Him Who Bestows It

From “Sermon on the Gospel of John” (ca. 1540)

The evangelist constantly emphasizes that John was a witness whose entire sermon was a testimony revolving solely about Christ, the Son of God, and affirming that Christ is very God and very man, offered for us. John had preached and testified that after him would come one who had been before him, and that this one would be God…

It is recorded here that all three persons of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, together with all the elect angels were present at Christ’s baptism, although invisibly and heaven was open for the occasion. In fact, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit still attend our baptism today… Furthermore, we are to know that God is actively at work in baptism without regard to my work or yours. For the persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are present in Baptism. The Son has rendered satisfaction with his body. The Holy Spirit has manifested himself in the form of a dove; but he makes himself visible in the form of a dove, he is not blended with a natural dove… The Father is heard in the voice. And now whoever is baptized and believes is saved…

This text has given rise to many disputations concerning the difference between the baptism of John and that of Christ… John points out the difference between Christ’s baptism and his own, “I baptize with water; I do not confer the Holy Spirit. Thus I do not forgive sin. But the aim and end of my preaching is to lead men to repentance and to prepare them for the advent of the Lord, who is to bestow the forgiveness of sin on them.”

John points to Christ. He does not forgive sins, but he says, “After me will come one whose baptism will not only serve the purpose of repentance but will carry with it the remission of sin. Thus John bore witness to Christ, and thus he was the forerunner of Christ the Lord. His baptism pointed to the Holy Spirit, whom Christ was to bring and bestow. John’s baptism directed men to the future forgiveness of sin, which was very close at hand… John was a preacher of the forgiveness of sin, which followed quickly through Christ the Lord. Everybody in the world should be directed to this sermon of John.

Accordingly, this is the difference between the baptism of Christ and that of John: John neither gives nor brings forgiveness of sins; he only points to him who does bestow it. In John’s baptism forgiveness is promised; in Christ’s baptism it is given… John’s baptism was only a prelude, as it were, and a preparation for the forgiveness of sin. John preceded Christ; Christ followed him…

In two respects the baptism of John was different from that of Christ. In the first place, John admonished all to repentance and to preparation for the coming of Christ. In the second place, he told his hearers to wait for the forgiveness of sins, which would be brought by one who was yet to come. His baptism bore the promise of future forgiveness of sin through Christ. Repentance precedes forgiveness, as is evident from John’s words (Matt 3:7), “Repent you brood of vipers! You knaves and miscreants; neither hide nor hair on you is good. Therefore let me inform you that you are not living under God’s grace and mercy, but that you are sinners, and that you sin cannot be remitted without this grace and mercy.” John was to announce, “You are sinners, though you may be the holiest of Pharisees.”

This same sermon must be preached to all evil and unrepentant sinners today so that they may recognize their sins and learn that they stand in need of forgiveness. For even though we have attained remission of sin, we still have the old Adam hanging around our necks and therefore sin daily. Sin has not yet been purged from our nature; neither is devil dead, who provokes our flesh and blood to every evil…

Christ, of course, accepts John’s baptism of water, but he adds the fire. That is, he imparts the Holy Spirit who kindles his virtues in us. And thus our baptism in Christ, in which he gives us remission of sin, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and with forgiveness of, remains and continues to be effective. We receive the forgiveness from the Lamb who bears the sin of the world. But on account of the old Adam we are also baptized for repentance… We must continually mend our evil ways and be cleansed and at the same time always hope for the forgiveness of sin which we now have…

The evangelist points out that Christ the Lord had an unusual way of attracting people and associating with them… “The next day,” not the very next day, but another day, John was accompanied by two of his disciples… These disciples had seen Christ before, at Christ’s baptism and when John had pointed to Christ, saying “Behold the Lamb of God.” This is the meaning he now wants to convey, “Once before I told you that this is the Lamb of God. And now behold, here he is!” At the previous meeting, John had added the words, “who takes away the sins of the world.”

With the words of our text John, in conformity with his office, directed his disciples to Christ. Yielding Christ preeminence, John declared, “He is the master; he baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” When John’s disciples, plain and pious men, heard John say, “This man is the Lamb and the true master,” they believed him and were induced to follow Christ to the place where he was saying…

From Christ’s own lips, they wanted to hear the testimony that John had borne of him. To this end, they wanted to be in Christ’s company, see him, hear him, converse and associate with him…

Christ did not initiate his kingdom with violence, with blustering, with open assault, in the fashion of a mighty emperor, as the Jews had imagined. He was affable and joined warmly with the people. He did not make his entry with worldly pomp, with steed, armor, spear, and gun. No, he was friendly and gentle. He received all who came to him, talked with them, and excluded no one from his company. This is reflected in Isaiah 4:2-3, where the prophet declares that “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German priest and theologian, a seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation. His teaching about justification by faith, revealed in his study of the Pauline Epistles, became the core of Protestant teaching about salvation, and inspired a wide-reaching series of reform in Christian ministry, worship, and spiritual practice. He is commemorated on February 18 on the calendars of several Lutheran and Anglican Churches.  This translation of the text is from Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1957).

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