“God’s Own Child I Gladly Say it” This morning is the first time we will have sung this hymn text at Lord of Life. Although the original German text is several hundred years old, it had not been translated into English until it was published in 1991 in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, the official hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Written by the Lutheran pastor and theologian Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756), this hymn proclaims a succinct, lucid and heartfelt theology of baptism.
Neumeister lived in the “Age of Pietism” in the German Lutheran church. “Pietism,” not to be confused with “piety,” was a movement in which the objective act of Christ’s atonement (justification) was overshadowed by an emphasis on humanity’s acceptance and growth in this grace (sanctification.) Pietism was often intensely subjective and personal (not always a bad thing) and represents the first time in which “I,” “me” and “my” are used in hymnody. Previously, the more objective second or third person had prevailed in hymnody (“A mighty fortess is our God.”) This was also the time in which the more objective and “Christ” was replaced with the more intimate “Jesu(s).” There was a move toward a style of music and worship that elicited certain feelings from the worshiper, and the objective means of grace were overlooked if not forgotten completely. Although many good hymns which we still sing come from this age, Neumeister was concerned that the ecclesiastical establishment was gradually abandoning the crucial tenets of the Christian faith in favor of a Christianity that merely stirred up emotions and made people feel “warm and fuzzy” about their religious experience. Neumeister believed that an objective proclamation of law and gospel, sin and grace, dogma and heartfelt belief, and Word and Sacrament was the primary goal of the Church on earth. It is to this end that he wrote this baptismal hymn.
To paraphrase from the Hymnal Supplement ’98 Handbook, this hymn gives the distinct impression of the words of a small child standing by an adult protector finally being able to taunt the neighborhood bully. Consider this stanza, “Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ! Drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed. Now that to the font I’ve traveled, All your might has come unraveled, And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me.” Here is a realization of the objective working of the Holy Spirit in baptism as opposed to the subjective response of human emotions. Unlike some denominations which require their adherents to make a decision to become a Christian (often requiring some dramatic conversion story), Lutherans have always believed that the baptism of a helpless baby was the surest example of God working in and accepting a human being. A baby can make no choice and would not remember a dramatic experience if it had one. Yet, God works through this baptism so that we might all say, “God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!” Christ the Messiah did not become incarnate begrudgingly due to the constant imploring of sinful man, who readily accepted Him as the King. Rather, He came of His own will to sinful man who subsequently rejected and crucified Him! Such is the case in baptism. We do not “invite” the Holy Spirit into our lives without His first working in us which, for most of us, began at our baptism. This, then, is the wonder of the sacraments, instituted by Christ and continued in faithful churches.