Have We Undervalued Baptism?

Grace and Sin

Imagine a Christian friend tells you that he is thinking of leaving his wife. He’s met someone else, someone who makes him truly happy. Perhaps it’s not said, but you sense he wants your blessing.

“How can you even consider this?” you say. “It’s wrong. You know that.”

“It’s not ideal,” he replies. “But surely it’s better than an empty marriage. Besides, God will forgive me. That’s what he does.”

How would you reply?

There are a number of ways one might respond—no doubt some better than others—but I wonder if your response would include an appeal to his baptism, because that’s how Paul responded to just such a scenario.

Truth We Can Touch

Tim Chester

A theological exploration of how baptism and Communion shape our lives together as God’s people, explaining how the physical water, bread, and wine embody the promises, grace, and presence of Christ.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul famously presents the wonderful truth that we are justified—made right with God—simply by faith in Christ. We’re not saved by what we do, but by the grace of God. He describes how Christ has undone the sin of Adam, sending the devastation Adam unleashed into reverse. Just as Adam’s disobedience brought death to humanity in Adam, so Christ’s obedience brings life to his new humanity.

But then Paul anticipates someone saying, “Surely, this means I can sin with impunity since grace covers my sin. Indeed, the more I sin, the more grace abounds.” Your friend excusing his decision to leave his wife is just one variation on this argument.

Here’s how Paul responds in Romans 6:3–4:

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.

Becoming a Christian, says Paul, involves far more than adopting a new worldview. It even involves more than being forgiven by God—though that is certainly part of it. When you became a Christian, says Paul, you were transferred from the regime of death into the realm of life—not by crossing a border or getting a green card, but through a death and resurrection. By being united to Christ, you died to the old humanity in Adam and you were reborn into the new humanity in Christ. So for your friend to leave his wife would be to return to the old regime of death. It would be wholly inconsistent with who he now is as a member of Christ’s people and a citizen of Christ’s kingdom of life.

Except Paul says a little more than that: he focuses on your friend’s baptism. He doesn’t say, “Do you not know that all of us who have been united to Christ Jesus by faith were united with him in his death?” I guess he might have done. But what he actually says is, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”


Baptism as Gospel and Covenant

For one thing, baptism is a reenactment of the gospel story. The gospel is the good news that Christ has taken on sin and death and risen in triumph. And the gospel is the good news that those who belong to Christ by faith share in that victory. We died with Christ, we were buried with Christ, and we have risen with Christ. That is powerfully enacted in our baptism. However baptism is conducted, we go under the water as a picture of our death with Christ and we rise up from the water as a picture of our resurrection with Christ. It is as if our old life is left behind in the water and we emerge to a new life, a life lived for God.

Paul’s point here in Romans 6 is that the death and resurrection of baptism are not simply for the beginning of the Christian life. Their imprint is to fall across the totality of our lives. Every day we are to die to sin and self, and every day we can live through the resurrection power of new life. We live a baptized life—a life defined by the story enacted in our baptism.

But baptism is also a covenant act. In one sense, baptism is like a funeral since it marks the end of our old life. But in another sense, baptism is like a marriage. It is the act by which our union with Christ is sealed. Just as a wedding ring is the sign of my marital union to my wife, so baptism is the sign of my covenant union to Christ. In baptism, Christ promises to take us as his own, to stand by us, to keep us, to love us. And we commit ourselves to him, both as our Savior and as our Lord.

By being united to Christ, you died to the old humanity in Adam and you were reborn into the new humanity in Christ.

For your friend to leave his wife is not simply to break his covenant with her, but to break his covenant with Christ. But it’s more serious than that. Yes, we commit ourselves to Christ in baptism. Yes, we make a declaration by being baptized. But the primary voice that speaks in baptism is Christ’s voice. Our decision to follow Christ matters, but underlying that decision is the electing love of God and the regenerating power of the Spirit. Baptism reflects that pattern. First and foremost, baptism is Christ’s commitment to us, his promise that we belong to him.

So, to step out of that covenant relationship is a perilous thing to do. Your friend may be a true child of God who is now backsliding, or it may be that he was never a Christian and this is now being exposed by the decisions he is making. You can’t be sure, and neither can he. He is forfeiting the comforts of the covenant that his baptism was designed to evoke.

We are meant to be able to remind one another that we are baptized people: people under the protection of Christ, people whose sin has been washed away, people who have risen to a new life and a new hope. Christ gave us baptism as a comfort in life and death.

A few years ago in the United Kingdom, there was a famous advert with the tagline, “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.” An animal charity had realized that many of the abandoned dogs they were caring for had originally been given as Christmas presents. Everyone had enjoyed a cute puppy jumping out of a box on Christmas Day, but families were not prepared for the realities of dog ownership. Hence the slogan: “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.”

In a similar vein we might say, “Baptism is for life, not just for beginnings.” It’s for the whole Christian life, and not just its start. It defines who we are and therefore shapes how we live. So, next time we’re pastoring or discipling someone—whatever the particular challenges or opportunities they’re facing—perhaps we should consider beginning our response like this: “Remember, you’ve been baptized . . . ”

Tim Chester is the author of Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives.

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