In refuting the suggestion that it’s okay to sin, Paul refers to the believer’s union with Christ’s death:

'all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death . 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' (Romans 6:3,4).

Here Paul begins to explain his previous phrase 'we died to sin', but before we look into that it is necessary to discuss the meaning of the word 'baptised' and ‘baptism’ in these verses.

Two options are before us: [1] that Paul is speaking of the baptism by the Spirit whereby we are united to Jesus Christ, as in 1 Corinthians 12:13, or [2] that the reference is to rite of water baptism. We will look at the implications of each of these in turn.

If Paul is referring to the baptism by the Spirit whereby we are united to Christ simultaneously with our repentance and faith, then it means that, through the action of the Holy Spirit in uniting believers to Christ, all that Jesus Christ did and achieved as our substitute is from that moment on considered to be ours: we are crucified, dead and buried, and raised to new life, in the death, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus this passage speaks of the act of God's grace, whereby we are so united by the Spirit to Christ our substitute, that, in his death, we have fully met the righteous demands of the Law, and so united with him by his Spirit as to share his life. To this gift of life Christ repeatedly refers in the Gospel of John; it is given to a person at the point of faith in Christ, not at the point of water baptism. (See John 3:36a; 5:24). It is totally dependent on our union with Christ, not on water baptism or any other human action (1 John 5:11,12). This union with Christ in his death and resurrection is also mentioned in Galatians 2:20 and Ephesians 2:4-6 without any reference to baptism.

Thus in this option we have a threefold impact:

Spiritual: The Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ simultaneously with our faith/repentance.

Legal: This baptism by the Spirit unites us with the physical death/resurrection of Christ in such a way that all that he achieved legally by his physical death, burial and resurrection is counted as ours.

Symbolic: By using the imagery of baptism, Paul gives to water baptism, which was the public declaration of belief in Christ, an additional significance: that through baptism by the Spirit we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Note that this additional symbolism of water baptism is never taught in either the Gospels or the Acts at the point of repentance and faith, but only here and in other epistles where the significance of the death of Christ for our salvation was in danger of being lost to a legalistic perversion of the Gospel.

If, on the other hand, this passage refers to water baptism, then the effect of the work of Christ our substitute on our behalf does not become ours until we are water baptised, because Paul clearly states 'all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death' and that 'we were buried with him through baptism into death', making an obvious statement that only those who are baptised have part in the substitutionary work of Christ. If we take this passage to mean water baptism then it is actually saying more than the testimony of the whole of Scripture will allow, and we would be identified with the cults that insist on water baptism as a prerequisite for salvation.

To argue for this option as some do, on the basis of the fact that in the Acts baptism occurred immediately upon repentance and faith, overlooks three other facts:

(1) that Cornelius and his household were clearly baptised by the Holy Spirit before baptism in water;

(2) that it is impossible to be born again (that is to repent and believe) apart from the Holy Spirit. Water baptism cannot make a person a Christian, that is, unite a person to Christ, even if that person is baptised immediately after conversion, because water baptism is a public declaration of one's new faith in Christ, which faith is impossible apart from baptism by the Holy Spirit, and

(3) that water baptism is an external human act with no guarantee that the participant is genuine.

Paul’s argument against the question ‘shall we go on sinning?’ is grounded in the fact that at the point of our conversion to faith in Christ the Holy Spirit united us to the death of Christ. And that death is all about sin. To be united to this death and still maintain that sin is okay reveals a failure to understand the value and significance of this death and this union.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020