Portal of Life
20 July 2017
The final empire-wide persecution of Christians by the Roman government occurred in 303, less than one hundred years before the conversion of Augustine of Hippo (386). The myriad martyrs of the ancient church were commemorated on their death days. From the Bishop of Hippo's comments, it seems that catechumens, who were as yet unbaptized, were arrested and put to death by the Roman government when they failed to confess the supreme lordship of the emperor, confessing instead faith in a Lord who is God, Christ. Such persons would not have undergone the sacrament of baptism before being arrested, because baptism was the sacrament of initiation into the church. Such persons heroically gave up the opportunity to be baptized in favor of the baptism of fire unto death. And though unbaptized, they underwent a sacrament of entry unto the church triumphant.
Inadvertently, Augustine, while considering the martyrs' faith, answers a burning question that arises among modern Christians. "What happens to those who die without baptism? Are they damned?" The African church father believes that those who are unbaptized through no fault of their own may still be saved. Baptism is a gracious washing away of sin (Acts 2:38; Tit 3:5). But is there still a baptism of fire (Lk 3:16)? Do those who confess under persecution, especially to the point of death receive life? Yes, who could doubt the salvation of those who purposely confessed Christ even knowing that they would be deprived of baptism? They were merely exchanging one baptism for another. They would not postpone death by declining to confess Christ even while knowing that the baptism of water was a lavish washing away of sin.
The faithful meet death with the confidence that through it they will meet Christ. That which is an evil becomes by God's grace the portal of life. This is all the more true for those who have already died with Christ in the drowning flood of baptism. We are only to die once (Heb 9:27). That death has been experienced in the font in which there is burial with Christ (Rm 6:4). Death is now only a name. The sting has been taken out of it (1Co 15:55-56).

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Augustine of Hippo

"When unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism. For He who said, 'Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God' (Jn 3:5), made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where He no less absolutely said, 'Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven' (Mt 10:32); and in another place, 'Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it' (Mt 16:25). This explains the verse, 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints' (Ps 116:15). For what is more precious than a death by which a man's sins are all forgiven, and his merits increased a hundredfold? For those who have been baptized when they could no longer escape death, and have departed this life with all their sins blotted out have not equal merit with those who did not defer death, though it was in their power to do so, but preferred to end their life by confessing Christ, rather than by denying Him to secure an opportunity of baptism. Even had they denied Him under pressure of the fear of death, this too would have been forgiven them in that baptism, in which was remitted even the enormous wickedness of those who had slain Christ.
"How abundant in these men must have been the grace of the Spirit, who breathes where He wishes, seeing that they so dearly loved Christ as to be unable to deny Him even in such a drastic emergency, and with so sure a hope of pardon! Precious, therefore, is the death of the saints, to whom the grace of Christ has been applied with such gracious effects, that they do not hesitate to meet death themselves, if so be they might meet Him. And precious is it, also because it has proved that what was originally ordained for the punishment of the sinner, has been used for the production of a richer harvest of righteousness. But not on this account should we look upon death as a good thing, for it is diverted to such useful purposes, not by any virtue of its own, but by the divine interference. Death was originally proposed as an object of dread, that sin might not be committed. Now it must be undergone that sin may not be committed, or, if committed, be remitted, and the award of righteousness bestowed on him whose victory has earned it." 

Augustine, The City of God, 13.7
Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD." 
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."  
Almighty God, You bring Your people through death unto life. Grant that we might die each day to sin, that we might rise to newness of life. Amen.
For all those who are finding times of rest, that the Lord of the church would keep them safe in their travels
For President Lawrence Rast of Concordia Theological Seminary, that the Lord of the church would strengthen him in his labors
For all pregnant mothers, that the Lord would keep both mothers and children safe
Art: Albrecht DURER,  The Adoration of the Trinity (1511)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2017
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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