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Volume 16, Issue 4: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, Part 2

Peter J. Leithart

There is a range of opinion in Reformed circles on the meaning of "baptism" in Romans 6. On the one side, it does not appear to have entered Calvin's head to question whether "baptism" refers to water baptism. In his commentary on Romans 6, he presents no argument for this conclusion, but simply assumes it. He contends that Paul uses the word "baptism" to refer to the "effect of baptism," since "it is beyond any question, that we put on Christ in baptism, and that we are baptized for this end—that we may be one with him," but throughout this sentence "baptism" means water baptism.

Of course, "this power is not apparent in all the baptized," since some do not respond in faith. Paul emphasizes rather the "real character of baptism when rightly received." In short, "as long as the institution of the Lord and the faith of the godly unite together" we must speak as Paul speaks about baptism, "for we never have naked and empty symbols, except when our ingratitude and wickedness hinder the working of divine beneficence."
Throughout Institutes 15.5, furthermore, Calvin assumes that Romans 6 is talking about water baptism. Likewise in the Institutes 4.15.12, Calvin cites Romans 6 to support his contention that "all those who don Christ's righteousness are at the same time regenerated by the Spirit, and . . . we have a pledge of this regeneration in baptism." Note that Calvin does not claim that baptism effects regeneration (which, in any case, he often uses in a different sense than later Reformed theology), but he does believe that Romans 6 refers to water baptism as the visible symbol pledging regeneration to those who have faith. This shows that deciding whether or not Romans 6 is talking about water baptism does not in itself determine how baptism is related to union with Christ's death and resurrection.
The comments of the late James Montgomery Boice represent another interpretation. In his commentary on Romans, Boice, following James Dale (see my previous article, "`Baptism' Is Baptism, Part I), warns that we should not too quickly interpret "baptism" in Romans 6 as a reference to water baptism. He suggests that the Greek word baptizo can refer to a radical and profound change, whatever the means of that change. Josephus speaks, for instance, of crowds flooding Jerusalem and "baptizing" the city, and when baptizo is used of a drunken person ("baptized" with wine) or dying cloth (cloth "baptized" in dye), the emphasis is on the change that occurs rather than on the fluid used.
He goes on to argue that in Romans 6 the main idea is "that we have been taken out of one state and put into another" and that we are now "identified with him in (or baptized into) his death, burial, and resurrection." Water baptism signifies this transition, but does not effect it. And in Romans 6 Paul is talking about the thing that water baptism signifies rather than about water baptism itself.
Whatever the details of the lexical argument (which I hope to address in a later essay), on Romans 6, it does not seem accurate to say that "the most important idea" is that we have been "taken out of one state and put into another." That certainly is an important concern of the passage, but Paul is equally concerned that the Romans know they have been taken out of one state and put into another. The passage begins with Paul addressing an antinomian objection to the gospel: If grace abounds where sin increases, then should we sin to increase our dose of grace? Paul responds by reminding the Romans that they have been transferred from Adam to Christ; but, in addition, he points to an event that made this transition apparent. That event and not just its effects are crucial to Paul's exhortations.
If "baptize" here does not refer to the rite of water baptism, what exactly does it refer to? Boice's answer appears to be that it refers to a conversion experience, the moment in a person's life when they left the Adamic realm for the realm of Christ, but that presents a serious pastoral problem. What if one has no conversion "experience," or at least no memory of one? I grew up in a Christian home, and have been a Christian for as long as I can remember; what would Paul tell me? Of what radically transforming event would Paul remind me? On what ground would Paul tell me that I have been turned from the mastery of sin to the dominion of righteousness? Paul's argument seems to demand that the event he refers to is fixed, clear, public, datable.
One final line of argument helps to support the conclusion that Paul is talking about water baptism here. N. T. Wright interestingly suggests that the sub-narrative underlying Romans 5-8 is the story of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, from their enslavement to Pharaoh to their entry to the promised land. Romans 5:12_21 describes the reign of death (Pharaoh) which has been overthrown by Christ (the new Moses). In chapter 7, the emphasis is on the effects of the law, which only provokes sin from the fleshly people who receive it. In Romans 8, however, there is a promise of entry into a new creation, a land flowing with milk and honey. Within this sequence, chapter 6 corresponds to the exodus itself, Israel's deliverance from the mastery of sin and death and her enslavement to Yahweh. Fittingly, this transition is described as a "baptism," matching the water-crossing of Israel through the Red Sea. In short, though Romans 6 does not mention water, it is based on the same typology as 1 Corinthians 10.

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