by Matthew C. Harrison
As we begin this Reformation anniversary year, the following sermon from Martin Luther on the Baptism of our Lord proclaims the substitutionary atonement of Christ, delivered to us through Holy Baptism.
As John is preaching like this and baptizing, as St. Matthew goes on to say, Jesus comes to him at the Jordan from Galilee and desires to be baptized [Matt. 3:13]. How marvelously backward this is! The Pharisees and scribes who were full of sin and condemnation deny they have any sin. They know nothing of repentance and refuse to be baptized. On the other hand, there is Christ, who is without any sin and who alone bears the distinction of having Christ, who is without any sin and who alone bears the distinction of having never sinned.
But why does He come to be baptized, seeing that He is without any sin or impurity for Baptism to take away? What a blessed Baptism that must be! Here John gets a sinner who has no sin so far as His own person is concerned, and yet He is the greatest sinner, who has and bears the sin of the world. That is why He, too, undergoes Baptism and confesses by that deed that He is a sinner—not with respect to Himself, but with respect to us. For here He steps into my person and yours and stands in the place of all of us who are sinners. And since no one admits to being a sinner, especially not the proud saints, it is necessary that He become a sinner for all. He assumes the form of sinful flesh, and in His suffering on the cross, as many psalms testify, He laments the burden of the sins that He bears. . . .
[Christ] comes to be a sinner as Isaiah 53 [:6] says: “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” For since we (the prophet says) “all like sheep have gone astray” [Isa. 53:6], God found this remedy: He took the sins of all human beings and hung them all around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. He thus becomes a great sinner—indeed, the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth—so that there is no other. For the text says that the Lord has laid on Him the sins of us all.
Because He has become the Sinner who has all of our sin placed upon Him, He truly does need Baptism and must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins—not with respect to His own person, which is innocent and spotless, but for the sake of us, whose sins He bears. He plunges them into His Baptism and washes them away from Himself (that is, He washes them from us, since He has stepped into our person) so that they must be drowned and die in His Baptism. . . .
Therefore, He is both the greatest and only sinner on earth, for He bears the sins of the whole world, and also the only righteous and holy One, since no one is made righteous and holy before God except through Him.
Excerpted from Luther’s Works, vol. 58, pages 44–45.