Baptism of Our Lord • Romans 6:1–11 • January 13, 2013
By Henry Rowold
There are fewer occasions more pleasant for the family of God than baptism. For an adult, it marks a capstone of growth in faith and identity. For an infant, it marks, in the presence of family, initial steps of faith and growth as a Christian child of God. For both, baptism brings a regenerative washing by the loving hand of Jesus Christ and a place in the family of God. However, in today’s text, Paul moves beyond what we see happening in church to a much deeper magnetic dynamism of baptism. (Referring to recent baptisms would make this all very personal, even participatory.)
Paul links the dynamism of baptism to the three-step climax of the life of Jesus Christ, as Paul summarized them in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4: died, buried, rose.
Those three steps of death, burial, and resurrection are not, however, just Jesus’s personal, solitary path through death to life. He died for all (2 Cor 5:14–15), and baptism “into Christ Jesus” sweeps us along, unbound by time and space, into that three-step pivot of cosmic history—died, buried, risen. Note how these verses highlight the intensity of Paul’s conviction: 1) all the verbs (buried, rose) are passives—God provides the power and the link; and 2) each of the actions culminates in a divine “with,” a monumental, eternal Immanuel. Baptism aligns us “with” those salvific events of our Savior…forever.
The link God provides through baptism grants a “with” that cannot be stripped or broken by any force, “neither death nor life…” as Paul says later in Romans (8:31–39). Paul’s concern in these verses, however, is not so much the “with” after death, but the “with” already before death, the “with” of our daily life. The verses before our text (5:20–21) refer to a couple of questions, even critiques that elicited Paul’s reflections on baptism, namely 1) whether grace can somehow quell sin when not even the law could, and 2) whether the principle of grace abounding where sin abounds doesn’t lead to multiplying sin for the sake of maximizing grace, as though sin triggers grace (5:20–21). These are questions about life now. What Paul does is join the theme of “with” to the theme of God’s lordship. The radical, fundamental renunciation of sin that Paul refers to is part-and-parcel of the reality of death/burial/resurrection. The reign of sin is undercut, and the tantalizing deception of the law is exposed. Christ provides a preemptive gift of death/burial with him—death to sin, death to law-driven, exhaustive living—and the baptized Christian emerges into life, now and eternal, under the lordship of God (6:18, 22).
Finally, in 6:11–12, Paul turns from ten verses of indicative verbs to a “therefore” with an imperative: “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That we can do such “counting” is because of God’s prior “reckoning/counting” of righteousness, as already to Abraham (Gn 15:6). “Therefore, do not let sin reign…” Life completely without sin, of course, is beyond us in this world, and any such claim is both prideful and self-deceiving, as Paul himself understood (7:14–21). For those who have died, been buried, and then raised with Christ, however, sin no longer has the place of either an accepted, casual lifestyle or an intentional, even strategic part of daily life—that would be like a person reverting to an overpowering addiction. We who have been baptized “into” Christ Jesus(6:3), now therefore live “in” Christ Jesus (6:11).
While, as we said at the beginning, baptism is a pleasant thing for the family of God, it is much more. It is also the miraculous, magnetic pull of Jesus Christ, the grace to die, be buried, and rise with him, and the power and Spirit of a new life.