I hesitated before answering the doorbell. Through the peephole I could see the two well-dressed, clean-cut young men standing on the porch, and I knew what they were “selling.” I soon overcame my hesitation, however, and invited them in for a chat.
Quickly the conversation turned to the issue that divided us. I forthrightly declared that the clear teaching of Scripture was that God saves us by grace alone through Christ; we simply open the hand of faith and receive this divine, saving grace. The two young “evangelists,” in contrast, claimed that faith was insufficient but must be augmented by our good deeds. Finally, in an attempt to break the stalemate that our discussion had reached, one of my visitors blurted out, “So what you are saying is that if I am saved, then it really doesn’t matter how I live. Even if I commit some horrendous crime, like murder, I would still go to heaven.”
I was impressed by my visitor’s perceptive comment. And I realized that he had gained this caricature of biblical Christian teaching from the variety of church people he had known personally or had encountered in his travels. Many Christians assert quite forthrightly that because they are saved they can live as they please, and they then set out to prove the point.
This problem is not new to our day, however. It was present already in the first century and in the churches to which Paul ministered. Some believers in the fledgling church in Rome apparently went so far down this pathway as to assert that Christians actually ought to sin because in so doing they opened the way for an even more abundant demonstration of God’s grace. Paul gives evidence to the presence of this attitude in the Roman church by way of the rhetorical question with which he begins
Then, having responded in this strong manner, Paul admonishes his readers to live holy lives. But note that he doesn’t base his admonition on any of the standard evangelical appeals. He doesn’t remind them that they had walked the aisle in an evangelistic crusade or that they had prayed “the sinners prayer” found in the back of a little booklet (as significant as these experiences may be today). Rather, Paul challenges the Roman believers to live holy lives on the basis of the fact that they had stepped into the water and had been baptized. For Paul, baptism is not some appendage to conversion, some negotiable item that Christian may choose to practice according to their own personal whim, or some unimportant rite that certain churches require for membership. According to Paul, baptism is crucial because this event provides an underlying motivation for living. In fact, in a sense, it even sets holy living in motion.
To help us understand how this is so, let us raise three questions about baptism:
What does baptism mean?
What does baptism do?
And what does baptism produce?
What does baptism mean?
Essentially, baptism is a verbal sermon. It is a proclamation of the gospel. Yet rather than taking the form of words so that the good news might be heard, in baptism the gospel is enacted so that it might be seen.
Baptism enacts the gospel message about what Jesus has done. As we are immersed in water, we announce that Jesus died and was buried. And as we come up out of the water, we assert that Jesus was resurrected on the third day.
Baptism not only reiterates these historical facts, however, it also embodies their significance. Through baptism, we declare that Jesus died and rose again for our sins. As Paul elsewhere summarizes, the gospel is the message “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (
Moreover, baptism declares the individual, personal dimension of the gospel: Jesus died for my sins and rose again for me. Yet baptism takes this aspect even further. In this act, we publicly claim the work of Jesus on our behalf. As we are placed into the water, we declare, “I hereby receive Jesus’ death on my behalf.” And when we burst forth from the water, we announce, “I gladly accept His resurrection for me.”
In short, baptism is an enacted sermon. It is a visual proclamation of the gospel that declares the facts about Jesus’ work on our behalf and marks our public acceptance of Christ’s work on our behalf. This understanding of the meaning of baptism leads to the second question, which forms Paul’s main concern in this text, namely, what baptism does so as to become so significant as a motivation for holiness.
What does baptism do?
At the heart of the text is Paul’s crucial declaration in response to his critics that baptism into Christ means union with Jesus. According to the Apostle, baptism is an event that symbolizes this union and in a sense even unites us with Christ.
This idea of “being united with” is an important biblical theme. Literally, the phrase means to be “grafted into.” As such, it is a horticultural term referring to the practice of grafting branches into a trunk so that they might produce a particular kind of fruit. In
Yet Paul is more specific. He relates baptism to two particular aspects of Christ — our Lord’s death and resurrection. Both of these have great significance for us, if we would live in a manner that is pleasing to God.
Paul asserts that baptism refers to our union with Christ in His death, which he declares is a spiritual reality that means freedom from bondage to sin. He encapsulates the idea in this way: “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (
According to the Apostle, death is exactly what has happened to Christians. We have died with Christ. And just how does Christ’s death become our death? Paul answers, “In baptism.” In baptism we are united with Christ in His death. And because we are dead, we simply are no longer contractually obligated to sin.
We might look at Paul’s point from a different angle, namely, through the lens of addictive behavior. Persons caught in the cycle of addiction, whether it be connected to alcoholism, substance abuse, some type of sexual addiction or any other similar bondage, find themselves prisoners to an evil taskmaster from which they cannot break free. Into this situation baptism proclaims in picture language the good news that because of Christ’s death we need no longer serve this demanding overlord. Rather, we have died and therefore no longer are under obligation to sin. As the hymn writer put it, Christ “breaks the power of canceled sin. He sets the prisoner free.” According to Paul, this spiritual freedom from obligation to sin is ours through our union with Christ in His death, to which we give public confession as we are placed in the baptismal waters.
Yet this is only half the story. Holy living requires more than simply overcoming the downward pull of sin. We also need at work in us a power that transforms our character and conduct so that we become like Christ. According to Paul, baptism speaks about this dimension as well. Not only does baptism symbolize our union with Christ in His death, but it also declares that we are united with Him in His resurrection: “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” (
We know, of course, that one day we will join Christ in His glorious resurrection. When Jesus returns, our bodies will be transformed through resurrection after the pattern of His resurrected body. But Paul is saying that resurrection power is already operative in us. The dynamic of the resurrection is at work in our “inner person” right now. To the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “We who were dead in trespasses and sins have been made alive with Christ” (
The annual fall Regent College / Carey Theological College retreat at Warm Beach Camp was in full swing. The newly formed “community groups” — which would gather weekly throughout the academic year for sharing, support and prayer — were meeting for the first time. At the suggestion of their leader, the fifteen or so members of one particular group were following the usual procedure — going around the circle with each participant offering the standard, basic personal information, typically voiced in such situations: “Hi. I’m John. I’m a new Master of Christian Studies student from Halifax. I’m glad to be here” Then, “Hi. My name is Mary. I came to Regent-Carey last year. My home is in Australia. I just switched to the M.Div. program.” And so the introductions went around the entire circle. The last person to speak was one of the new students assigned to the group. When it was finally her turn, she stated quietly and matter-of-factly yet warmly and firmly, “
The seemingly impolite introduction, “
This is precisely what baptism does. It is the public enactment of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
What does baptism produce?
In the closing verses of our text, Paul directs his attention to the third question: What does baptism produce?
The Apostle begins by saying, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (
To express this, Paul uses an interesting term, “count” or “reckon,” to use the word found in the King James Version. We can better understand what the Apostle is saying when we realize that he is using a metaphor that is closely related to how we handle our checking account ledger book. When I deposit my paycheck into my checking account, the money is immediately available. Yet this money doesn’t do me much good until I perform one additional task. I must “reckon” it to my account; that is, I must record the deposit in my checkbook and add up the numbers so that I might write checks on it.
In baptism we write in our spiritual checkbook the glorious truth that we are dead to sin and alive to God through our union with Christ. We do this, so that we might begin to write spiritual checks based on this reality. Hence, baptism produces a new mental outlook that facilitates our union with Christ becoming real in our lives.
By giving us this new mental outlook, baptism instills a new courage in our hearts. Paul writes, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness” (
Paralleling this new courage to say no to sin that baptism instills is a new dedication to say yes to God. Paul continues, “but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life, and offer the parts of your body to Him as instruments of righteousness” (
When we are immersed in the baptismal waters every part of our body gets wet, because every part is now dead to sin. And when we come up out of the water every part of our body drips, because in this act we are offering every part of ourselves to God. In baptism, we are in effect saying: “Heavenly Father, these eyes of mine once were used as instruments of unrighteousness, for through them I allowed into my heart things that I should not have seen. These ears once were used to bring into my life things that I should not have heard. No more! From now on, my eyes are yours and these ears belong to you, so that I might see and hear only what is edifying. Likewise, Lord, I once offered these hands as instruments of wickedness to be used for unrighteous deeds. No more! I now offer them to you. Take them; use them, that they might be instruments of blessing to others. Take these feet as well. They once took me places where I should not have gone. No more! Instead, use them to take me where I should be going. And take this tongue, which once said words that should not have been spoken. It’s now your tongue, yielded to you so that I might speak only words seasoned by love and grace.”
So what could I say in response to the keen remark my visitor voiced that day? Of course, in one sense his caricature of the Christian faith is in fact true. Because I’m a Christian, I am indeed saved regardless of how I live, for my salvation is not dependent on my conduct. However, the person who has been saved by the grace of God through the precious work of Christ, the person who has simply stretched out the empty hand of faith to receive divine grace, now desires above all else to please God. This is what baptism symbolizes, declares and even effects.
Throughout his life Martin Luther was dogged by the devil, who repeatedly attempted to get the reformer to doubt his salvation. Whenever temptation would come his way, Luther would grab Satan by the collar, pull him back through time, throw him down in front of the baptismal font, and announce to him, “But you see, Satan, Martin Luther is baptized.” Fifteen centuries earlier, Paul expressed a similar understanding of the significance of baptism. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” he asked rhetorically. No! We dare not willfully sin — rather we desire victory over the tempter — because we are baptized. Indeed, baptism is a public, visual proclamation of the gospel. Baptism speaks about the great truth of our union with Christ, which it symbolically accomplishes. And baptism produces a new mental outlook, leading to a new courage and a new dedication to God.
For this reason, we dare not look at baptism as merely an insignificant event that occurred somewhere in our distant past or a meaningless ritual required for church membership. Rather baptism ought to form a vivid memory that the Holy Spirit repeatedly brings to mind in order to motivate us, encourage us and remind us of the power available in us to live a life of holiness that is pleasing to the God who saved us by His glorious grace.