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In Romans, Paul makes an argument that we are justified because one man (Jesus) died for all. Then he introduces this rhetorical question:

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)

Technically, Paul is talking about regeneration ("newness of life"). Baptism makes an excellent symbol of the process of starting one's life over as if buried in the water and pulled out by the baptizer. But this passage also seems to make baptism instrumental in the process: "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that…we too might walk in newness of life." It would seem that baptism, therefore, is a vital cog in the mechanism Paul proposes for us to be right with God.

However, Paul only mentions baptism in three places including this passage. Colossians 2:2 seems a restatement of the Romans passage. Ephesians 4:5 merely notes that all Christians have one baptism among many other shared attributes. So this indicates that Paul, while not denying the value of baptism as a symbol, did not feel it was critical for being "born again", as Jesus called the process.

How does Paul intend for us to read his reasoning in Romans about baptism?

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I think we first need to examine what Paul "means" by baptism here. We think of "baptism" as being an act where you get dunked in water (or have it sprinkled on you or something), but Paul may be intending something different. For example, "circumcision of the heart" in Romans 2:29 would not be a good idea to interpret "physically" (i.e. "literally"). –  Jas 3.1 Jul 26 '12 at 5:27
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To follow on from @Jas3.1 if Paul is talking about "spiritual baptism", commonly taken to mean the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a new believer, then the symbolism makes just as much sense but without the baggage of making an act (water baptism) regenerative. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 26 '12 at 18:26
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In other words, there is no such thing as a believer who is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this act of God can be seen as a baptism. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 26 '12 at 18:28
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Remember Paul's background as a devout Pharisee. Baptism, or more properly "tvila", had a precise technical meaning, was a sine qua non for conversion to Judaism, and was performed on the body of the deceased prior to burial. It is unlikely that he meant baptism in a symbolic sense. –  Eli Rosencruft Sep 8 '12 at 19:30

1 Answer 1

Water Baptism

From various comments, I see that I need to start by defending the idea that Paul has water baptism in mind. The word Paul uses is baptizo <907>, which pretty much meant an immersion under water. In Acts we begin to see the prophesy of John the Baptist (John 1:19–34) that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. But we also see water baptism practiced right along side Holy Spirit baptism.1

So there's a question as to whether Paul meant water baptism or some sort of spiritual baptism. I believe he intended water baptism because:

  1. He didn't specify what kind of baptism and the default seems to be water baptism. For instance in Acts we read:

    “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.—Acts 10:47-48 (ESV)

    So these people have already had the Holy Spirit poured out on them and Peter commands that they be "baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" with water.

  2. The point Paul is making turns on some similarity between the act of dying to sin and the practice of baptism. While I can think of some ways that spiritual baptism might fit, the symbolic drowning/burying of a new convert fits much better.

To me, the burden of proof must be on the position that Paul is not thinking of water baptism.

Instrumental?

But we are not compelled, therefore, to read Paul as requiring water baptism as a prerequisite for regeneration. John Piper suggests an alternate way to read this passage:

Now here's the analogy I would suggest to show that this language can be the language of symbol, not instrument: "All of us who have put on the ring of marriage have, by putting on this ring, forsaken all others to cleave only to our wives. Therefore by this ring I am united to my wife alone and dead to all others."

Now you could press the language and say, "Aha, it was the actual putting on the ring that caused your forsaking all others and your cleaving to Noel alone. You said it explicitly: 'By this ring, I am united to my wife alone.' What could be plainer? The ring does it all."

But that is not what I would mean by these words. I would mean that putting on the ring is a sign of my forsaking all others and cleaving only to her. The decisive leaving and cleaving is in the promise, the covenant, the vows. "I plight thee my troth." "I promise you my faithfulness." Then comes the ring, the symbol.

In that analogy, the vows stand for faith in Christ, and the ring stands for baptism. And the point is that we often talk this way. We often speak of the symbol as though it brings about what it only signifies.

In the context of the first five chapters of Romans, which maintains "we have been justified by faith", it seems unlikely that baptism would have a functional, rather than symbolic, role.


Footnote:

  1. I misspoke in the question: Paul doesn't talk much about the concept baptism, but he does talk extensively of the act of being baptized. In 1st Corinthians 1, he tries to recall which of the Corinthians he did baptize and emphasized that he came to preach, not baptize. It's not clear form this passage if he's thinking of water baptism, however.
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I might would say the verse you give here “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.—Acts 10:47-48 (ESV)" says they already have received salvation before they were baptized. But overall this is a good response! –  Dell Russell Sep 8 '12 at 4:50

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