The freedom and forgiveness in the Christian life can sometimes be misunderstood as an excuse to continue in a life of sin and rebellion. And what is true today, it turns out, was true in Paul’s day. Paul had to confront the notion that if God’s grace is a good thing, then we need to continue to sin so God has more chances to display his forgiveness. This idea displays a radical misunderstanding of what God does to the human heart, and, surprisingly enough, baptism proves Paul’s point.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vs. 3)
In certain parts of the early Christian church baptism was a rite that was earned and not simply given away. When a person became a Christ-follower, instead of being immediately baptized they were put through a sometimes lengthy process of education and life transformation. The church needed to be sure the convert knew what they had done and that their life reflected that change. Only when they were sure of these things did the church allow baptism.
While very few churches would treat baptism this way today, this practice highlights what is being demonstrated in the act of going under and coming out of the water. It is true that one of the clearest symbols of baptism is that our sins are washed away – we go into the water as a sinner, we come out a forgiven and cleansed child of God. But Paul takes us a couple more steps down the path of what the act means. As it turns out when we go into the water we are participating in the death of Jesus Christ. We lie in the grave with him, as it were. As Christ died, so we die.
And we die to a way of life. The life ruled by my dysfunctional passions and severely limited abilities has gone away in the death of the believer in Christ Jesus. I am dead now to sin.
But death is not all there is. As we go under the water and die with Christ, so we come out and now live in the new life that Christ offers. Just as Christ was raised from the dead, so now we can “walk in newness of life.” (vs. 4) It is telling that Paul does not say here that Christ rose from the dead that we might live with him for all of eternity. Though that is true, the point here – the point of baptism – is that we walk in the resurrection life here and now.
The resurrection life is not just about what happened to Jesus Christ 2000 years ago when he walked out of the tomb, and it is not just about what happens to the believer when they die and go to be with him. It is also about what I do when I wake up every morning. It is about the power of God living and breathing in his children so that we may live his kind of life in this world. We die to sin and we come alive to the life of God.
If you were put in that early church where they required a developed knowledge of Jesus and evidence of a transformed life, would you be baptized by now?