In 313 A.D. the Edict of Milan declared that Christians would no longer be persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and this marked the beginning of an incredible change for the Church. Just a decade earlier under the Emperor Diocletian the Church had experienced the worst and most thorough going persecution she had ever received. Now she would no longer face this threat.
But more than that, now the Emperor of the Roman Empire was a supporter of the Church. The emperor had tremendous wealth at his disposal and historically he had used this to support various pagan religions. Yet now, Constantine began to fund the building of churches all over the empire. He put the imperial post system – the empire’s official system of travel – at the disposal of the Church’s bishops so that they could gather for church councils. During the fourth century the Roman Empire began the transition that would lead to Christianity becoming the official religion of the empire in 380 AD under Emperor Theodosius.
The Church went from being a persecuted minority in the Empire, to being the favored and supported religion. The Christian faith was now seen in a completely different light and the Church began the process of receiving large numbers of new members. This was a great change. And as the Church developed the ways that she would receive these new converts she came to shape her practice around what Paul says in our text tonight.
The Church developed the Catechumenate in which people were taught the Christian faith during the period of Lent. This process moved toward baptism at the Vigil of Easter. Paul says in our text, “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.” The apostle says that through baptism we have shared in Christ’s saving death and have been buried with him.
In order to convey this fact the Church began to baptize people on Holy Saturday when Christ had been buried in the tomb. Early fonts were even sometimes constructed to resemble tombs of that period in order to visually portray the reality of what happened in baptism.
At the same time, Paul also goes on to say about baptism in Romans 6, “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.” Through baptism we share in the death of Jesus Christ. However, Jesus is also the risen Lord. Through baptism we have the assurance that we too will share in Jesus’ resurrection on the Last Day. Since the Vigil of Easter at sundown was also the first service of the Feast of the Resurrection, baptism at this time powerfully conveyed this truth as well.
Last week we focused on the most fundamental blessing of baptism: the forgiveness of sins. Certainly Paul’s words tonight help us to understand why baptism delivers forgiveness. When you were baptized you shared in Jesus Christ’s saving death. Jesus died as the sacrifice to atone for every sin. And then the Lord defeated death as he rose from the dead and God exalted Christ at his right hand. Through baptism you have been joined to Jesus’ death – you have been buried with him – and so the blessing he won of forgiveness has become yours. And your baptism also guarantees that Jesus will raise you up on the Last Day – that he will transform your mortal body to be like his resurrected and immortal one.
However, the really interesting thing about our text is that this isn’t what Paul is actually focusing upon at the beginning of Romans 6. Instead, he says, “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?”
Paul has just been talking about how God’s saving grace in Christ abounded beyond any sin in order to give us forgiveness and eternal life. But that raises the thought: Maybe then we don’t have to worry about how we live. After all, God has us covered! We like to sin and God likes to forgive. This will work just fine!
This is always the temptation for us as Christians. The old man in us always wants to abuse God’s grace. We want to use his forgiveness as an excuse to do what we want – or at least as the reason that we don’t have to work that hard in struggling against sin. So we mess up … of course we do! But it’s no big deal, because in Jesus we have forgiveness.
Yet the apostle Paul says this is all wrong. He says it can’t work that way. After all how can we who have died to sin live in it? In order explain his point, Paul goes to something that he knows is a shared Christian understanding. He says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” His point is that of course they know this, since this is what the Church teaches about baptism.
But then he adds, “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.” In baptism you shared in Jesus’ death. But baptism is not just about forgiveness. It is also serves the purpose that just as Christ rose from the dead, so now we walk in newness of life. This newness of life is being in Christ – it is being saved, forgiven and living like this is so.
Paul assumes something here that he doesn’t express until later in Romans. And this is the fact that the Holy Spirit is at work in baptism. We will speak more next Wednesday about how the Spirit works regeneration through baptism just as Paul says in Titus 3:5 – the verse quoted in the Small Catechism. It is the Spirit who is at work in baptism – the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. As Paul says later in chapter 8, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Why does baptism provide the ability live in newness of life? It does so because through baptism the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in you now. And it is by the Spirit’s power that God provides the ability to overcome the old man; to live in ways that are true to God’s will.
Your baptism is the foundational source of your life in Christ. Through baptism you shared in Jesus’ saving death and so have the forgiveness of sins. Through baptism the Spirit has given your rebirth and continues to be at work in you. The Spirit who has done this to you is the One who will be at work to raise and transform you on the Last Day. And the Spirit is already now at work in you so that you can live out this new life in Christ.
However, this doesn’t occur without struggle, because the Last Day hasn’t arrived yet. Jesus hasn’t returned. The Spirit has not worked the complete transformation that will occur when he raises you to be like Jesus. And so that remnant of the old man is still there, struggling against God’s will. That is why we still must cooperate with Spirit in the battle against sin.
That is also why there are still times when we fail. We have to be honest, that happens too. And when it happens we turn back to our baptism. The fourth question about Holy Baptism in the Small Catechism states, “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Luther is referring to how in his day baptisms were done by actually plunging the baby under the water in the font. In faith we return to our baptism. We confess our sin. We repent. We take comfort knowing that we have shared in the saving death of Jesus through baptism and so, we are forgiven.
And then we go forth again because the Spirit has created the new man within us. Just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, so he is at work in us now to enable us to live before God in righteousness and purity – in ways that are true to God’s will. He will keep doing that in us because we are baptized children of God. And then on the Last Day he will bring that work to completion as he transforms us to be like Jesus. As Paul tells us tonight: “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.”