When Paul correlates baptism and burial, is he simply using burial as a rhetorical illustration or is he describing a God-empowered sacramental reality? I think the latter.
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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Romans 6:3-6
In our baptism, God united us to Christ in his death, with the promise that we will also be united to him in his resurrection. This is the very foundation of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:1-11. God has done something in your baptism, therefore ….
It is so obvious to me now that Paul believes that God works effectively in our baptism that it is hard for me to understand how I once thought otherwise.
Is Baptism Merely a Visual Illustration?
I think my reasoning went something like this: baptism (by immersion, laying straight back, face up into the water, the way my church did it) looks something like being buried face up in the ground, the way that burials take place in my culture. Being lowered face-up into the water resembles being lowered face-up into the earth. With the visual image of baptism, Paul reminded me that I am supposed to “die” to sin spiritually and “rise” to live a new kind of life. That’s how I saw his illustration, even though I didn’t think baptism itself played any real role in that dying and rising. For Paul, I thought, baptism was simply a visual illustration of a spiritual truth.
But baptism doesn’t really hold up very well as a visual illustration.
For one thing, ancient people disposed of the dead in a number of different ways. The Romans of the late republic and early empire commonly practiced cremation. Jews of the Second Temple period preferred entombment or (for the very poor) burial in a trench dug in the ground. Only this latter practice corresponds to the contemporary custom in the United States.
Jesus was entombed. His remains were placed in an artificial cave cut into the rock on the side of a hill. Both Luke and John describes it as a new tomb, one that had never been used. This last phrase makes no sense to most Americans. Commonly, in ancient practice, the bones of the dead were transferred to an ossuary in a “second burial” after the soft tissue had decayed. Sliding someone onto a shelf cut into the side of a hill does not look much like 21st century evangelical baptisms. Lay-back immersion baptism serves as a poor illustration of the kind of burial Jesus himself received.
And I have come to doubt that the lay-back style immersion practiced by the congregation of my youth was, in fact, the universal – or even typical – practice of the early church.
Jewish ritual immersions did indeed require complete submersion, but not in lay-back-like-a-dead-man fashion. The most natural way to immerse oneself in a mikveh is the same way one does in a swimming pool.
Many of the earliest Christian baptismal facilities still in existence are indeed baptismal pools, but they are too small for lay-back immersions of an adult. It might be possible to immerse oneself in these pools if one were kneeling and dipping one’s head beneath the water. Or, one could stand in the pool and have water poured over one’s head. Second and third century Illustrations of Christian baptism in the Roman catacombs portray something that looks like pouring. Pouring is also a method mentioned in the Didache, an early Christian writing dating to around the year 100.
Unless one is convinced that that Paul’s church not only practiced baptism almost exclusively by immersion AND did so only in a manner that suggests lying down in a grave, baptism doesn’t necessarily even look like trench burial. I am not so convinced.
Consequently, for me, Paul’s meaning is not tied to what baptism looked like. In baptism, we are buried with Christ, not because baptism reminds us of a burial, but because God makes it so.
Baptism and God’s Work
Paul’s argument is based on the fact that God did something to the believer in baptism.
How? Like every other aspect of our salvation, this reality is received by faith. It is not self-evident to the human eye. For our generation, Paul’s words themselves are the promise of God which we claim in faith for our baptism. God works through water and the word.
Where, you ask, is it explicitly said that God does these things for those who believe?
In Romans 6:3-6, God does most of the acting even when he is not explicitly named. Most of the verbs in the first few verses of Romans 6 are in the passive voice. We were baptized into Christ’s death. We were buried with Christ by baptism into his death. Christ was raised. Our old self (anthropos, human being) was crucified with him. In the passive voice, the object of the sentence receives the action; it doesn’t initiate it. The true actor may be completely invisible in the grammar of the sentence.
Who is it, then, that does these things that Paul describes? The church baptizes, but it is God who unites the baptized person to Christ, puts the old self to death with Christ and gives the baptized person new life in Christ.
Tomorrow, on the same passage: One Sacrifice, Two Effects