When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was facing a situation that he didn’t encounter very often. Paul was writing to a Christian congregation that he had not founded. We don’t know who brought the Gospel to the city of Rome first. In the first century AD Rome was the center of the Roman empire and its most populous city. There was a very high level of sea travel and shipping to Rome from all over the empire. It’s not surprising that by the 50’s A.D. the Gospel was present in Rome and a Christian congregation was located there.
While we learn from the greetings that Paul extends in chapter sixteen that Paul knew many of the Christians who were in Rome, that didn’t change the fact that Paul was not the first to evangelize there – he was not the founder of the church. And this meant that the manner in which Paul could interact with them was different from when he wrote to a church like the one at Thessalonica.
There were two other factors at work as Paul wrote to the Romans. The first was that Romans was partly a “fund raising letter.” Paul wanted to undertake missionary activity further west, in Spain, and for that he needed the Roman church’s support. And second, Paul could assume that the Romans had heard negative things about him from his opponents – from those who demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and keep parts of the Law of Moses if they wanted to be Christians. Paul had to respond, and so in Romans we have his most intentional and carefully argued treatment of these issues.
As Paul wrote to address these various factors, it’s not surprising that he seeks to draw upon common Christian teaching that he knows the Romans also believe. We have an important example of this in our text this morning as he writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Now as we will see, Paul’s whole argument falls apart if the Romans had been able to respond, “Gee, no, we have never heard that before.”
But that’s not a concern for Paul because he knows that this is part of common Christian teaching. This is apparent because in the only other letter we have that Paul wrote to a congregation he did not found – the church at Colossae – he uses the exact same argument. There, without any kind of explanation, he simply says, “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Paul assumes that they know it is true, just as he does here.
So Paul knows that the Romans believe that through baptism they were baptized into Christ – that they were baptized into his death. When we hear this statement and use this language about baptism we normally think of it as teaching about the forgiveness of sin that we receive through baptism. After all, we confess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed, “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
And while this is certainly true about baptism, that’s not exactly how Paul uses it in the argument here. In chapter five, the apostle has been describing how Jesus Christ has reversed the damage that Adam caused by his sin. Paul has said, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” The good news of the Gospel is that through Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will by dying on the cross we now have justification before God – we are righteous in his eyes. We already know the verdict of the Last Day. It is innocent, not guilty.
But then Paul adds something that he doesn’t fully explain until chapter seven. He says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Later Paul will explain how sin uses the law to provoke and entice more sin. But here he emphasizes the comforting point that God’s grace abounds beyond any sin. God’s love and forgiveness in Christ surpasses all sin. His forgiveness knows no limits because of what Jesus Christ has done for us by dying on the cross.
There is unlimited forgiveness! But the problem is that the old Adam in us is always looking for an angle he can work. So Paul says just before our text, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Is this how the Christian life is supposed to work: “I love to sin, and God loves to forgive”?
In the verse just before our text Paul replies firmly: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” And then goes on to share that teaching he can assume they already know and believe as he writes, “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.”
When you were baptized, you shared in Jesus’ saving death. You were buried with Christ through baptism. This means that we have received forgiveness and in Christ we have died to sin. Paul says in our text, “We know that our old man 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.
For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
But Jesus did not just die. Instead, on the third day God raised him from the dead. And so Paul says in our text, “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.” Jesus died, but as Paul will explain in chapter eight, through the Holy Spirit God raised him from the dead. You have died with Christ in baptism, and the Holy Spirit has given you new spiritual life – he has given you regeneration so that you can walk in newness of life.
Paul says that baptism is the source of the Spirit’s work in our life that enables us to live in ways that are true to God’s will. As he says at the end of our text, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The problem is that sin doesn’t go away so easily. As Martin Luther quipped, the old Adam is a good swimmer. The now of our forgiveness, salvation and new life by the Spirit is true. But the not yet of the continuing battle against the old Adam is also true. We continue to sin against God in thought, word, and deed. And in doing so we continue to harm our neighbor.
Paul knew this too. Immediately after our text, he went on to say, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” The apostle exhorts the Romans to take up the struggle against sin.
Martin Luther knew it too. In the Fourth question about the Baptism in the Small Catechism he asks: “What does such baptizing with water indicate?” Now this answer is a little hard to understand if we don’t recognize that “such baptizing with water” refers to the actual manner in which baptism was performed at Luther’s time. This was done by taking a naked baby by the feet, plunging it down into the water and then pulling it back up out of the font three times.
Luther says that his manner of plunging the baby into the water of baptism and bringing it back out illustrates how we now continue to use baptism. He writes: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should be 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.”
Our life is a constant return in faith to our baptism. In daily contrition and repentance we turn to our baptism and know that through baptism we were baptized into Christ – we were buried with him. Jesus’ saving death has become ours, and so we are forgiven. Because of Jesus, we stand righteous and innocent before God.
And in baptism we also have the continuing source of the Spirit’s work in our lives. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us – the resurrection power of Jesus is there to enable us to walk in newness of life. This is what our baptism continues to offer. But this also requires that, like all of the Means of Grace, we use it in faith. We need to think about our baptism and believe the promises that God has attached to it. Your baptism is not some long ago event that no longer has any meaning for you. Instead, it is a daily aid which provides the assurance of forgiveness and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives.
Our text says that Christ died to sin, and lives to God. In Christ you have died to sin. Eventually because of Christ you will completely die to sin when you die. As the forgiven child of God through baptism, sin cannot separate you from God, and when you die sin will no longer trouble you.
But that will not be the end of what your baptism means for you. Paul says in our text about baptism: “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 have been baptized into Christ’s death – we have been buried with Christ through baptism into death. But the Lord Jesus did not remain dead. Instead God vindicated Jesus when he raised him from the dead through the work of the Spirit.
The apostle says that if through baptism we have shared in Jesus’ death – Jesus who has risen from the dead – then we will certainly also share in his resurrection. Your baptism is the guarantee of resurrection on the Last Day. That’s why Paul says in our text, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
The grace of God has abounded in the forgiveness that overcomes every sin. But that doesn’t mean we just keep on sinning. Instead we know we have been baptized into Christ. We have been 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 Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead has given us new life in baptism and is at work in us.
When we do sin, in repentance we return to the water of our baptism and confess our sin – we drown the old Adam. And then trusting in God’s promises of forgiveness and of the Spirit’s continuing work in us because of baptism, we go forth to live in ways that please God. We do so confident that baptism points to the end of the struggle – that it guarantees we will share in Jesus’ resurrection when he returns in glory on the Last Day.