In the Small Catechism’s Fourth Question about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Martin Luther asks: "What does such baptizing with water indicate?" (Was bedeut den solch Wassertäuffen?). He goes on to answer the question by saying:
It 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.
As he does again and again, Luther then grounds his answer in the Scriptures by asking the follow up question, “Where is this written?” and answering, "St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: 'We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.'" [Romans 6:4]
During my time at the seminary and early years as a pastor, I considered this to be one of the most puzzling questions in the Small Catechism. The reason is that the verse Luther cites, along with its entire context, does not support his answer exegetically. Luther talks about drowning the Old Adam through daily contrition and repentance. But in Rom 6:1-6 the apostle Paul says:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
Where Luther talks about the Old Adam, repentance and contrition in relation to baptism, Paul is talking about how baptism is the reason that Christians don’t sin. That’s the point that he sets up with his rhetorical question in 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Christians can’t because we have died to sin (6:2), and then Paul brings the Romans back to what he assumes they too know: this happened as they shared in Christ’s death through baptism (6:3).
Christians have shared in Christ’s death through baptism. Paul begins 6:4 by saying, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father ….” The reader expects the next move to be that they will also share in Jesus’ resurrection. But instead, the apostle says, “…we too might walk in newness of life.” This “newness of life” is what Paul describes elsewhere as the saving reality of being “in Christ.” Yet in this context the idea of “walking in newness of life” certainly includes how Christians live. Paul finally makes the expected connection in 6:5 when he adds: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Here we begin to see that for Paul resurrection and new life in Christ (including how we live) are linked. The reason will become explicit in 8:11 – the connection is the Holy Spirit.
Because of this Paul can say in 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Freedom from sin – the ability to avoid sin - is the point Paul drives home in 6:7-15. In fact Paul says in 6:10-13:
For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
Luther’s repentance and contrition are nowhere to be found in 6:4 or the broader context, and the text talks about burial, not drowning. As Peters concedes: “Everything in the Small Catechism concentrates on the well-known phrase about how the old man is drowned daily and how the new man arises again each day. One must acknowledge that spiritual insights are implicit in the citation of Rom 6:4, which only later Luther will accentuate in a significant way” (Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Baptism and Lord’s Supper, 107).
It was Jonathan Trigg’s wonderful book Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther that finally provided the answer for me. He writes:
The significatio of baptism is predicated upon the nature of the sign of baptism- why has God chosen this sign to be joined with the word in preference to all others? In what does its appropriateness consist? Why does the water of baptism and the manner of its administration have to say about life under the covenant of baptism? (pg. 93; emphasis his)
Trigg pointed to Luther’s preference for submersion (pg. 93; ftnt. 142) and noted: “There are two parts to the sign of baptism. The baptisand is plunged beneath the water (at least symbolically) and is raised up from it” (pg. 93).
Luther’s question,“What does such baptizing with water indicate?” (Was bedeut den solch Wassertäuffen?), is in fact an invitation to reflect on the manner in which water is applied to the individual in his day and the way this illustrates a specific truth about Baptism. Luther’s question and answer are based on the way the ritual act was done. They are not directly related to the text of Rom 6:4 and the exegesis of this verse.
It is clear that during the fourteenth century infusion (pouring water on the infant) began to overtake immersion in the western Church. However, accounts of sixteenth century Lutheran baptismal practice vary, and most likely this reflects the reality that practice itself varied. Graff indicates that Luther and Bugenhagen wanted submersion and that some Church Orders of the sixteenth century followed them in this (Paul Graff, Geschichte der Auflösung der alten gottesdientstlichen Formen in der evangelischen Kirche Deutschlands 1:303). He adds that many Church Orders only speak about “Baptism” and leave whether immersion or pouring is used up to the decision of the pastor baptizing (1:304). Strodach notes this diversity and adds that, in addition there was “superfusio, i.e., holding the naked child over the font and pouring water over him profusely” (LW 53:100). Rietschel acknowledges Luther’s preference for immersion but adds that most often, as in Wittenberg, the superfusio over the naked child was customary, while in other places the water was poured over the head (Rietschel/Graff, Lehrbruch Der Liturgik, 564). Rietschel goes on to point to the depiction of baptism in the Cranach Wittenberg altar piece as evidence for the practice of superfusio in Wittenberg.
However, there can be no doubt about the baptismal practice that provides the conceptual framework for the Fourth Question in the Small Catechism. Luther’s Baptismal Booklet provides the direction: “At this point he shall take the child and immerse it in the baptismal font and say….” (Kolb/Wengert, 375) (Da nehme er das Kind und tauche es in die Taufe und spreche….”; BSLK 540). "Tauchen" is regularly translated as “immerse” (Kolb/Wengert, 375) or “dip” (LW 53:100).
Immersion as the means by which the water of baptism was applied held an important place in Luther’s thought from the beginning of the Reformation. In the 1519 “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism” he wrote:
Although in many places it is no longer customary to thrust and dip infants into the font, but only with the hand to pour the baptismal water upon them out of the font, nevertheless the former is what should be done. It would be proper, according to the meaning of the word Taufe, that the infant, or whoever is to be baptized, should be put in and sunk completely into the water and then drawn out again. For even in the German tongue the word Taufe comes undoubtedly from the word tief [deep] and means that what is baptized is sunk deeply into the water. This usage is also demanded by the significance of baptism itself. For baptism, as we shall hear, signifies that the old man and the sinful birth of flesh and blood are to be wholly drowned by the grace of God. We should therefore do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies. (LW 35:29)
In “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (1520) Luther states:
The second part of baptism is the sign or sacrament, which is that immersion in water from which it derives its name, for the Greek baptize means ‘I immerse,’ and baptisma means ‘immersion.’ For, as has been said, along with the divine promises signs have also been given to picture that which the words signify, or as they now say, that which the sacrament ‘effectively signifies.’ We shall see how much truth there is in this. (LW 36:64)
In these texts Luther asserts that the application of water through immersion visually depicts a truth about baptism. In particular, the “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism” describes this as a drowning of the old man. In the ritual action, the body is plunged under water which corresponds to the fact that in baptism the old man is drowned by God’s grace.
Luther develops this thought further to include not only the immersion under the water but also the raising out of the water in the Large Catechism ( IV.64-67):
Finally, we must also know what baptism signifies and why God ordained precisely this sign and external ceremony for the sacrament by which we are first received into the Christian community.  This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water, which covers us completely, and being drawn out again. These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. 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, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud—yes—and 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. (Kolb/Wengert, 464-465)
The language of LC IV.65 explicitly indicates that Luther has focused upon the ritual action in which the body descends beneath the water and then emerges back out of it:
“This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water which covers us completely, and being drawn out again (daß man uns in Wasser senket, das über uns hergehet, und darnach wieder erauszeucht). These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it (unter das Wasser sinken und wieder erauskommen)….”
Then Luther describes how this ritual action points, “to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long” (LC IV.65). The plunging into water and emerging from it signifies the killing of the old Adam which occurs as the Christians seeks to restrain and purge the old Adam, so that also the new man created in Baptism determines how the Christian lives:
Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. 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. (LC IV.65-66)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. This is the right use of baptism among Christians, signified by baptizing with water. Where this does not take place but rather the old creature is given free rein and continually grows stronger, baptism is not being used but resisted. (LC IV. 67-68)The old creature therefore follows unchecked the inclinations of its nature if not restrained and suppressed by the power of baptism. On the other hand, when we become Christians, the old creature daily decreases until finally destroyed. This is what it means truly to plunge into baptism and daily to come forth again. So the external sign has been appointed not only so that it may work powerfully on us but also so that it may point to something. (LC IV.71-73)
Finally Luther describes this living in Baptism, signified by the going under the water and coming up again, as repentance:
Here you see that baptism, both by its power and by its signification, comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called penance, which is really nothing else than baptism. 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, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and strength to suppress the old creature so that the new may come forth and grow strong. (LC IV.74-76)
This background makes it clear that when the Fourth Question about Baptism asks, “What does such baptizing with water indicate?” (Was bedeut den solch Wassertäuffen?), the question takes up the manner in which water is applied. In addition, the specific manner which Luther assumes in his answer is submersion. This is confirmed by the language of “drowned and die (soll ersäuft werdern und sterben) with all sins and evil desires.” The ritual act of placing the body under water signifies drowning and death, and within the baptismal life it is carried out by “daily contrition and repentance.” Likewise the drawing of the body up out of the water signifies “that a new man should daily emerge and arise (erauskommen und auferstehen) to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Luther establishes these conceptual correlations:
Under the water Contrition and repentance Old man drowned and dies
Out of the water Live in righteousness/purity New man emerge and arise
If this is not understood, Luther’s use of Rom 6:4 is quite puzzling. Exegetically, the verse is not speaking about “daily contrition and repentance” nor does it refer to drowning. Instead, when we understand that “such baptizing with water” refers to the ritual act by which water is applied, it frees us to recognize that Luther uses the verse in order to draw upon a network of interconnected theological truths about Baptism – truths which can be linked to Rom 6:4.
I maintain that the Fourth Question on the Sacrament of Baptism is one of the most difficult to explain in the Small Catechism because it assumes a ritual practice that is no longer ours. More than that, it is a practice that in our setting calls to mind the false belief and demands of Baptists. In addition, rather than a tight exegetical link to Rom 6:4, it uses a more diffuse theological interpretation. I explain the question to my catechumens in the following manner:
In the first question of the Small Catechism (“What is Baptism?”) we learned that Holy Baptism is the application of water “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” During the history of the Church, this has been done in several different ways. We have learned that one of earliest practices was immersion as the body was plunged under the water and then brought back up to the surface. This practice continued in many areas of the Church up unto the time of the Reformation when the Small Catechism was written. Both the Small and Large Catechisms use this method of applying water in order to explain the meaning Holy Baptism has for our daily lives in the light of Romans 6.Just as in baptism done by immersion the body is plunged down under the water, so by daily contrition and repentance we are to drown the Old Adam in us. And just as in this method of baptism the body is brought back up out of the water, so a new man daily emerges to live before God according to His will through the gift of Baptism. As the Large Catechism describes this: “These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of a new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. 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” (4.65).