April 7 – The Transformation

We also should walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:4


The purpose for Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice was that “we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). Peter doesn’t say Christ died so we could go to heaven, have peace, or experience love. He died to bring about a transformation: to make saints out of sinners. Christ’s substitutionary work enables a person to depart from sin and enter into a new life pattern: a life of righteousness.

The apostle Paul said, “Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:6). We have died to sin; thus it no longer has a claim on us. First Peter 2:24 echoes that thought: our identification with Christ in His death is a departure from sin and a new direction in life.[1]

we are identified in Christ’s death and resurrection

have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, (6:3b-5)

The second principle Paul emphasizes is an extension of the first. All Christians not only are identified with Christ but are identified with Him specifically in His death and resurrection.

The initial element of the second principle is that all true believers have been baptized into His [Christ’s] death. That is a historical fact looking back to our union with Him on the cross. And the reason we have been buried with Him through baptism into death is that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. That is a historical fact looking back to our union with Him in resurrection.

That truth is far too wondrous for us to understand fully, but the basic and obvious reality of it is that we died with Christ in order that we might have life through Him and live like Him. Again Paul emphasizes not so much the immorality but the impossibility of our continuing to live the way we did before we were saved. By trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we were, by an unfathomable divine miracle, taken back 2,000 years, as it were, and made to participate in our Savior’s death and to be buried with Him, burial being the proof of death. The purpose of that divine act of bringing us through death (which paid the penalty for our sin) and resurrection with Christ was to enable us henceforth to walk in newness of life.

The noble theologian Charles Hodge summarized, “There can be no participation in Christ’s life without a participation in his death, and we cannot enjoy the benefits of his death unless we are par takers of the power of his life. We must be reconciled to God in order to be holy, and we cannot be reconciled without thereby becoming holy” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.], p. 195).

As Christ’s resurrection life was the certain consequence of His death as the sacrifice for our sin, so the believer’s holy life in Christ is the certain consequence of his death to sin in Christ.

Newness translates kairos, which refers to newness of quality and character, not neos, which refers merely to newness in point of time. Just as sin characterized our old life, so righteousness now characterizes our new life. Scripture is filled with descriptions of the believer’s new spiritual life. We are said to receive a new heart (Ezek. 36:26), a new spirit (Ezek. 18:31), a new song (Ps. 40:3), and a new name (Rev. 2:17). We are called a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), a new creature (Gal. 6:15), and a new self (Eph. 4:24).

Continuing to affirm the truth that this union with Christ in His death brings new life and also inevitably brings a new way of living, Paul says, For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection. In other words, as an old life died, so a new one was necessarily born.

Bishop Handley Moule graphically asserted,

We have “received the reconciliation” that we may now walk, not away from God, as if released from a prison, but with God, as His children in His Son. Because we are justified, we are to be holy, separated from sin, separated to God; not as a mere indication that our faith is real, and that therefore we are legally safe, but because we were justified for this very purpose, that we might be holy. …

The grapes upon a vine are not merely a living token that the tree is a vine and is alive; they are the product for which the vine exists. It is a thing not to be thought of that the sinner should accept justification-and live to himself. It is a moral contradiction of the very deepest kind, and cannot be entertained without betraying an initial error in the man’s whole spiritual creed. (The Epistle to the Romans [London: Picketing & Inglis, n.d.], pp. 160–61)[2]

Baptized into Jesus Christ

Romans 6:3–4

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

After I had first preached the sermon that constitutes the previous study, a member of the congregation at Tenth Presbyterian Church said, “That message was so important and yet so hard to understand that you ought to preach it all over again next week.” I felt that way myself, and that is what I did. However, I did it as Paul himself did it: by going on to Romans 6:3–4, which is what this study is. These two verses are a restatement of the principle for living a godly life laid down in verse 2.

I remind you of where we are. Paul has asked a question that must have been asked of him a thousand times in the course of his ministry: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” He answered by saying: “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”

The key words in this answer are “we died to sin.” We saw in the last study that there have been many ways of interpreting those words: that the Christian is no longer responsive to sin; that Christians should die to sin; that the Christian is dying to sin day by day; that Christians cannot continue in sin, because they have renounced it; that the Christian has died to sin’s guilt. But we saw, too, that the real meaning of the phrase is that we died to our old life when God saved us. I used John Stott’s illustrations of John Jones before his conversion and John Jones after his conversion, and of volumes one and two of “our biography.”

The bottom line of this discussion has been that the key to a holy life is not our experiences or emotions, however meaningful or intense these may be, but rather our knowledge of what has happened to us. I stressed the word knowledge because the most important and basic reason for going forward in the Christian life is that we cannot go back.

Knowing and Growing

When you hear this for the first time, you may think that it is just too simple or even that it is a novel (and therefore questionable) interpretation of Romans 6:2. But I would argue that it is neither novel nor questionable, and in proof of this I refer to the very next words Paul writes: “Don’t you know … ?” These words are the start of the question by which Paul reminds us of our identity with Jesus Christ.

Do not pass over those words lightly. Remember that Paul had never been to Rome, though he was planning to visit Rome on a proposed trip to Spain (Rom. 15:24). He had not taught the Christians in Rome personally. Moreover, so far as we know, the church had never had the benefit of any apostolic teaching. Yet, although the Christians in Rome had never had such teaching, Paul assumes their knowledge of this doctrine by these words. In other words, what he is referring to here was common Christian knowledge. Christians have died to sin! Or, to put it in the words he is going to use next, they have been “baptized into Christ Jesus … into his death.” The apostle assumes that this was known to believers everywhere, and he appeals to our knowledge of it as the key to our growth in holiness.

So I say it again: The secret of sanctification is not some neat set of experiences or emotions, however meaningful or intense they may be. It is knowing what has happened to you.

The Meaning of “Baptism”

What Paul says we are to know in verses 3 and 4 also supports my interpretation of verse 2. But before we plunge into that we need to think about the meaning of the word baptism, since it is the key term he uses.

The reason we need to do this is that for the vast majority of today’s people, the mere mention of baptism immediately sets them thinking about the sacrament of water baptism and blinds them to what any text that mentions baptism may actually be saying. It has blinded commentators, too, of course. They also think of the sacrament, and because they do they have produced many wrong interpretations of these verses based on their assumption. Some have taught that the sacrament joins us to Christ and is therefore necessary for salvation. This view is called “baptismal regeneration.” Some assume that Paul is thinking of our baptismal vows, others that it is a matter of coming under Christ’s influence, still others that what is important is our public testimony to our faith in Christ. The last three of these actually do have something to do with water baptism. But Paul is not thinking along these lines at all in these verses, and therefore any approach to them with the idea of the sacrament of water baptism uppermost in our minds will be misleading.

What is “baptism”? A good answer starts by recognizing that there are two closely related words for baptism in the Greek language and that they do not necessarily have the same meaning. One word is baptō, which means “dip” or “immerse.” The other word is baptizō, which may mean “immerse” but may have other meanings as well. This is a normal situation with Greek words. The simpler word usually conveys the most straightforward meaning. The longer word adds specialized and sometimes metaphorical meanings.

It is the longer word that is used for “baptism” in the New Testament. So we need to ask next what the precise meaning of the longer word is.

We gain help from classical literature. The Greeks used the word baptizō from about 400 b.c. to about the second century after Christ, and in their literature baptizō always pointed to a change having taken place by some means. Josephus used it of the crowds that flooded into Jerusalem and “wrecked the city.” Other examples are the dyeing of cloth and the drinking of too much wine. In each of these cases there is a liquid or something like it—the crowds were like a human “wave,” a dye and wine are liquids—but the essential idea is actually that of a change. Jerusalem was wrecked. The dyed cloth changes color. The drinker becomes different; he misbehaves.

The clearest example I know that shows this meaning of baptizō is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 b.c. It is a recipe for making pickles, and it is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be “dipped” (baptō) into boiling water and then “baptized” (baptizō) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern immersing the vegetable in a solution, but the first is temporary. The second, the act of “baptizing” the vegetable, produces a permanent change.

To get this distinction in mind is of enormous help in understanding the New Testament verses that refer to baptism, including our text in Romans, for which thoughts of a literal immersion in water would be nonsense.

Take 1 Corinthians 10:1–2, as an example. “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” That cannot be referring to a water baptism, because the only people who were immersed in water were the Egyptian soldiers, and they were drowned in it. The Israelites did not even get their feet wet. What do the verses mean? Obviously, they refer to a permanent identification of the people with Moses as a result of the Red Sea crossing. Before this they were still in Egypt and could have renounced Moses’ leadership, retaining their allegiance to Pharaoh. But once they crossed the Red Sea they were joined to Moses for the duration of their desert wandering. They were not able to go back.

By now you are probably beginning to see why this discussion of baptism is important and why Paul used the words baptized and baptism in verses 3 and 4. But let me offer a few more texts that are clarified by understanding baptism as change rather than mere immersion in water.

Galatians 3:27. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” This is not referring to water baptism, because if it were, the illustration of being clothed with Christ would be inappropriate. Rather, it refers to our being identified with Christ, like a child identifies with her mother when she dresses in her mother’s clothes or a soldier identifies with the armed forces of his country when he dons a uniform.

Mark 16:16 is well known. Jesus says here: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. …” Scores of people have wrongly concluded from that verse that unless a person first believes in Christ and then is also immersed in water, he or she cannot be saved. But even the poorest Bible student knows that this is not true. A person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. If baptism in water is necessary for salvation, then the believing thief who was crucified with Christ is lost.

Once we get away from the mistaken idea that baptism always refers to water baptism, the verse becomes clear. For what Jesus is saying in Mark 16:16 is that a person needs to be identified with him to be saved. He was saying that mere intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity is not enough. It is necessary, to use another of his teachings, that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This last verse is an exact parallel to what the apostle is teaching in Romans 6:3–4, for it means that a true follower of Christ has died to his past life—like a man on his way to execution. Only, in Romans 6, the man has already died and been buried.

Buried Through Baptism

With this lengthy excursion into the meaning of the word baptism in mind, I return to our text to show how these ideas come together. What was the chief idea in Romans 5:12–31? It was the idea of our union with Christ, wasn’t it? Before, we were in Adam; now, we are in Christ. And what is Paul’s answer to “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1). It is that we have died to sin: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Union with Christ! And death to sin!

But notice: That is exactly what baptism signifies, and in that order. The most important idea is that we have been taken out of one state and put into another. We have had an experience similar to that of the Jews after they had been brought through the Red Sea. They were joined to Moses; we are joined to Christ. Or, to put it in the words of Galatians 3:27, we have been clothed with Christ. We are in Christ’s uniform. And what that means, if we look backward, is that we have died to whatever has gone before. We died to the old life when Christ transferred us to the new one.

As soon as we see how these ideas go together, we see why Paul’s thoughts turned to the word baptism as a way of unfolding what he had in mind when he said: “How can we live in [sin] any longer?”

I want you to notice something else, too. When theologians write about our being “baptized into Christ” and how this is the equivalent of our being united to him by the Holy Spirit, they stress that we are identified with Christ in all respects. That is, we are identified with him in (or baptized into) his death, burial, and resurrection. One commentator got into this theme so deeply that he worked out parallels to our identification with Christ in his election, virgin birth, circumcision, physical growth, baptism by John the Baptist, suffering, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.5 Much of this is very true, of course. If we have been identified with Christ, as we have been, we are identified with him in many respects, particularly in his death and resurrection.

But what I want to point out is that Paul does not say here that we have been identified with Christ by baptism in these other respects. He does not, for example, even say that we have been baptized into Christ’s resurrection, though he goes on to say that “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4) and later that we have been “united with him like this in his resurrection” (v. 5). In verse 3 he speaks of our baptism into Christ in one respect only: “into his death.” And in the next phrase he shows that what he has particularly in mind is Christ’s burial: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death.”

This flow of thought is so strong that F. Godet rightly says, “According to these words, it is not to death, it is to the internment of the dead, that Paul compares baptism.”

This is striking, and quite puzzling, too. I notice, for example, that when theologians work out the parallels of our identification with Christ, they have little trouble showing how we have been crucified with him, raised with him or even made to ascend into heaven with him. But they have trouble with the burial. “How can we be said to be buried with Christ?” they ask. “And what does this add that is not already covered by our death to sin?”

Yet burial is the thing Paul emphasizes.

How do we account for this? And how do we account for the difficult way Paul puts it: “buried with him through baptism into death.” More than one commentator has struggled with the awkwardness of that phrase, suggesting in some cases that it is even backward, since no one is buried into death (that is, buried to die) but rather is buried because he died.

I suggest that if this is approached as I have been suggesting, the problem is not difficult at all. The reason burial is an important step even beyond death is that burial puts the deceased person out of this world permanently. A corpse is dead to life. But there is a sense in which it can still be said to be in life, as long as it is around. When it is buried, when it is placed in the ground and covered with earth, it is removed from the sphere of this life permanently. It is gone. That is why Paul, who wanted to emphasize the finality of our being removed from the rule of sin and death to the rule of Christ, emphasizes it. He is repeating but also intensifying what he has already said about our death to sin. “You have not only died to it,” he says. “You have been buried to it.” To go back to sin once you have been joined to Christ is like digging up a dead body.

The Public Profession

I have been saying throughout this study that when Paul refers to our being baptized into Christ, he is not thinking chiefly of the sacrament of baptism but rather of our having been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit. I do not want to go back on that. The very next verses prove this view, for in them Paul speaks explicitly of our being “united with him in his death [and] resurrection.” This is something the Holy Spirit does.

But, while emphasizing this, I do not want to miss the significance of the sacrament of baptism as a Christian’s public renunciation of his past life and a profession of his new identification with Christ.

This is not so obvious to us today perhaps, since baptism is something that generally takes place in an exclusively Christian environment and for many people means very little. But it was not so in Paul’s day. And it is not so in many places in the world even today. In the ancient world, to be identified with Christ in baptism was a bold and risky declaration. It often put the believer’s life in jeopardy. There was nothing wrong with listening to Christian preaching or propaganda. But when a Christian was baptized, he was saying to the state as well as to his fellow believers that he was now a follower of Jesus Christ and that he was going to be loyal to him regardless of the outcome. It meant “Christ before Caesar.”

Baptism was as nearly an irreversible step as a believer in Jesus Christ could take. Therefore, even though Paul is not thinking primarily about water baptism in Romans 6—water baptism is something we do; the baptism Paul is talking about is something that has been done to us—the sacrament of baptism is nevertheless a fit public testimony to what baptism into Christ by the Holy Spirit means: that we have been united to Christ and that the old life is done for us forever. That is what you have professed if you have been baptized, particularly if you have been baptized as an adult. You have told the world that you are not going back, that you are going forward with Jesus.

But I come to the questions that I know are in many people’s minds, the same questions I touched on at the end of the last study: “But what if I do go back? What if I do sin?”

Here are three points to remember:

  1. It won’t work. Do you remember my illustration of an adult trying to return to childhood. Can he do it? Well, he can act childlike, though it would be a dishonor to him and an embarrassment to everyone else. But to become a child again? It can’t be done. An adult can behave in an infantile manner. But an adult cannot be a child. In the same way, if you are a true Christian, you cannot return to sin in the same way you were in it previously. You can sin. We do sin. But it is not the same. If nothing else, you cannot enjoy sin as you did before. And you will not even be able to do it convincingly. You will be like Peter trying to swear that he did not know Jesus, after having spent three years in Jesus’ school. People will look at you and say, “But surely you are one of his disciples.”
  2. God will stop you. God will not stop you from sinning, but he will stop you from continuing in it. And he will do it in one of two ways. Either he will make your life so miserable that you will curse the day you got into sin and beg God to get you out of it, or God will put an end to your life. Paul told the Corinthians that because they had dishonored the Lord’s Supper, God had actually taken some of them home to heaven (1 Cor. 11:30). If God did it to them for that offense, he will do it to you for persistence in more sinful things.
  3. If you do return to the life you lived before coming to Christ and if you are able to continue in it, you are not saved. In fact, it is even worse than that. If you are able to go back once you have come to Christ, it means, not only that you are not saved, but that you even have been inoculated against Christianity.

I am sure that is why the author of Hebrews wrote, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance …” (Heb. 6:4–6). Those verses are not referring to a true believer in Christ being lost—How could they in view of Paul’s teaching in Romans 5 and 8?—but rather of one who was close enough to have tasted the reality of Christ and who nevertheless turned back. It teaches that the closer you are to Christ, if you do go back, the harder it will be to come to Christ again. In some cases, as in the case described here, it will be impossible.

So don’t go back!

I say it again: Don’t go back!

If you have been saved by Jesus, you have been saved forever. There is nothing before you but to go on growing in righteousness![3]

4 Paul uses baptism to illustrate this vital union with Christ in his death. Paul apparently pictures burial with Christ, however momentarily, in the submergence of the body under the baptismal waters. The importance of burial is that it attests the reality of death (1 Co 15:3–4). It expresses with finality the end of the old life governed by relationship with Adam. It also expresses the impossibility of a new life apart from divine action. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead has likewise imparted life to those who are his. The ability to “walk in newness of life” (NASB; NIV, “live a new life”) is the evidence of the new type of life granted to the child of God. This is a distinctive type of life realized only by one united to Christ (cf. 2 Co 5:17), so that Christ is its dynamic. In this connection, the question arises, Why should the resurrection of Christ be described as accomplished “through the glory of the Father?” It is because “glory” here has the meaning of “power” (cf. Jn 11:40).

The latter half of v. 4 has a noticeably balanced structure (“just as Christ …, we too”), recalling the pattern in 5:12, 18, 21. This suggests that the principle of solidarity advanced in 5:12–21 is still thought of as operating here in the significance of baptism. There is no explicit statement that in baptism we were raised with Christ, as well as being made to share in his death. Resurrection is seen rather as an effect that logically follows from the identification with Christ in his death. However, resurrection is verbally connected with baptism in the important parallel passage in Colossians: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So it would not be wrong to associate resurrection with baptism here (cf. vv. 5, 13).

There is a certain awkwardness in the statement that we were buried with Christ through baptism into death, since in human experience, burial follows rather than precedes death. However, as Sanday and Headlam, 156, have pointed out, this awkwardness disappears in the prominence given death in the whole passage. It is not into Christ’s burial that believers are baptized but into his death, because it was there that he dealt with sin. (On these verses, see E. Schweizer, “Dying and Rising with Christ,” NTS 14 [1967–68]: 1–14.)[4]

6:4 Water baptism gives a visual demonstration of baptism into Christ. It pictures the believer being immersed in death’s dark waters (in the person of the Lord Jesus), and it pictures the new man in Christ rising to walk in newness of life. There is a sense in which a believer attends the funeral of his old self when he is baptized. As he goes under the water he is saying, “All that I was as a sinful son of Adam was put to death at the cross.” As he comes up out of the water he is saying, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (see Gal. 2:20).

Conybeare and Howson state that “this passage cannot be understood unless it be borne in mind that the primitive baptism was by immersion.”

The apostle moves on to state that the resurrection of Christ makes it possible for us to walk in newness of life. He states that Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. This simply means that all the divine perfections of God—His righteousness, love, justice, etc.—demanded that He raise the Lord. In view of the excellence of the Person of the Savior, it would not have been consistent with God’s character to leave the Savior in the tomb. God did raise Him, and because we are identified with Christ in His resurrection, we can and should walk in newness of life.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 112). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 321–323). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 657–664). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[4] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 105). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1701). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


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