The Meaning and Importance of Baptism (Romans 6:1-4)

What is baptism and why do we do it?  There is, frankly, a lot of confusion related to baptism.  For some baptism acts as a kind of totem.  A neighbor once asked if I would baptize her in a creek.  She was having problems at home and I guess she thought that being baptized in a creek would somehow provide some spiritual barrier to further problems.  Other people don’t see any need for baptism, even though they profess to be Christians.  Some have even taught that Christians shouldn’t be baptized anymore!  Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum and teach baptismal regeneration, or at least that baptism is instrumental in our salvation somehow.  What does the Bible teach?  That is the question before us.  Let’s look at six truths relating to baptism.

Baptism is an Act of Immersion in Water

As far as the external rite of baptism goes, it is by immersion in water.  The words “baptize” and “baptism” mean to immerse.  This seems to fit clearly with how the apostle describes baptism in our text: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life” (ver. 4).  This verse seems to be saying that in baptism we are symbolizing our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  This is most clearly seen when baptism is by immersion. 

This is confirmed by the way baptism is described in other parts of the NT.  For example, when our Lord was baptized, we are told that he “went up straightway out of the water” (Mt. 3:16), indicating that he had gone down into the water to be baptized, which would be strange if he only had to be sprinkled.  The same description is found in Acts 8 of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38).  In John 3:23, we are told that John the Baptist “was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.”  This corresponds to the needs of immersion rather than sprinkling.

Baptism is an Act of Obedience

Next, baptism is an act of obedience.  In the Great Commission, our Lord commanded his church, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And so, in obedience to our Lord, we baptize those who profess to follow him.

This is assumed, though not explicitly stated in our text.  Notice that the apostle assumes that all his readers have been baptized (ver. 3).  His argument would not have had much weight if his readers, the members of the church at Rome, had not all been baptized.  No one could say, “Well, I have not been baptized, so Romans 6 does not apply to me.”  Baptism is not therefore something that only some Christians should do.  It is something that everyone who professes the name of Christ ought to do.  It is a matter of obedience. 

Sometimes we have overstated the case that baptism is not in itself salvific and given the impression that you can be a good Christian, as long as you believe, whether or not you have been baptized.  But according to the NT, if you say you are a believer and yet remain unbaptized, you are in sin: you are disobeying a clear command of your Lord.  How can you claim to be a follower of Christ and own him as your King when you are not obeying his commands?  Failure to obey even one command of Christ, no matter how unimportant you deem it to be, is flat-out rebellion.  The question the apostle asks in verse 1 can be with equal force applied so such people: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

Baptism is an Act of Faith

Baptism is also an act and an expression of faith.  It is an act of faith, because it is by faith that we are connected to the saving benefits of Christ, which is what Paul ascribes to baptism here: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: hat like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (ver. 3-4).  Note that in baptism we are proclaiming that we are united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  What Paul means by this is that in baptism we visibly demonstrate our faith that connects us to the salvation Christ has purchased for us.

Though the apostle does not explicitly mention faith in these verses, he does not need to because he has just finished five chapters explaining that the way Christ’s saving benefits become ours is by faith.  In particular, he has labored to explain how it is by faith that we are justified and made right in the sight of God. It is not because faith makes us righteous, but because by faith we grasp the righteousness of God which is given to us in Christ.  Faith is not the ground but the means of our justification.  In Romans 3, the apostle explains, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath sent forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God: to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

Notice also in verse 7, the apostle says, “for he that is dead is freed from sin.”  Now the word “freed” is just the same word “justified” that Paul has been using all along.  Those who are dead (to sin) are justified from sin, and Romans 1-5 makes it very clear that justification is by faith.  The implication here is that those who are dead to sin are those who have been justified by faith.  So those who are baptized and proclaim their death to sin must of necessity be those who have faith in Christ and have believed unto justification.

This is why I believe in believer’s baptism.  Now even pedobaptists will affirm the importance of faith for baptism and acknowledge that baptism will do no one any good if they never have faith.  But they are still okay with baptizing children who clearly have no faith.  However, it is hard for me to understand why you would give the sign of being united to Christ by faith when the person being baptized has no faith.  Now the argument from some will be that we should bestow the sign of the covenant (baptism) upon children because this is how it has always been done.  As those who were members of the Old Covenant community gave the sign of the covenant to their (male) children, so (they argue) we ought to give the sign of the covenant to our children.

The problem with this argument is that the New Covenant community consists only of those who have been born again, who have God’s law written on their hearts: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach any man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.  For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:10-12).  These promises affirm that everyone who belongs to the New Covenant community will have God’s law written in the heart, will know God, and have their sins forgiven.  But none of these things are necessarily true of little children who have not yet been born again.  The sign of the covenant should go only to those who belong to the covenant community; in other words, to those who are described by the terms of the New Covenant.

Baptism is a Symbol of our Union with Christ

Baptism is a visible demonstration of our allegiance to Christ and our union with him in his death, burial, and resurrection.  In other words, baptism is a symbolic representation of our union with Christ by faith.  We do not believe that baptism is instrumental for justification; it an act of obedience that is the fruit of the faith the saves.  Baptism, like any act of obedience, is necessary in the sense that saving faith always produces good works.  Good works are the necessary evidence, but not the ground of our salvation (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).  What then is the purpose of baptism?  The purpose of baptism is not to save us but to symbolize our salvation in Christ. 

Now, many throughout the history of the church have disputed this claim.  They will point to the text and claim that it says that baptism itself is what saves us: “we are buried with him by baptism into death” (ver. 4).  But there are many good reasons to think that it is not the act of baptism but the faith that baptism assumes that saves us.

For one thing, it is interesting that Paul only speaks of baptism in these two verses (Rom. 6:3-4) in all the book of Romans.  When he is arguing how sinful human beings can get right with God, in chapters 1-5, he never mentions baptism even once.  Paul has made it clear that we are justified by faith.  And it is by faith alone, for the apostle argues that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28).  This is another way of saying what Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”  The Bible says over and over again that we are justified by faith, but never by baptism.  No one would come off of Romans 1-5 and naturally think Paul is now adding baptism as an extra element to the formula of justification.  They would recognize it for what it is: a symbol of our union with Christ, a union that we have by faith.

Note the parallel passage in Colossians 2:11-12, which reads, “In whom [Christ] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.”  First of all, there is the parallel between spiritual circumcision and baptism, which points in the direction of seeing baptism as the symbol of union with Christ in his death, just as circumcision was a symbol of spiritual circumcision.  Furthermore, here Paul explicitly mentions faith, and puts faith as the instrument of our spiritual resurrection.  It is best to see baptism as something that symbolizes this rather than effecting it.

Some might point to 1 Pet. 3:21 as a counterexample to the argument I have been making here: “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also saved us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  But notice that Peter immediately explains himself when he says that baptism saves: he says that it is not the external rite (the putting away the filth of the flesh) that saves, but the inner spiritual reality that baptism represents (the answer of a good conscience toward God) that saves.  That is exactly what we affirm.

Another passage that has often been used to make the case that baptism contributes to our justification is Acts 2:38, which reads, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”  They point to the fact that this text says that we are baptized for the remission of sins.  This seems to say that the remission of sins follows or is produced by baptism.

However, when we compare this form of expression to similar texts, the argument crumbles.  For example, in Matthew 3:7-8 John the Baptist rebukes the Pharisees for coming to his baptism, because they had not already repented.  However, he describes his baptism as a baptism unto (or for) repentance: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (“unto” is the same word in the Greek as “for” in Acts 2:38).  So baptism unto repentance cannot mean that repentance is produced by baptism, since it already had to exist in order to be qualified to be baptized.  Rather, this must mean that repentance is symbolized by John’s baptism.

You see something similar in 1 Cor. 10:2, where Paul says that the ancient Israelites “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”  He is referring in part to the passing through the Red Sea.  What Paul is saying is that by this baptism the Israelites were identifying with Moses as their leader.  But they did not start following him at the Red Sea.  The passage through the Red Sea didn’t make Moses their leader; it symbolized it.

Thus, when Peter offers his hearers a baptism that is for or unto the remission of sins, he is not saying that in baptism they receive the remission of sins.  Baptism symbolizes the remission of sins.  When we are baptized, we are confessing that we have already received the remission of sins by faith in Christ.  It is a baptism unto remission of sins in that sense.

John Piper, in his series of expositions through Romans, gives what I think is a really good illustration of the way Paul is using language here in Romans 6.  We often use language in which the symbol is put for the thing that is symbolized.  We hear this almost every time a couple is married, when the bridegroom repeats the words, “With this ring I thee wed.”  He is not saying that the ring creates the marriage, although if we take the language literally, that is what he is saying.  We all recognize that the ring is the symbol of the marriage, and that the symbol is put for the reality that it symbolizes.  Similarly, we are not bending language when we recognize the same thing in Paul’s language in Romans 6.  We are not playing fast and loose with language when we say that baptism doesn’t create our union with Christ but that it symbolizes it.

Therefore, we believe that our salvation was accomplished at the cross, it is applied when we are born again, and it is announced when we are baptized.

Baptism is a Reminder of our Identity in Christ

This is the apostle’s primary purpose in bringing up the subject of baptism in Romans 6.  He has just finished five glorious chapters reminding us of the gospel, that we are justified, not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us, and that we become connected to his saving work through faith.  We are justified and saved by grace, not by works. 

But Paul recognizes the deviousness of the human heart.  He knows that some will run with grace in the direction of sin and use grace as an excuse for licentiousness.  So he wants to head them off at the pass, and this is what he is doing in Romans 6.  His basic argument is given in verse 2: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”  The Christian, he argues, is someone who is dead to sin.  That does not mean sinless perfection.  But it does mean that the power of sin has been destroyed in the life of the Christian: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (ver. 14).  To go on living in sin is to deny the fundamental reality that defines us as Christians.  You simply cannot be dead to sin and go on living in it.

This is where baptism comes in.  We often think of baptism as something in the past, we’ve done with that and we are moving on.  But this is not the way the apostle thinks of baptism.  Baptism is something which is meant to remind us of where we began and what we profess to be.  When the Lord spoke to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 1, he called them to “Remember from when thou art fallen and do the first works” (Rev. 1:5) – go back to the very beginning, to your baptism, and remember what you professed then.  It tells you that you are one with Christ, that you died with him to sin and are risen with him to newness of life. 

And therefore baptism ought to be a powerful reminder of the necessity of holiness in our life.  Those who have been baptized and are living in sin are living a fundamentally contradictory life.  Your baptism is calling you even today to holiness.  Baptism is a pledge of our obedience to Christ, as an oath of allegiance to him.  This is one of the reasons why as rejection of the symbol is so deplorable.  To reject the symbol is implicitly to reject the thing signified.

But baptism is not only calling us to holiness, it is also a constant reminder of what a privilege it is to be a Christian.  When we are baptized we confess that we are united to Christ in his role as redeemer.  It means that Christ is the Captain of our salvation.  It means that we have been lifted from the dung heap, from being vile, wretched sinners deserving only of God’s wrath and vengeance and hatred, to being raised up to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.  It means we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son.

Baptism is a Reminder of our Connection to God’s People

Now it is important that we see baptism as primarily saying something about our connection to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Baptism is not primarily about church membership; it is first and foremost about our union with Christ.  However, it is hard to see how one could profess union with Christ and not want to have union with his people.  That is why almost always in the NT, baptism is followed by a commitment to the local church.  As it is put in Acts 2:41-42, “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.  And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”  Just as the Lord’s Supper is not only a reminder of what Christ has done for us but also a reminder that we are the body of Christ, even so baptism ought to cause us to appreciate the fact that being in Christ means that we are part of a family, and that family is the church.

The amazing thing is that Christ allows any of us to wear the badge of discipleship, baptism in which we confess our faith in him and our union with his saving death and resurrection.  Baptism is a blessing, and incredible privilege, an indescribable honor.  May the Lord bless each and every one of us to so live that we glorify the one whose name we now bear!


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