The Walking Dead: Paul’s Theology of Baptism (Romans 6:1-14)


I don’t care what the meteorologists say –Memorial Day is the real start of summer. And so it seems appropriate that we turn our thoughts to water and to baptism.

But for Paul, baptism is not a day at the beach. It is more like that show on AMC that I stopped watching.

Welcome to the ranks of the walking dead.

Romans 6:1-14  

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We continue in Romans chapter 6. From where we left off last week, we have skipped just a bit of material: 5:12-21. This is the section of the letter in which Paul develops his Adam-Christ typology. Remember, according to Genesis, Adam is the first human. And, according to Paul, all of humanity was implicated in Adam’s sin. Because he sinned, we are sinners.

(You don’t have to agree with this, but you do have to understand it if you want to understand Paul).

But Paul sees Jesus as the second founder of the human race, set up in quite deliberate parallel with Adam. If in Adam, one sin meant judgement, in Christ one good life means salvation for all.

(Again: Does this sound like universalism to you? Because it sure sounds like universalism to me!)

Our reading picks up at the beginning of chapter 6, in which Paul employs one of his favorite rhetorical tricks: Raising a question he imagines the reader may be asking herself and then responding to it. So if you are following Paul’s argument about the universality of sin in Adam and universality of grace in Christ, it may well occur to you to ask: Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 

[Sidebar: So if you understand how Paul uses rhetoric, you can appreciate the opportunity here. If this question has NOT occurrred to us, then we are not tracking with Paul. But if this question makes sense, it suggests we are understanding his argument. I am reminded of physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s famous remark about a paper written by a colleague: “It is not even wrong.”].

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Paul produces a two-word answer to his own rhetorical question: μη γενοιτο! My much-loved and very pious college Greek teacher insisted that this phrase was most properly translated as “Hell no.”

(Cue Will Smith)

Watch what happens here: Paul’s theology of grace is so robust that one could assume “anything goes.” But in response, Paul talks about baptism. 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 

We have now arrived at Paul’s theology of baptism. For Paul, baptism is the act that unites our lives with Christ, particularly with Christ’s death. He died; we died. He has been buried; we have been buried.  He lives and we will live with him.

(Sidebar: Ever heard that a lot of scholars dispute claims that Paul authored certain New Testament books, like, for example, Ephesians? Ever wonder why these scholars would think such a thing? This text offers a really good case study in how these authorship questions get debated. In Romans, Paul’s theology of baptism has an already/not yet character: the dying happens to us here and now, the good stuff is yet to come: 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.By contrast, the author of Ephesians thinks the good stuff has already happened. Consider Ephesians chapter 2: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…This is what scholars call “a realized eschatology,” i.e., the belief that heaven happens now. By contrast, Paul’s Letter to the Romans locates salvation at some future point. This is a pretty significant theological difference and makes many scholars suspect that the author of Ephesians is someone other than the Apostle Paul).

For Paul, our death with Christ in baptism creates a kind of freedom: We don’t have to live according to the (selfish, violent, oppressive) rules of this world. We are free!

In this passage, Paul shows us what a difference theology can make. If I believe this world is the only world—that I am stuck with the status quo—than my only real choice is to learn to live by the rules of this world: kill or be killed, you gets yours and I’ll get mine, whoever dies with the most toys wins, etc.

But what if there is another world –the one Jesus taught us to pray for? And what if we could live by its rules right now –sharing, making peace, doing justice, loving and serving God?

This old world would not be running our lives. It would be dead to us –and we would be dead to it.

For Paul, to be baptized by Jesus is to join the ranks of the walking dead.



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