptism. Your salvation is sure and certain because Baptism is sure and certain. The promises that God made to you in your Baptism remain true because God cannot lie.

The only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has claimed you as His own. You have been born again. You have been born through water and the Spirit. Thus, you will see the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(Some portions of this sermon are rephrased from the Large Catechism, Part IV on Baptism.)

The Holy Day of Pentecost

Sermon for Pentecost based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Dear hearers of the Gospel: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pentecost is one of the three chief holy days of the Church, along with Christmas and Easter. Fifty days after Easter, it is the day that the Gospel goes into all the world. It is the day that the Christmas and Easter message is heard by peoples of different nations and languages. Pentecost is thus considered the day the Christian Church was born.

So that peoples of different languages could hear and understand the Gospel, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the supernatural ability to speak the Gospel in the languages of the people visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world. It was the miracle prophesied by the prophet Joel.

Pentecost was a reversal of what God had done at Babel. At Babel, God confused the language of all the earth.

The people of the earth gathered together in sinful pride at Babel. God had blessed Noah and his family, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Gen. 9:1) but not much later the people gathered in Babel so that they would not be dispersed over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:4). They wanted to make a name for themselves. They saw no need for God to get to heaven. They wanted to build a tower themselves that reached heaven. They trusted in themselves and were united in rebellion against God.

In order to squash their rebellion, God confused their language. No, God was not concerned that they could actually build a tower to reach heaven, but He was concerned at their rebellious attitude towards Him. They did not want to follow God’s instructions to fill the earth, so God confused their language and forced them to disperse and fill the earth. God crushed their rebellious pride as He took even their ability to communicate away.

Pentecost, however, was to unite all the peoples of the earth. It was to unify all nations in the promises of the Gospel. On Pentecost, God overcame the confusion of language, as each person heard the Gospel in his own language. This is because the Gospel is for every nation, for all tribes and peoples and languages (cf. Rev. 7:9). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit bore witness about Jesus, that His death was for everyone; that He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world; that He rose again from the dead to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

The Holy Spirit continues to do what He started on Pentecost. He continues to convict the world concerning sin (Jn 16:8).

The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in Jesus for salvation. He convicts us of our rebellion against God and leads us to repentance. He convicts us that by ourselves, we are dry bones, but through Jesus, the Holy Spirit has given us the breath of life so that we will live eternally (cf. Ezk. 27:1-14).

The Holy Spirit must convict us of sin if we are to believe the Gospel. See, the Gospel is only good news for sinners. It is only good news if you need it. If you think you’re not a sinner, the Gospel is foolishness to you. If you think that you’re not a sinner, the Gospel sounds like drunken speech to you, just as it did to unbelievers on Pentecost.

However, the Holy Spirit has convicted us that we are sinners. We know that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

He has also convicted us of righteousness (Jn 16:8). Not our own righteousness, but that of Christ. Christ is the Righteous One, and His righteousness covers our sin. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why Jesus told the disciples that it is to their advantage if He goes away and would then send the Holy Spirit to them (Jn 16:7).

Consider this: after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the disciples were still mostly timid and afraid. They hid in fear behind locked doors even after Jesus had appeared to them, proving that He has risen from the dead (Jn 20:26). They were still troubled with doubts arising in their hearts, even when Jesus was with them (Lk. 24:38). They still disbelieved and were confused and afraid, even as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them (Lk 24:41).

Then Jesus ascended into heaven and sent them the Holy Spirit, and everything changed. The apostles were no longer afraid, but they were bold.

When those in Jerusalem heard the sound of the mighty rushing wind and gathered together, Peter didn’t cower in fear even when people mocked them as being drunk. He boldly went out and preached to them. You know what he said? He called them murderers! He accused them of crucifying and killing God! (Acts 2:23) Peter knew what they were capable of. He had heard them shout “crucify!” not too many days before. Yet, he preached to them, calling them to account for what they had done.

And when the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees arrested Peter and John and dragged them before the same Council that had just crucified Jesus, even there, Peter did not cower in fear, but he accused them of the same thing as he had accused the crowd – the murder of Jesus (Acts 4:10). The threats of the council only resulted in the apostles praying for more boldness to keep preaching (Acts 4:29).

The apostles were changed. The Holy Spirit had made them bold to preach the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was to their advantage the Jesus went away and sent them the Holy Spirit.

This is also to our advantage. Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and He there intercedes for us. And He has sent us the Holy Spirit, who has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, sanctified and kept us in the true faith.

The Holy Spirit also makes us bold. We may not have to face a council who seeks to put us to death, but we will have to face death. We will have to face suffering, trials, and temptations. We can face all these with boldness and confidence, because this Pentecost we once again hear the Christmas and Easter message that God took on human flesh to suffer and die for us on the cross and He rose again, defeating death for us.

The Holy Spirit grants you to hear this in your own language, a language that you understand, so that you will believe and receive eternal life. Hearing the Gospel message of the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament in Greek would be as useful to you as the instructions of a foreman to a worker at the tower of Babel. Thus, the Holy Spirit causes the message of the Gospel to be spoken to you in English, uniting you with the whole Church in heaven and on earth who have heard the Gospel in their own language.

The Holy Spirit continues the work He started on Pentecost. He continues to work through the message of the Gospel, creating faith which is nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, calling a sinner to faith is a greater miracle than making dry bones live, and this the Holy Spirit continues to do.

The Holy Spirit continues to work through Baptism, which has washed us clean from all sin. He continues to strengthen our faith through the miraculous meal of Christ’s body and blood. He continues to grant us to hear the Gospel in a language we can understand, so that we will be bold unto death and receive the crown of eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Waiting for the Right Time

Sermon for Ascension Day (observed) based on Acts 1:1-11

Dear people waiting for the Lord: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Bible is a book about God’s work in time. It starts with, “In the beginning…” and ends with Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Time is not some afterthought to God but is intimately related to His work of creation and His work of salvation. Thus, Genesis records God’s work of creation in each of the six days, and it reads, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day… And there was evening and there was morning, the second day…” and so on, for each of the six days of creation. This was no accident, but God’s carefully planned design to create the universe in time.

Regarding God’s work of salvation, we read in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (4:4-5) When the fullness of time had come refers to the particular year, month, day, and hour set by God the Father (cf. Gal. 4:2). In Titus, this is called “the proper time” (1:3) and in Romans, “the right time.” (5:6)

We read in holy Scripture that God’s plan of salvation was from before the foundation of the world (I Pt. 1:20), promised before the ages began (Ti. 1:2), and indeed we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

Yet, just before Jesus ascended into heaven, when the apostles asked Jesus if He would then restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus responded to them saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

In other words, don’t worry about God’s work – worry about your own work. Don’t wonder or worry about what God’s plans are for His kingdom or when He’s going to do what He’s going to do. Leave it to God.

God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth has a plan and a time for Christ’s return as He had a plan for creation and a plan for Christ’s first coming. We do not know when it will be, but neither do we have to worry about it. Christ will return in the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time in the same way that He ascended into heaven.

As we have recorded in Scripture, God has always been with His people through the ups and downs of this life; through the good and the bad; the easy and the hard. He has always been with His people through life and through death.

As God has always been with His people, He is with His people now. Indeed, He has promised you, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” He has also promised us that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28) and that He will not leave us as orphans (Jn 14:18).

Christ did not return in the apostles’ lifetime, even though they thought that He might. If it was up to them, they might have waited on the Mount of Olives for years waiting for Jesus to return. Thus, Christ sent them to work, to be His witnesses to the end of the earth, proclaiming the salvation accomplished for us by Christ offering Himself as a sacrifice for sins for all time (cf. Heb. 10:12). The angels also prompted them to move along when they continued staring up into heaven, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”

The apostles then went about their work, waiting for Christ to return.

We join them and God’s people of all time in waiting. The waiting started with Adam and Eve waiting for the promised seed to crush the serpent’s head, and it continues today with us, and will continue until Christ does return.

While we wait for Christ’s return, we are exhorted in Ephesians to look carefully how we walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of our time, because the days are evil (5:15-16).

The little bit of time we have on this earth can be spent wisely or foolishly. In foolishness we can spend all our time in the pursuit of worldly goals and objectives, or in wisdom we can spend time doing the will of the Lord, pursuing heavenly goals and objectives.

There isn’t much time, but we don’t know how much. These days are the days the prophets call “the latter days” and the apostles call “the last days.” These are days of trial and tribulation, days of war, pestilence, and natural disaster, days of false teaching and false teachers. Thus, Scripture gives us so many admonitions to stay awake and spiritually attentive, making the best use of our time.

Now is not the time to seek excuses and justification for our sins, but the time to seek forgiveness and having our sins removed from us and covered. Now is the time to recognize our selfishness, dishonesty, pride, and hypocrisy, and repent. Now is the time to confess our sin of using time poorly, of wasting it, and using it to pursue sinful desires.

Why is now the time to do these things? Because Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (55:6-7) And Second Corinthians tells us, “Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (6:2)

God is near now, in His Word. God is near now with forgiveness. Christ is not only near you, but in you in His body and blood, given and shed for you.

He comes with forgiveness and healing in His body and blood because in the fullness of time, the proper time, the right time, Christ came into history as a man and saved you from the fires of hell. He purchased and won you with His precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross.

It was God’s plan from before the ages began, but He did it when the time was right.

God’s plan for you was also made before the ages began. God chose you in Christ for eternal life, and He will come to take you to eternal life in the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time.

It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority, but Christ will return for you at the proper time, and until then strengthens you with His Word and His body and blood, the receiving of which is the best use of your time during these evil days.

Time is intimately related to all God’s work of creation and salvation, so it is also with your creation and your salvation. Your time is in God’s hands. You are in God’s hands.

Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon” is for you. In the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time, Christ will take you to Himself, so that where He is, there you may be also.

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14)


The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8 (also confirmation Sunday at Zion)

Dear chosen ones: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Confirmation was not instituted by Christ. Christ instituted Baptism when He sent His apostles baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). He instituted Absolution when He said to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:23) Christ also instituted the Holy Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk. 22:19).

The same cannot be said of the rite of confirmation. Confirmation is man-made and was unknown to the church during its first 800 years. The history of confirmation has been aptly described by a current LCMS pastor as “weird and wacky.” (see below) And for good reason.

Further, we have a real crisis in the Lutheran church in regards to confirmation. It has become viewed as some sort of graduation from learning the faith, as if confirmands have now learned everything they need to know.

Confirmands make vows before God and the church that they intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully, and that they intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. Yet not many Sundays later, countless new confirmands join the large group of people that can only bee seen in church if you look at the confirmation photos on the downstairs wall.

So, why have confirmation at all? Why use this rite that is not commanded by Christ and comes from a history of weirdness and wackiness? The answer is that we don’t have to have confirmation. But we must have catechesis, that is, teaching the faith, and those who have been taught should confess before men that they believe what they have been taught.

How is it that Jesus said disciples are made? He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19) Disciples are made by baptizing and teaching. You cannot divorce one from the other.

What do you think happens to the faith of an infant that has been baptized but never again hears the Word of God? That faith dies. Faith is a gift of God and must be fed and nourished by the Word of God or it will die. What do you think happens to the faith of a confirmand that has been taught but is never again nourished with God’s Word or holy communion? There is great danger that their faith will die.

Confirmation as we practice it, is a period of catechesis, of learning the things that every Christian should know. It is a period of being fed and nourished by the Word, of learning and growing in faith, with the goal of the confirmand confessing this faith as their own. It is not the beginning of learning, nor is it the end of learning. Indeed, the promise to keep learning by hearing the Word of God is part of the confirmation vows.

Since Jesus said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven”, confirmands also confess Christ before men. They confess that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and that because He rose from the dead, they too will rise from the dead. They confess that they were adopted as children of God through Baptism and that they desire to live a life pleasing to Him.

We heard Jesus say in our Gospel lesson, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Catechumens are thus taught the Ten Commandments so that they would know how to show love to their neighbour and abide in the love of God.

However, our relationship with God is not established by commandments or rules. It is established by love. Thus, most especially, catechumens are taught the Gospel – the good news that Jesus has taken all their sins away and taken their punishment on Himself.

As we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” This Jesus has done for all of us. There is no greater love than what Jesus has shown to us. He shows us true love in being our sacrifice for sin.

We also heard, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” This is not just true for the twelve apostles. It is true also for us, because this is nothing other than the doctrine of election. This is God saying, “You did not elect me, but I elected you.”

When it comes to election, we can easily get tripped up. We can get distracted from the comfort of election by asking, “How do I know if I am elect? How do I know that I have been chosen by God for eternal life? How do I know that I am included when Jesus says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’?”

Romans 8, in talking about election, tells us, “Those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined… those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (vv. 29-30)

In other words, when God elected you for salvation, it was not some bare, empty election. God chose you, so He made sure that you were baptized. He made sure that you heard His Word. God elected you, so He made sure to call you to faith.

So, to answer the question if you are included when Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” answer these questions: Did Jesus live for you? Did He perfectly fulfil God’s Law for you? Did He die for you? Did He take every single one of your sins to the cross in your place? Did He rise from the dead for you? Does He now sit at the right hand of God the Father interceding for you?

You know that the answer to all of these questions is yes, so you know the answer is also yes, Jesus chose you for eternal life.

“[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” (Rom. 9:15-16)

That is the great comfort of election. If it was up to us in any way to save ourselves; if we had to choose the good and avoid the bad; if we had to choose God; if it was up to our will or exertion, we would be hopeless.

Since God has chosen you, your salvation is secure and certain. He proves it by having called you to faith. Your faith is not some accident. God chose you, so He gave you faith.

God chose you. It is personal. It is for you. You can depend on it. It is eternal. You can rely on it when your sins condemn you. You can rely on it on Judgment Day.

Greater love has no one than Jesus laying down His life for you. He chose you, so He called you to faith and promises you eternal life.

This is what our confirmands confess to be their faith. We don’t have to have confirmation, but we do have to have catechesis to make disciples because teaching cannot be divorced from baptizing. And after having been taught, catechumens should be given the opportunity to confess Christ before men, and confess that they too are God’s elect, chosen by Him for eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

If you are interested in more details of the history and development of confirmation, see Rev. Mark Surburg’s blog found here: