In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. In today’s Gospel text, Nicodemus approaches our Lord to speak with Him. And the Gospel-writer tells us that it was night. Light and darkness are important themes in St. John’s Gospel, and so it is not insignificant that the events of John chapter 3 occur at night. Nicodemus is in the dark—he is both in the literal darkness of night, and more importantly, he is in the spiritual darkness of unbelief. The Scriptures consistently talk this way—describing the unbelieving or unregenerate state as darkness and the regenerate state as light. Believers are those who have been “enlightened”, as the writer of Hebrews says in a couple of places (Hebrews 6:4; 10:32). Prior to this, those who have been enlightened were in darkness, as Saint Paul says to the Ephesians: “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8). God does not find us in a neutral place where we somehow possess natural knowledge of God but have yet to act upon such knowledge with our hearts and will. We are by nature blind, dead, and enemies of God. Saint Peter tells us that God called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). And our Lord Jesus says of this light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus is the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). And this light came into the world, but the “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Nicodemus fails to understand our Lord because he has not been enlightened. He is unregenerate. And this is not only true of him. Just like Nicodemus, apart from Christ, all humanity is in spiritual darkness.
2. However, as believers in Jesus, we are no longer in darkness. We have been called out of darkness into the light of truth because “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) has come into the world. We have been enlightened and regenerated. And this move from darkness to light is accomplished by our new birth worked by the Holy Spirit through baptism, as Saint Paul says in Titus chapter 3: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). It is for this reason that our Lord tells Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Prior to the working of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we are unenlightened and unregenerate, which is to say, we are dwelling in darkness and our minds are blinded. Although we may have general knowledge of a god, we remain in darkness because we do not know Jesus Christ, the true light, who alone makes known to us the Father and who makes Himself known by the sending of the Holy Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Holy Baptism is the primary means through which we are brought out of darkness into the light of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit. In Baptism we are regenerated—we are born anew of the Spirit. This is why Saint Peter can boldly assert “Baptism…saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
3. But it is tempting to doubt the truth of baptismal regeneration—that Holy Baptism is the implanting of the new, spiritual life within us. Far too many church bodies deny this clear teaching of Scripture because they cannot understand it. Their flesh wants to claim some part, some role in their salvation. Their flesh prohibits them from understanding the abundant grace of God, which He pours out upon us richly in Holy Baptism, as we just heard from Titus 3. But our knowing about God and His work in creation comes only from God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And more than this, our knowing of God is more than intellectual—it is identity-altering and regenerative. But, as Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2: “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). So, the light of the pure gospel remains veiled for the person whose back is to the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:16; 4:3-4). When told he must be reborn, he can only respond, as did Nicodemus, with the absurd questions: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). No, you must be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). The source of right knowledge of God is from God, and the location of that knowledge is baptism. So, herein we see how Baptism and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are inseparable.
4. Holy Baptism is central not only to our life as Christians, but also to our understanding of the Holy Trinity. And it is right that we consider deeply the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, especially on a day such as this. It is tempting when confessing the Athanasian Creed to dismiss the repetitive phrases and the complexity of the precise language as irrelevant or unimportant. We think, “I believe in Jesus, and that’s enough.” But consider this: generations of our forefathers in the faith devoted their lives to the study and discussion of the Holy Trinity. Friendships were broken, nations were divided, and people even died so that the church might have a right confession of the Holy Trinity. Why were these men so concerned about rightly understanding the Holy Trinity? Because the Holy Trinity and salvation go together. The Trinity saves. This is the manner in which the Scriptures talk about our Triune God—the Holy Spirit enlightens the darkness of our minds so that we can see the Father’s great love for humanity in sending His Son to “be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14b-15). Some may say that it’s all well and good to talk about the Triune God’s action in this world, but how will we ever understand the nature of the Holy Trinity? First, we must recognize that it did not occur to our fathers in the faith to separate the so-called imminent Trinity from the economic Trinity, which is to say, it did not occur to them to separate God’s internal nature from His action in this world because it never occurred to them to talk about the God of the Scriptures apart from His creation and redemption. The action of the Holy Trinity in saving humanity through the preaching of the Gospel and the joining of sinners to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus in the Sacraments reveals all that we need to know about His nature.
5. Perhaps an analogy would be helpful. Not everything we encounter with our five senses has a known limit or a defined boundary. We know there is wind because we feel it. We hear it rustling the leaves. We see it moving the branches of the trees. And yet we do not know the limits of the wind. We do not know, as our Lord reminds us, “where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). There is an aspect of wind which is incomprehensible to us. Yes, we know a good deal about it; we can accurately describe it, but there remain aspects of it that elude us. We know about the wind with certainty, not because we can actually see something called wind, but because we see the effects or activities of the wind. In this sense we know the wind only when it comes to us, when it does something to us or around us, when it makes itself known to our senses. This is the way in which we can know our Triune God. When we confess the incomprehensibility of God, we are not saying that we cannot know God or rightly talk about Him. The incomprehensible one has made Himself known truly and really in the person of Christ and by the actions of the Trinity in this world. We know God and talk about God as He has revealed Himself to us. We know the Holy Trinity with certainty, not because we can see God, but because we see the effects or activities of the Holy Trinity through Word and Sacrament as He works for us men and for our salvation. In this life we cannot look upon the essence of God with our eyes, grasp it with our minds, or speak of it with our lips. And yet God has joined us to Himself in Holy Baptism. He has made Himself known to us in Scripture. And this knowledge of God we have from Scripture may be said to be perfect because it is sufficient for salvation and because it comes from God.
6. So, having been baptized in the name of the Triune God, we have this confidence, though our minds remain limited as finite human beings, we have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit’s washing of regeneration and renewal. The salvation which was begun by the Father and accomplished by the Son’s redemption is brought to completion by the Spirit’s engendering faith in believers through Holy Baptism. Just as the Father is the eternal origin within the Trinity, the Spirit is its eternal completion. And so, our Sacramental theology of Holy Baptism in particular is not an independent or autonomous article of the faith. It flows out of a prior understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is at work in His creation for the salvation of man.
7. In response to this we give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has delivered us from the darkness of ignorance and the captivity of sin and death by the blood of His Son (cf. Ephesians 4:8). Through Baptism and the Holy Spirit, He has regenerated and illumined us. So, we should ask that He would preserve us the faith to our dying breath through the same Spirit and grace and by means of His Word and Sacraments (cf. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, II, 15-16). May God grant it by the power of the Spirit for the sake of our Lord Jesus.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.