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Excursus: Baptism by Immersion (Romans 6:3-4)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Detail of Harry Anderson (American illustrator, 1906-1996), "John Baptizing Jesus." © Image copyrighted. Framed works available.
As we studied Romans 6:1-11, I assumed that baptism by immersion was in view. Now that we have grasped the truth of Paul's teaching, let's go back and spend some time with his teaching on baptism on this passage.
Let me preface this with two qualifications:
- Paul is not giving a full-blown teaching on baptism here. Rather he is referring briefly to what his readers already know and believe.
- Therefore, let's not try to argue a full-blown teaching on baptism from these two verses. But let's learn what we can in these verses. For the main points, see my exposition of Romans 6:3-4 in the preceding lesson: 3. United with Christ, Free from Sin's Slavery (Romans 6:1-11).
Disagreements about Baptism
I think it would be useful here for the sake of clarity in our discussion to outline some different beliefs about baptism that are held by Christ-loving, born-again, Spirit-filled, God-fearing believers.
- Subjects of baptism. Some limit baptism to believers only (such as Baptists, most Pentecostals, etc.), while others extend baptism to the infant children of believers (such as Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). Our passage doesn't really discuss this issue.
- Method of baptism. Some baptize primarily by sprinkling or pouring (affusion). Others baptize by immersion (including the Orthodox who immerse infants). This is discussed in our passage.
- Effect of baptism. Some see baptism as a symbol or sign of God's grace that is already present and active in the person being baptized. Others, who hold a strong sacramentalist view, believe that baptism itself imparts God's grace to the person being baptized, to the extent that an unbaptized person is not saved. This position is held by Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans, and some portions of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ movement. However, our passage touches only tangentially on this issue, as I indicate in my discussion of immediate baptism below.
- Time of Baptism. Some baptize immediately, others withhold baptism until after a time of teaching or catechism. While our passage does not speak to this issue, the practice of the early church of immediate baptism is very important to understanding our passage.
While the timing of baptism is not discussed in our passage, I believe that it is vital to acknowledge that the clear pattern of the early church was to baptize individuals immediately.94
In the early church, the time of coming to faith and the time of baptism were not separated by any length of time (as they were in post-apostolic times and often are in our day). Coming to faith and baptism were very closely associated. Thus, in the New Testament, to refer to a person's baptism was to refer to the time that he or she came to saving faith.
In interpreting our passage, we can't really separate the effect of baptism from the effect of saving faith, since the apostolic church didn't see them as independent of each other, but part of the same salvation event. Therefore, I don't believe that we can make a case from Romans 6:3-5 that baptism itself (and not faith) unites us with Christ.
And of course, the Bible gives us an example of a person who had saving faith but was not baptized (the thief on the cross, Luke 23:39-43), though it is not good to base our doctrine on exceptional cases.
Subjects of Baptism
Our passage doesn't really talk about the subjects of baptism. But I would be naïve to pretend that in any discussion of baptism this isn't on your mind, so let me make a few comments about "the elephant in the room."
Our passage clearly has in mind the baptism of a new Christian, not the child of a Christian. This shouldn't surprise us. In the New Testament era the baptism of first generation new converts was clearly in the fore.
Only in the second or third generation of Christianity does the issue of the baptism of the children of believers emerge as an issue. It is only hinted at in the New Testament (Acts 16:31-34). The doctrine of infant baptism developed in church history after the New Testament age by drawing an analogy between the circumcision of boy babies as a sign of them being part of the Covenant family in the Old Testament era, and baptism being the sign of being part of the Covenant family in the New Testament era. The relationship between baptism and circumcision is only hinted at in Colossians 2:11-12, not spelled out in any detail or developed in the New Testament.
Historically, Christians have dealt with the inclusion of their children in the promises of the Covenant in two ways:
- Baptism of the children of believers based on vows taken by their parents. This is followed by confirmation, where the children themselves confirm the baptismal vows taken for them and receive the Holy Spirit. This view was originally developed within a belief that baptism of children is necessary to insure salvation. Most Protestant groups, however, don't affirm the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that is, the necessity of baptism for salvation. However, the baptism of the children of believers has been the nearly unanimous view of the Church from post-apostolic times through the Reformation.
- Dedication of the children of believers based on vows taken by their parents. This is followed by baptism when the child reaches an "age of accountability" and takes the baptismal vows for himself or herself. People who hold this position usually believe that children of believers who die before the "age of accountability" are automatically covered by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 7:14). This view finds its historical roots with the Anabaptists in the 16th century and has been popularized by the Baptist movement in the last couple of centuries.
Both of these approaches are somewhat awkward from a biblical standpoint, since nearly all the references in the New Testament speak to the conversion and baptism of believers themselves, and not to the baptism and faith of the children of believers.
My own position is to dedicate the children of believers and baptize them when they come to a point when they can profess their own faith in Christ. I realize, however, that those who argue for infant baptism can make a good theological case for their position. I think we just have to accept one another as sincere Christians and agree to disagree, since the Bible speaks only tangentially to the issue of the baptism of the children of believers.
In the Romans 6:3-4 passage, however, I think we can all agree that the case Paul is using is an illustration of the baptism of a new believer. Let's not stretch it to try to cover all baptismal situations.
Method of Baptism
Our passage, however, clearly refers to a particular mode of baptism:
3 "Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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." (6:3-4)
I think it is pretty clear from both the definition of the Greek verb for baptism (baptizō) and from Paul's word picture in verse 4 that baptism by immersion is clearly in mind in our passage.
First, let's look at the Greek verb baptizō. It appears approximately 102 times in ancient Greek literature, with the basic meaning of "dip, plunge, immerse." It is often used in contexts that are anything but gentle -- drowning, sinking of ships, flooding a city, being soaked in wine, being drenched, etc. It is used metaphorically in terms of being over head and ears in debt, of crowds flocking into and overwhelming a city at a time of siege, etc. It is then used of washings and ablutions, and in the New Testament, specifically of the rite of baptism, first by John the Baptist, and later, Christian baptism.95 Jesus used the word figuratively to refer to martyrdom (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50). Perhaps the idea here is "are you prepared to be drowned the way I'm going to be drowned?"96 The term is also used figuratively to describe the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit coming upon a person (Mark 1:8; John 1:33; Acts 1:5b; 11:16b; etc.)
While by Paul's time baptism had become a technical term referring to the Christian rite of initiation, there's no reason to think that it had lost its connection to immersion as it had a century or two later in church history.
Buried with Christ in Baptism (6:4a)
"We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death...." (6:4a)
The term "buried with" in verse 4 is a compound verb, sunthaptō from sun-, "with" + thaptō, "to bury someone."97 G.R. Beasley-Murray observes that the text does not say: buried like him, but buried with him, that is, "we were laid with him in his grave in Jerusalem. So, too, the death he died on the cross was our death, also." In some places Paul speaks of Christ's death as our substitute. However, here he speaks of Christ as our representative. His death as our representative was accepted as our death, so that when he died, we died. 98
Paul uses the images of both burial and rising to life as he speaks of baptism both here and in a related passage (Colossians 2:12). This imagery is clearly tied to baptism by immersion. Being immersed or dipped into the water carries the image of burial. Coming up out of the water following baptism carries the image of resurrection, rising out of one's grave to new life.
The idea of being buried is inherent in being immersed. The water is all around the new Christian, usually covering him or her completely, like a tomb surrounds completely a dead person who has been buried, either placed in a rock or artificial sepulcher or buried under the ground. Paul sees baptism as a powerful symbol of death.
To deny that verses 3 and 4 assume baptism by immersion (as some scholars do in an apparent attempt to defend baptism by sprinkling or pouring) seems emasculate Paul's vivid image of baptism and divorce it from any meaning.
Immersion as a Mode of Baptism in Our Day
However, it is one thing to acknowledge that immersion was the most common form of baptism in New Testament times. It is quite another to insist that immersion is the only valid baptism and that only a person who has been fully immersed in water (without a toe protruding, as I've heard some contend) is actually baptized. This is dogmatism without a real scriptural basis. Many Christian churches today baptize by sprinkling or pouring. To affirm that immersion was the most common form of baptism in the early church doesn't make baptism by sprinkling or pouring today somehow invalid.
Clearly the New Testament pattern is baptism by immersion. Therefore, my own view is that while baptism by sprinkling and pouring carry the symbolism of washing from sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11), only baptism by immersion carries added the symbolism of death, burial, and rising to new life in Christ. Thus, so far as possible, I believe baptism by immersion is to be preferred over sprinkling or pouring. I don't see this as a point of dogma, but of extracting from the practice of baptism the greatest possible teaching about the meaning -- for the person being baptized as well as for those witnessing the baptism. The validity of one's baptism has nothing to do with how much water was used.
The study is available as an e-book or printed book
My point is that in Romans 6:3-4, Paul has baptism by immersion in view. And most fair-minded Bible scholars these days agree.
We Are United to Christ and Christ's Death (6:3-5)
The reason that Paul brings up baptism at all in this passage is because baptism firmly underscores the reason that we can't just keep on sinning, since baptism clearly unites us with Christ's death. Let's not miss Paul's point: Baptism connects us to Christ's death on the cross and transmits that power into our lives to: (1) weaken the flesh and (2) give us power to live for God.
Copyright © 2023, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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