Photo by Caelen Weber

In a previous post, I raised the issue of Romans 6 presenting union with Christ as occurring by means of baptism. That obviously raises problems. What about those who profess faith in Christ who were never (or are not yet) baptized? What about justification by faith alone? Are there two categories of Christians: those who are baptized and released from Sin, and those who are regenerate but totally under Sin’s power?

Flawed Alternatives

I have run across a few ways of resolving this tension, but I believe they all break down at some point.

  1. This is about Spirit baptism, not water baptism. Some hold the baptism of the Spirit, empowering one to a “victorious Christian life” over sin, would explain Romans 6. However, Paul is referring to believers’ dying and rising with Christ so he has water baptism in mind with the physical act corresponding to death and rebirth.
  2. Baptism is just a sign. The text doesn’t say that baptism is merely an optional sign of what has already happened; it appears to say the opposite. So our theological system cannot override the text.

A Better Way?

I am not the first to argue this but I think the key to resolving these issues is in recognizing that baptism as a subsequent and independent event from conversion (that is, faith, repentance, confession, etc) is not a New Testament idea. This separation is a modern idea and therefore this is a modern problem.

Records of conversion in the NT tie together faith, repentance, baptism, reception of the Spirit, and so on (e.g. Acts 2:38). There is also the shared presupposition of the NT authors that all believers are baptized. An unbaptized believer would have been a contradiction of terms. If we asked a first-century believer when they were baptized, they would have been perplexed.

With this in mind, I think the problems in Romans 6 largely disappear. If all believers in Christ were baptized in His name as part of their conversion (within minutes or hours) like the Ethiopan eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), then it would be perfectly legitimate to say they were united with Christ in their baptism. What better illustration of union with Christ’s death and resurrection is there?

Marriage As An Illustration

One may object that I’m arguing for the “a mere sign” view after all; the view that baptism doesn’t do anything. However, I think these insights above replace the “mere” with “vital”. Perhaps marriage is a helpful illustration. Could I have married my wife without a ring? Well, yes, but it’s far from the norm and the ideal. Perhaps consummation is a better analogy. After all, the consummation of the marriage is the physical act of the two becoming one, just as baptism is the physical act of union with Christ. It is both symbolic and important. That said, is the pastor lying when he pronounces the two as “husband as wife” before the wedding night? One’s marriage is certainly not complete without the consummation, but it is still marriage. Similarly, an unbaptized believer is not the norm nor the ideal, and they need to be baptized. However, they are still a regenerate believer.

Conclusion

So once we get to this point, is it even valid to ask “is baptism an optional extra”? Like separating consummation from marriage, separating baptism from conversion is like splitting hairs on something that should never be separated. This brings us back full circle. Baptism belongs with conversion.

I heard a story recently. During an outdoor outreach in a busy part of Washington DC, a man was convicted of his sin and placed his faith in Christ. The man who led him to Christ promptly baptised him in an fountain right there in front of everyone else! It was a little controversial but it’s probably the closest thing to a New Testament conversion story I’ve heard in a while.

And more to the point, if the new convert were to ask “so should I continue in sin?” I think the other man could have responded without any hesitation or discomfort:

By no means! How can you who died to sin still live in it?

Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”(Romans 6:2-4, adjusted)