What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper
Since this is a communion Sunday and we have just eaten the Lord's Supper, it seemed fitting to me to deal on the same day with the other ordinance that Jesus commanded, namely, baptism as it occurs in Romans 6:3-4. There are two recurring ordinances that Jesus taught us to practice. One is the Lord's Supper ("Do this in remembrance of me," Luke 22:19), and the other is baptism ("Go . . . make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them," Matthew 28:19).
Baptism is an ordinance performed only once in the Christian's life and signifies our dying and rising with Christ by faith. The Lord's Supper is an ordinance performed over and over in the Christian life to signify that we never stop living by the spiritual nourishment that comes from the death of Jesus for our sins. It is an amazing thing that both of the two ordinances that Jesus appointed for us signify mainly the death of Jesus. I would not minimize how important the resurrection of Christ is. But don't miss the tremendous weight put on his death in these two ordinances. We are a people whose whole existence before God hangs on the death of our Savior and Lord, Jesus.
What, then, does Paul teach us about baptism in Romans 6:3-4?
He brings up baptism because it relates to his main point, namely, that we who have died to sin can't go on living in it. Verse 1b: "Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? (2) May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" Right here he introduces baptism. Verse 3: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (4) Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."
Baptism Was a Universal Practice in the Early Church
- The first thing we learn about baptism is that it was universally practiced in the early church, and Paul assumed that it should be.
He is writing to Rome, where he had never been, and he simply takes it for granted that all the Christians there are baptized. It was not even in his mind that there could be unbaptized Christians. We see this in verse 3 in two ways.
First, because he simply explains why Christians can't go on living in sin by saying that the meaning of their baptism contradicts it. "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death." Baptism means death with Christ, and those who are dead to sin don't go on living in it. And that means "all of us." That is, all Christians.
The second way Paul shows that baptism was universally practiced and understood like this is in the words (verse 3), "Do you not know . . . ?" In other words, surely you know this about baptism! Why? Because this is basic. This is fundamental. This is an elementary teaching in the Christian life. All believers are baptized and it has this meaning everywhere.
So the first thing we learn is that all Christians were baptized. This is assumed. And the understanding of what it meant was so basic to the Christian life, that Paul would be stunned if the Roman Christians did not know it. "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" Surely you know! And surely we should know. Surely all Christians here are baptized and surely you all know what it signifies.
Baptism Was by Immersion
- The second thing we learn about baptism is that it is by immersion, not sprinkling or pouring.
This is simply what the word "baptizo" means in Greek. None of the instances of baptism in the New Testament describe anything other than immersion, and some of the instances make sense only if we assume immersion. For example, in John 3:23 it says, "John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there." And in Acts 8:38, Philip leads the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. The eunuch asks if he may be baptized. Philip agrees. "And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him."
And along with 1) the meaning of the word baptizo and 2) the fact that lots of water was needed and people went down into the water, there is 3) the compelling argument of the symbolism of Romans 6:4, "Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." The picture of burial and resurrection is not portrayed by any other method of baptism.1
So we learn that the method of baptism in the New Testament was immersion. There is no compelling reason to think otherwise. God, in his mercy, will, I believe, give indulgence to those who, from a good conscience, do not see this and practice another method, like sprinkling or pouring, but it does not follow that he wants us to treat the method as though it is not important at all, especially since the entire meaning of its symbolism in this text hangs on the picture of burial and resurrection.
Baptism Signifies our Death with Christ
- The third thing we learn about baptism here is that it signifies our death with Christ that was accomplished at Calvary and was first experienced when we were united to Christ by faith.
Notice carefully the three events in that statement – in chronological order this time. First, there is the historical event of Christ's death at Calvary when God saw us in Christ, so that his death was our death. This was the accomplishment of our death with Christ. Second, we trusted in Christ and were thus united to him experientially, so our death with him became personal to us. This was the application to us through faith of what God accomplished for us at Calvary. Third, we were baptized in Christ's name. This was the signification of our death with Christ.
So there was the historical accomplishment of our death with Christ at Calvary, then the experiential application of our death with Christ by faith, then the symbolic signification of our death with Christ by baptism. Accomplishment in history, application by faith, signification through baptism.
Now this is very controversial. So let me make clear what I mean and what makes this interpretation so controversial. I don't touch on controversy because it is desirable or enjoyable. I would rather simply exult in the truth of Christ and not draw any attention to the fact that others may disagree. But I touch on it because it is inevitable in the real world of diversity where we live. There are large blocks of the professing Christian church that do not agree with what I just said.
The controversy comes from saying that baptism in Romans 6:3-4 "signifies" our death with Christ. The other view that I have in mind would say, "No, what the text plainly says is not that baptism signifies our death with Christ, but that it effects or causes or brings about our death with Christ." They would point to the last words of verse 3, "[we] have been baptized into His death." They would not take this as a picture of what happened by faith, but as the way we actually died with Christ – in the act of baptism. They would point even more forcefully to verse 4: "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death." They would stress the words "through baptism." Baptism, they would say, is not the symbol of our death with Christ, but the instrument of our death with Christ. "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death." Baptism is when and how we died with Christ, and before baptism, they say, we were not united with Christ and not justified and not saved.
One representative of this view says, "Those who say [like me] that our union with Christ in His death, and thus our own death to sin, occurred before baptism are simply not taking the text at its word."2 I feel the force of this. The words, "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death," do seem to make baptism the instrument of our death, rather than faith, or along with faith.
Is Baptism a Symbol or an Instrument?
So why do I say that this text teaches that baptism signifies our death with Christ that was accomplished at Calvary and was first experienced when we were united to Christ by faith?
1) The overwhelming teaching of this letter and the rest of the New Testament is that we are justified by faith alone because of the union with Christ that happens through faith.3 Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God." (It does not say, "Having been justified by faith and baptism.") And Romans 8:1 says, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." In other words, justification (that is, freedom from condemnation) comes through being in Christ Jesus. And it comes through faith. Therefore faith is the means of our being in Christ Jesus and the sole instrument of our justification. Where does that leave baptism? Following closely behind faith,4 baptism signifies this great union with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection. But the inner, spiritual union with Christ comes through the inner, spiritual act of faith, not through the outer, physical act of baptism.
2) When Paul explicitly relates faith and baptism he does so in a way that shows faith is the instrument that unites us to Christ, not physical baptism. For example, Galatians 3:26 –27: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." The "for" at the beginning of verse 27 shows that "baptism into Christ" is either an outward expression of faith or a proof of faith. But it is "through faith" that we are sons of God.
In Colossians 2:12 Paul says, "[We have] been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God." Here again the instrument of our burial and resurrection is faith ("through faith"). The baptismal act appears to be the outward expression of this inward spiritual experience of union with Christ by faith. Faith is the instrument that unites us to Christ and thus justifies.
3) But do the words of Romans 6:3-4 allow this meaning? I do not think it stretches the words beyond ordinary use to say that Romans 6:3-4 describes the symbol of dying with Christ rather than the instrument of dying with Christ. Paul says, "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death." Now here's the analogy I would suggest to show that this language can be the language of symbol, not instrument: "All of us who have put on the ring of marriage have, by putting on this ring, forsaken all others to cleave only to our wives. Therefore by this ring I am united to my wife alone and dead to all others."
Now you could press the language and say, "Aha, it was the actual putting on the ring that caused your forsaking all others and your cleaving to Noel alone. You said it explicitly: 'By this ring, I am united to my wife alone.' What could be plainer? The ring does it all."
But that is not what I would mean by these words. I would mean that putting on the ring is a sign of my forsaking all others and cleaving only to her. The decisive leaving and cleaving is in the promise, the covenant, the vows. "I plight thee my troth." "I promise you my faithfulness." Then comes the ring, the symbol.
In that analogy, the vows stand for faith in Christ, and the ring stands for baptism. And the point is that we often talk this way. We often speak of the symbol as though it brings about what it only signifies.
Justified by Faith Alone
So here's the main point: Romans 6:3-4 does not contradict the teaching of the first five chapters of Romans that we are united to Christ by faith, and thus justified by faith alone. Instead it teaches that baptism signifies (portrays, dramatizes, expresses outwardly, symbolizes) our death with Christ which was accomplished for us historically at Calvary and then was applied to us experientially by faith.
Which leaves us with this application to our lives. Have you trusted in Christ and have you been baptized? Paul assumes that he can build all the rest of this chapter – all the rest of the Christian life! – on your knowledge and understanding of what your baptism meant as a symbol of being buried with Christ in death and rising to newness of life.
So let us believe and be baptized. And let us reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. And let's gather again next week to ponder what this reckoning means.
John Murray's argument is not compelling that says there is in baptism no allusion to burial with Christ. He says we have no more warrant to find a reference to the mode of baptism in "buried with" in Romans 6:4 than we do in "grown together with" in verse 5 or "crucified with" in verse 6 or "clothed" in Galatians 3:27 (Romans, Vol. 1, p. 215). But Paul explicitly links burial with the act of baptism in a more direct way, and the symbolism fits so perfectly (unlike any of these other images of our spiritual union with Christ) that I cannot imagine that there is no symbolic connection, with our immersion in water signifying death and burial. ↩
Jack Cottrell, Baptism: A Biblical Study (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1989), p. 84. Dr. Cottrell teaches at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, and represents the denominational view of the "Churches of Christ" and "Christian Churches." He says, "Every Christian has come within the scope of this sin-destroying force of the death of Christ; we have tapped into its lethal power. When did we do this? In our baptism. There is absolutely no indication that this union with Christ in His death happened as soon as we believed or repented. We did not believe into His death; we did not repent into His death. Paul explicitly says we 'have been baptized into his death' (v. 3)" (p. 84). ↩
Notice how the saving function of faith is stressed in many texts where baptism is not mentioned at all, which would be very strange if baptism were the decisive instrument of union with Christ without which there is no union, no salvation. Acts 4:4, 32; 10:43; 11:21; 13:39, 48; 14:1; 15:5, 9; 16:31, 34; 20:21; Romans 1:17; 3:22, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4:5, 9, 11, 13; 5:2; 9:30; 10:6, 9-17; 13:11; 1 Corinthians 1:17-21; 15:2; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 7-9, 14, 22, 24-27; 5:6; Ephesians 1:13; 2:8; Philippians 3:9; 2 Timothy 3:15; etc. ↩
In the book of Acts, all baptisms that we know about happened on the same day as the first act of faith: Acts 2:41 (three thousand); 8:36-38 (Ethiopian eunuch); 9:18 (Paul); 16:15 (Lydia); 16:33 (Philippian jailer). We have perhaps created confusion in the close connection between faith's union with Christ and its signification in baptism by separating them so far. ↩