N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 53 (baptized into Jesus’ death)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Romans 6:1-5

Having dealt with the question of baptism as a “step” on the road to salvation, we’re going to now talk about baptism on Paul’s terms.

Chapter 6 is not at all a lesson in how to be saved. Rather, the point of chapter 6 is how to live now that we’ve been saved.

(Rom. 6:1 NET) What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?  

You’ll recall that Paul is not changing the subject. Rather, his discussion in chapter 5 made the point that giving the Torah to the Jews gave them superior knowledge of God’s will — and therefore made them more accountable for disobedience. They had far less of an excuse than the Gentiles, who had only general revelation, that is, God’s will as seen in the Creation and in our moral natures. The Jews had the very words of God!

Ironically, the result was that the Jews sinned accountably more than the Gentiles! The revelation of God’s will not only equips us to be better but also holds us all-the-more accountable and so makes us greater sinners.

The solution?

(Rom. 5:20-21 NET)  20 Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more,  21 so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God gave the Jews greater grace because of their greater accountability! Now, the 20th Century Church of Christ perspective has been that, as we mature in Christ, we are more accountable and therefore more likely to be damned. When we feel particularly sinful and in need of forgiveness, we wish we could be re-baptized, because we believe baptism is the moment when we get a fresh start.

But chapter 5 plainly teaches that God’s forgiveness — his grace — is much more powerful now that we’ve been baptized and reconciled to God than at the moment of baptism. That is, whatever measure of cleansing we received at baptism, we receive a far greater measure now that we’re a part of God’s family, his chosen people, his treasured possession (Rom 5:6-11). That is, God is looking for a way to forgive us, not to trap us, and we should therefore find the greatest of comfort and confidence as believers, members of his church.

Of course, this great gift of grace described in chapter 6 cannot become a license to intentionally sin against the known will of God. We cannot rebel. But why not?

Indeed, every time I’ve taught grace to a class steeped in 20th Century Church of Christ theology, the question comes up: If God will forgive sin so easily, why not keep on sinning? And so Paul addresses this question beginning in chapter 6. But the lesson continues well into chapter 8, because Paul uses this question as a launching pad for a discussion of how grace leads to the Christian way of life.

Therefore, the answers Paul gives are partial answers — true, of course, but truth to be fleshed out (or Spirited out, we might say) as Paul goes deeper and deeper into the topic.

(Rom. 6:2-5 NET) Absolutely not! How can we who died to [Sin] still live in it?  3 Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.  5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.

V. 2 comes as no surprise. We knew that Paul wasn’t going to advocate for greater sin! But why not? Why not sin in reliance on God’s bountiful grace?

First answer: “How can we who died to [Sin] still live in it?”

When did we die to Sin? (Recall that Wright capitalizes “Sin” when Paul speaks of sin as a power arrayed against Jesus and his followers rather than a particular violation of God’s commands.) Paul says, “When you were baptized”: “Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Notice that Paul is not arguing for baptism. He is arguing from baptism. He’s not mentioned baptism at all up to this point, and yet he confidently assumes that every Roman reader of the letter has been baptized. Obviously, the early church invariably baptized their converts.

Paul explains that this universal experience of all Christians makes us “baptized into his death” — or we might prefer “immersed into his death.”

In a Church of Christ pulpit, this is a lesson against sprinkling or pouring, but Paul is not debating the proper mode of baptism. Rather, he is arguing from baptism as a re-enactment of the death of Jesus. Of course, Jesus wasn’t buried six-feet under ground. He was buried in stone tomb at ground level that people could walk into. It was closer to a modern mausoleum than a grave. And so the imagery of baptism as burial works better here in the Western world, where we bury most people, than in Jerusalem, where they did not!

(Evidently, burial was in fact common practice in Rome itself. Hence, to see baptism as like a burial makes perfect sense in this letter. But a Jerusalem reader would have struggled to understand how going under water is like a burial, given their very different burial practices. Therefore, it’s unlikely that God designed baptism as specifically a reminder of a burial. For whatever it’s worth, I do believe that the original design of baptism was immersion. I’m just saying that we should treat the scripture with the reverence — and hence sensitivity to historical context — that holy writ deserves.)

Hence, Paul’s point isn’t really that you go down in the water just as a dead person goes down into the ground. Jesus didn’t. His point is what he actually says: We are immersed into his death. We experience a kind of death in baptism.

And just how does that work? Wright explains,

This death [in baptism] was like the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea: those who pass through the waters of baptism are reminded that they have left behind the old world of slavery (“Egypt”) and are on the way home to their inheritance. Like Israel in the desert (Paul draws out this implication in 1 Cor. 10 too), they must learn to live in God’s new world, not slide back into their old ways.

But this still only declares that Jesus’s death has effected the “new Passover,” not how it did so — though when Paul says in 6:10, “The death he died . . . he died to sin, once and once only,” we can see him bringing together the two strands of the Jewish narrative, the Passover strand and the end-of-exile/dealing-with-sin strand.

The result is that “Sin”— sin with a capital S — is personified, drawing on the same feature in 5:12–21. “Sin” in this sense is more than simply individual “sins.” It is the slave master, the jailer, the Pharaoh from whose grip one is freed by coming through the water. That is what Jesus’s death has achieved.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4462-4470). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition (paragraph modified).

The “Passover strand” is, of course, a comparison of the atonement to the Exodus. At its simplest, I think the idea is that Jesus’ blood marks his people so that the death angel passes over and they do not suffer God’s wrath. The Passover lamb was not sacrificed for forgiveness but to mark out God’s children separate from the Egyptians. It was a great act of faith for the Israelites to publicly mark their doors with lamb’s blood, in a culture that worshiped a sheep god and would have put the Israelites to death for this great act of sacrilege! The Israelites had to truly trust God’s promises to make themselves as God’s people this way.

Just so, baptism marks us as people of the cross, co-crucified with Jesus among criminals and thieves, in shame and apparent defeat. And so, to die with Jesus surely means to take on a life a service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering.

(Heb. 13:10-13 NET)  10 We have an altar that those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat from.  11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp.  12 Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp.  13 We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced. 

There is much more to this Passover/Exodus strand, as we’ll see as we work our way to chapter 8.

The “the end-of-exile/dealing-with-sin strand” deals with the curses of Deu 28-29 and Lev 26 and the need for the Jews to be rescued from these curses in order to receive “forgiveness of sin” (which Wright places in quotation marks to emphasize that “forgiveness of sin” includes all the Kingdom blessings, such as the Spirit, the reign of the Messiah, shalom with God, etc.)

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 53 (baptized into Jesus’ death)

  1. Dwight says:

    Jay, this statement “But a Jerusalem reader would have struggled to understand how going under water is like a burial, given their very different burial practices.” is only true if immersion clearly meant going under as we translate “immersion”.
    But baptism or immersion seems to carry with in the concept of being “surrounded by” or “overcome” or “washed”, rather than “dipped into” as we translate it. The Israelites were baptized into the Red Sea, but were not dipped into it. Those in Acts were baptized by the Holy Spirit, same word, overcome by. Noah was saved through water, antitype to baptism, but the Ark did not become a submersible.
    So in this context the Jerusalem reader would have been at home with the concept of baptism as immersion since it was part of their cleansing ceremonies and was being used by the Jews as a method of conversion to Judaism.
    My question is how many people to do we exclude from heaven because we misunderstand what immersion really means as understood in the scriptures?
    As you note “We are immersed into his death”, and yet Jesus died before He was buried.
    Burial was what happened to the dead.
    Resurrection was what happened to become the living.

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