29 Aug 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
*Or don’t you know*, the apostle asks incredulously, *that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?* (3). Those who ask whether Christian people are free to sin betray their complete ignorance of what their baptism meant. In order to grasp Paul’s argument, three clarifications need to be made about baptism.
First, baptism means water baptism unless in the context it is stated to the contrary. It is true that the New Testament speaks of other kinds of baptism, for example a baptism ‘with fire’ (Mt. 3:11) and a baptism ‘with the Spirit’ (e.g. Jn. 1:33; Acts 1:5). Some commentators have suggested that Paul is here referring to baptism with the Spirit as uniting us with Christ, and have quoted 1 Corinthians 12:13 as a parallel. But it is safe to say that whenever the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘being baptised’ occur, without mention of the element in which the baptism takes place, the reference is to water baptism. (E.g. Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and be baptised…’) Whenever water baptism is not meant, however, the alternative baptismal element is mentioned; for instance, ‘with the Spirit’. The reason some have been hesitant to understand Romans 6 as referring to water baptism is usually plain. They fear that Paul will then be held to teach ‘baptismal regeneration’, namely that the mere administration of water in the name of the Trinity automatically bestows salvation. But the apostle neither believed nor taught this.
Secondly, baptism signifies our union with Christ, especially with Christ crucified and risen. It has other meanings, including cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but its essential significance is that it unites us with Christ. Hence the use of the proposition *eis*, ‘into’. True at its institution, baptism was said to be into the single name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). Elsewhere, however, it is ‘into the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 8:16; 19:5; contrast 1 Cor. 1:13, ‘into the name of Paul’.) or simply ‘into Christ’ (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3). And to be baptised into Christ means to enter into relationship with him, much as the Israelites were ‘baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’, that is, into allegiance to him as their leader (1 Cor. 10:2).
Thirdly, baptism does not by itself secure what it signifies. To be sure, the New Testament speaks of baptism in terms of our washing away our sins (Acts 22:16), our clothing ourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and even of our being saved by it (1 Pet. 3:21), but these are examples of dynamic language which attributes to the visible sign the blessing of the reality signified. It is inconceivable that the apostle Paul, having spent three chapters arguing that justification is by faith alone, should now shift his ground, contradict himself, and declare that after all salvation is by baptism. No, we must give the apostle credit for consistency of thought. ‘The baptised’s faith is, of course, taken for granted… not forgotten, nor denied.’ So union with Christ by faith, which is invisibly effected by the Holy Spirit, is visibly signified and sealed by baptism. The essential point Paul is making is that being a Christian involves a personal, vital identification with Jesus Christ, and that this union with him is dramatically set forth in our baptism. That is step two.