Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Romans 6:3)
How could someone, Paul argues, who has died with Christ through the public display of baptism (the external display of an internal reality; the symbolic representation of our death and resurrection with Christ) still continue to obey sin as a master? Baptism is a display of what Paul spoke of in 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” Baptism is an outward act that one has been circumcised in the heart and wants to display it to the world. Baptism is what signifies our death and resurrection with Christ. It is not the instrument through which we die and rise with Christ. John Piper gives the analogy of a marriage and the wedding ring:
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.
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.
But is baptism just a symbol? In Galatians 3:27, Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This, and Romans 6:3, does not mean baptism saves you. Grace through faith alone justifies a person before God (Rom. 3:24-26, 28; 5:1; Gal. 3:5-6; Eph. 2:5, 8-9).
However, baptism in Paul’s day has a much more significant meaning than it does today. We have cheapened the meaning of baptism in the Christian church. In his commentary on Romans, Doug Moo writes, “J. Dunn…points out that the early church conceived of faith, the gift of the Spirit, and water baptism as components of one unified experience, which he calls ‘conversion-initiation’” (Moo, Romans, 366).
In Acts 10, when Peter is preaching Jesus to the Gentiles, in the middle of his message, the Holy Spirit came upon them and immediately. Peter did not wait and have them complete a spiritual gift survey or go through a membership class or a doctrine class. He said, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” (v. 47). In Acts 8, when Philip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch, the Ethiopian believed and immediately asked Philip if he could be baptized (v. 36). In Acts 16, Lydia and her whole household were saved and on that same day they were baptized (v. 15). The point is that when people believed in the NT, they were immediately baptized as a public declaration that they identified with and were saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus. To these new believers, and the New Testament writers, it was unthinkable, even inconceivable, that a person would believe in Jesus yet not be baptized with water.
Would Paul have a category in his mind for a Christian who believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior and repented of their sin, yet was not baptized? No. There are many reasons that baptism isn’t done immediately today, but I won’t discuss that here. The point is this: if you are a Christian and are not baptized, what is holding you back? Don’t disobey. Believe and obey, and get baptized today!