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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

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

The short answer: "baptism" here is both symbolic and instrumental, but definitely is NOT referring to water baptism.

I submit that Paul is not referring to water baptism AT ALL, but something much greater. Since "the burden of proof must be on the [one who holds the] position that Paul is not thinking of water baptism", let me suggest five lines of reasoning to prove the Reformed position:

1. His words indicate baptism with something other than water, namely, death:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death.

This is akin to the statements elsewhere in the New Testament which are clearly not referring to water immersion, e.g. John the Baptist's attestation regarding Jesus' baptism:

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He ... will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. [Matthew 3:11]

Paul uses this non-water sense of baptism in at least two places:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea [1Cor 10:1,2]

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. [1Cor 12:13]

This latter verse could be construed as "baptised with water into one body". But the Spirit doesn't use water for Baptism, He baptizes us with Himself; priests and ministers use water. That is not what Paul meant.

2. The whole tenor of his argument suggests something greater than water baptism.

The phrase in v.5, "baptism into death", is more reminiscent of his expression, "crucified with Christ"; crucifixion is certainly not symbolized by water baptism. But what Paul is referring to here is, in the next verse [6], the same as crucifixion:

knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him.

The real teaching of this passage is the believer's union with Christ, which, yes, is symbolized by baptism. But when Paul says "baptism" in this context, he is referring to that greater, mystical union that takes place quite apart from any work performed by the believer, including water baptism1. In the phrase "united together in baptism" [v.5] the sense is being planted together, or grafted into Christ. That is the sense of σύμφυτος (sumphutos).

3. Paul never taught ceremonial works as effectual, either of justification or regeneration.

For one thing, this would contradict his express theme, "not of works". It would also contradict his pervasive emphasis on the blood of Jesus as the atonement for sin and the propitiation of God's wrath.

Many see the word "baptism" in this passage and interpret it as a teaching on water baptism, even going so far as to give water baptism the central role in regeneration. This is exactly the sacramentalist interpretation, viz., that God's grace is actually communicated VIA the water (or wafer or wine) to the believer. To the First Century believers, baptism was ONLY a sign of the new birth that had already begun in the believer. So baptism was never given to unbelievers. To suggest that water baptism begins or even aids the new birth is, in the words of the old saw, "putting the cart before the horse." The believer is already alive in Christ when he comes forward to be baptized. It cannot, then, be instrumental in Pauline theology.

4. Baptism, as a mere symbol, cannot make us united with Christ.

Rejecting his use of baptism as effectual isn't the whole conclusion. If he is referring to water baptism as a symbol, to suggest that a mere symbol is the thing that joins us to Christ, makes us one with all Christians, makes us new creations, raises us from the dead, washes away our sins and "seats us together with Christ in the heavenly realms" [Eph 2:6], is to suggest that the symbol is greater than the grace and work and blood of the Lord Jesus. This is not Pauline, and not logical.

5. To argue for water baptism in this passage goes directly against Paul's own view of the importance of baptism:

Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other.

It wasn't an event he recorded or even made a mental note of, "Because", he says,

Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel. [1Cor 1:16,17]


1 Unless you reject Paul's pervasive doctrine of sola fide, in which case there isn't much ground in discussing any of his teachings, on baptism or anything else.

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

We see two presentations regarding baptism. The first is from Peter;

Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

This is consistent with what was described by Jesus for the disciples in expectation of the kingdom;

Mark 16:15-18 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Paul differentiates himself from Peter calling him the apostle to Israel and himself as an apostle to the gentiles;

Romans 11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:

There are two reasons for considering Paul did not look at baptism as essential.

  1. The “binding” that was placed on gentile believers did not include baptism.

Acts 15:19-20 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

  1. Paul declared that it was not his ministry to baptize even though he occasionally did.

1 Corinthians 1:16-17 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.

It is difficult from the writing of Paul to make a case that he viewed baptism as essential or critical for gentiles.

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