Jesus framed the subject of baptism in very simple terms, stating in Mark 16:16, "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned." Even very religious people, however, might still wonder about the role of baptism in salvation. What does it mean? Is it essential? Is it merely symbolic? If these are some of the questions you've had, then please consider a key scripture about baptism -- Romans Chapter Six.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).
“‘Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?’ That question would naturally arise in the minds of the uninformed. Besides, some people would like to have an excuse to indulge in sin. If God’s grace abounds where sin abounds, why not keep sinning, so that grace may abound the more?” (Commentary on Romans, Whiteside, p. 128). When our understanding of grace is so misconstrued, it is no surprise that such a fallacious idea would come to mind! Paul assaults the false idea immediately by stating that if we have died to sin, it should be inconceivable to have a desire to continue practicing it. A practitioner of righteousness is as far removed from sin as is possible – to the point that Paul’s analogy is the difference between life and death. One can understand how a reader might make this argument, though, based on a misapplication of the context (Romans 5:20-21).
The idea of death, though, is key to understanding salvation. I must be dead to sin in order to live for righteousness. I cannot think that these two will dwell in me simultaneously. I am either totally saved or not – there is no middle ground. I have either died to sin or I still live in it. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 4:20-24).
Sadly, man has crafted many scenarios in which it is acceptable to continue living in sin. It is simply easier to overlook sin – to save relationships rather than souls, to avoid the risks of faithfully ordering one’s life according to the will of God. I have often heard people justify a sinful situation by saying, “But God’s grace is limitless. I’m just going to trust in His grace.” While I would never argue that God’s grace is not limitless, I would say that it has God-established boundaries. It is like a well in the desert that is practically inexhaustible, but nevertheless bound by location. That well, like grace, is narrowly defined. It exists in only one place and can be accessed in only one way. So even though a thing might be limitless (practically inexhaustible) it is still bound. God’s grace is heavily guarded – He does not dispense it lightly or without reason. Remember that His grace cost the life of His only begotten Son! We should take it so seriously and stop trying to justify our selfish rejection of the call to repent. After all, repentance is necessary for forgiveness (Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38) and so is a lifestyle that reflects the change in our spirits from dead to alive, from old man to new creature (Ephesians 4:22ff, Colossians 1:21-23). One cannot continue “living in sin” (Colossians 3:5-11) if one is truly living in a state of spiritual renewal. I can only ever become a “vessel for honor” in God’s household if I take some initiative and “cleanse myself” from sinful activities (2 Timothy 2:20-23).
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3).
Paul takes for granted that his readers understand that they are baptized into Christ, but queries whether or not they know they have been baptized into His death, as well. Indeed, they are one and the same baptism! He plainly implies that if they knew they were baptized into Christ, they should also know that they should no longer live in the habit of sin. Baptism receives an interesting meaning in these verses:
- Notice that baptism is not entry into a denomination, or a congregation. We are not baptized as an initiation ceremony into anything earthly. We are baptized into the body Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:13), His death, and the benefits of that union. While congregational membership is expected, and is a natural consequence of baptism, we must abandon the denominational thinking that permeates the surrounding religious culture.
- Notice that the implications of baptism are not purely physical. There is nothing literally magical about the water itself, or the fact that we are wet. Peter carefully points this out in 1 Peter 3:21). What is most powerful about baptism is the spiritual aspects of sharing something so intimate with Christ as His own death, burial, and resurrection. Can one make a more intimate statement than that we are “clothed with Christ” in our baptism (Galatians 3:27)?
- Does baptism sound optional in this verse? Does baptism sound like just a formality? Or the outward sign of an inward grace? Is baptism the response of a person already saved? If so, then a person can be saved without being “in Christ” or sharing in His death! Freedom from condemnation is found in Christ (Romans 8:1) and we enter Christ through baptism.
“Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised up from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
“In baptism there is a burial, an immersion in water. No other act would so fitly represent the complete ending of a life of sin. If there was no other source of knowledge as to how baptism was performed, this text should settle the matter beyond doubt. There is no burial in sprinkling and pouring a little water on a person’s head, but there is burial in immersion in water” (Whiteside, p. 130). In Acts 8:36-39, the evangelist and eunuch demonstrate in the clearest language the custom of baptism, as administered by those who were inspired by Christ Himself. Both men went into a body of water together. One was immersed, as the definition of baptism dictates, and both came up out of the water at the conclusion of the saving act. I notice several points:
- Jesus is with us in the act of baptism. We are united with Him in the burial. We are “alive together” with Him (Ephesians 2:5). While death is usually associated with loneliness, fear, and apprehension in our culture, it is the death in baptism that is the most comforting, enlightening act a person can experience. Our spiritual death through baptism is a new birth! “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:5-7).
- All people must pass through the watery grave if they wish to experience new life. You cannot escape the transition if your desire is salvation. No matter how much we may try to bypass it, dismiss it, or philosophize our way out of it, baptism is the only way a person can leave a life of sin totally behind and experience newness of life. Paul states with undeniable clarity, “For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him” (2 Timothy 2:11).
- Are we then saved by our works? It is strange how a jump is made by many professed Christians that if we assert the necessity of baptism, then it somehow nullifies the grace of God. We are not saved by our own works (Ephesians 2:9), but by grace. So is baptism a work we do, or a work God does to us? Notice the way Titus 3:3 places the emphasis on God as the one doing the washing! Furthermore, the very context of Ephesians 2 elaborates on the same point being made in Romans 6. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love… even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with Him…” (Ephesians 2:4-6). The word itself might not appear in the text, but this is as much a passage about baptism as anything else in the New Testament! This is Romans 6 language!
- It is faith that leads us to the cross. When confronted with the Gospel, our faith drives us to act (Romans 4:18-22). “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:26-27).
“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; knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:5-7).
Jesus was buried after His crucifixion, leaving behind a physical life for a short time. On the third day, the Savior arose from the grave in newness of life, to be saved from the grave and preserved for His ascension. We, too, share the death, burial, and resurrection through baptism. We are united with Christ in this act. No other action or attitude can replace this in the process of salvation.
But there is the undeniable expectation that our new life conform to the Christian model (His example, left to us through the scriptures, according to 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Ephesians 5:1). By continuing in sin after baptism, we effectively negate its purpose, which is to purify us and set us apart from the world. “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ…By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments…Whoever keeps His word in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him; the one who says He abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:1-6).
- It is not that we are incapable of sinning after baptism, for all people continue to fall short on their own merit. But the difference between the old life and the new is that unbelievers sin as a lifestyle while Christians sin as an isolated error. We are guaranteed forgiveness of our sins if we confess them (1 John 1:9).
- The Christian also does not have to fear his shortcomings, for they are overwhelmingly conquered by Jesus (Romans 8:37). We may make mistakes or missteps, but God’s grace is sufficient for any person who truly desires it.
- This is why the language of the text is powerful. We are freed from sin! I am not a slave of it any longer. What is interesting to me is that everybody ends up being a slave to something, whether they know it or not. “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart… and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). Why not submit to something on your own terms?
- It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge that we are sinners, or that the old self (manner of life) was a mess. It is also not enough for us to admit that the old self still creeps back every now and then. We are told quite clearly in Galatians 5:24, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” If we think we are going to belong to our Lord, then we had better take that old man, crucify him with all of his passions and evil habits, and walk as far away from that life as we can! “Since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the one who created him” (Colossians 3:9-10).