This post was originally developed for my church and is published in a slightly modified form on their blog.
To the unbeliever (and many Christians!) baptism can seem quite odd. What purpose could dunking someone underwater really serve besides a quick bath?
In Romans 5, Paul tells us that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been given an “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:18). Because of Adam, all have spiritually died and are separated from God. In that separation, sin was our king and master. But Jesus Christ has offered us a free gift: eternal life in a relationship with God.
That raises the question: does the free gift of eternal life mean that I can now sin freely?
Paul’s answer in Romans 6:1-7 is no, but the reason he gives for that may seem strange. It’s because of baptism.
Let’s look at two stories of God forming and freeing his people through water. This will help us grasp the importance and meaning of baptism and why Paul tells us that we should not freely sin.
Israel and the Water
In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul connects Israel’s passing through the Red Sea to baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-2). This story gives us important clues to understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 6. Let’s look at what happened.
God called the descendants of Abraham to be a people that bless the nations (Genesis 12:3). But those people, the Israelites, soon found themselves enslaved in Egypt.
Through twelve increasingly devastating plagues, God persuaded Egypt’s pharaoh to let the fledgling Israelite nation go free. Pharaoh quickly changed his mind, and he took his armies to hunt down the Israelites and return them to slavery. He cornered them against the banks of the Red Sea. There was nowhere to go and no hope.
Then God made a way. He commanded Moses to strike the sea. The waters rushed away, and the Israelites passed from sure death to new life, surrounded by the sea that was nearly their death.
Then the water crashed down upon Pharaoh’s army as they attempted to pursue, killing Israel’s slave-masters.
Israel went into the sea facing certain doom but emerged a nation free from slavery.
Jesus and the Water
In Matthew 12, several Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign to prove that he is sent from God. Jesus responds by telling them they will receive no sign except the “sign of Jonah.”
Jesus tells them that as Jonah was in the belly of a great fish in the watery grave (Jonah 2:1) and emerged to a new life by God’s grace and power, so will Jesus enter the grave and emerge into new life. But Jesus’ act will be far greater than Jonah’s. Jesus will be slain, and his new life will be the first of a new humanity.
You Are Dead To Sin
When we draw these together, a picture of baptism forms. God formed a people, Israel, to bless the nations. God walked them through the sea into their new life free from bondage. In the same way, Jesus compared how God raised the prophet Jonah from the watery grave to show how He created a new covenant people. Like Israel and Jonah, Jesus passed through the grave to new life.
Paul picks this theme up and applies it in Romans 6:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not 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 6:1-4 (ESV)
When we enter the waters of baptism, we are like Israel, walking into the Red Sea. The sea threatened to overwhelm them at any moment. They were “as good as dead.” We are like Jonah, thrown from the ship and drowning without hope of rescue.
When we enter the waters, we show our allegiance to Jesus, slain on a tree and placed in a tomb. Our old life of slavery to sin is like a man on death row, a “dead man walking.” Sin may still move in our lives but its power is broken, and one day it will cease to exist entirely.
Not only has our life of sin been slain, but a new power of freedom has also been made available to us.
You Are Made New
The Israelites passed through the sea and they found freedom from slavery on the other side. Like the Israelites, we symbolize our freedom from slavery when we rise from those baptismal waters.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
— Romans 6:5-7 (ESV)
Jesus arose from the grave the first of the new humanity. In baptism, we symbolically join Jesus in his death, yes, but we also join Jesus in his new life. We show outwardly what God has done for us inwardly. We proclaim our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
Brothers and sisters, we are freed from the power of sin. This world is still broken and cursed, and we still sin. But Jesus’ resurrection power enables us to walk in the “newness of life.” We have been born anew. Let us rest in the power of God, living and active within us, and live like it.