(The following is the last half of a sermon by John Piper. To read or listen to the whole sermon go to: desiringgod.org/messages/what-baptism-portrays)
With that background let’s look at Romans 5:20-6:4 to see what baptism portrays, and only secondarily what implications this has for the mode of baptism. My aim here is to help you see the glorious reality that baptism points to so that, mainly, the reality itself will grip you, and that, secondarily, the beauty and significance of the act will rise in your mind and hearts.
And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
One of the great things about this text is that it shows that, if you understand what baptism portrays, you understand what really happened to you when you became a Christian. Many of us came to faith and were baptized at a point when we did not know very much. This is good. It is expected that baptism happens early in the Christian walk when you do not know very much. So it is also expected that you will learn later more and more of what it means.
Don’t think, “Oh, I must go back and get baptized again. I didn’t know it had all this meaning.” No. No. That would mean you would be getting re-baptized with every new course you take in Biblical theology. Rather, rejoice that you expressed your simple faith in obedience to Jesus and now are learning more and more of what it all meant. That is what Paul is doing here: he is hoping that his readers know what their baptism meant, but he goes ahead and teaches them anyway, in case they don’t or have forgotten. Learn from these verses what you once portrayed in the eyes of God, and what actually happened to you in becoming a Christian.
I am going to deal with only two things that baptism portrays, according to these verses.
Notice the repetition of the word “into” in verses 3 and 4. Baptized “into Christ Jesus,” and baptized “into his death” (verse 3), and baptism “into death” (verse 4a). What this says is that baptism portrays our union with Christ, that is, we are united to him spiritually so that his death becomes our death and his life will become our life. How do we experience this? How do you know if this has happened to you? The answer is that it is experienced by faith. You can hear this in the parallel verses. Galatians 2:20 makes the connection with faith: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. . .” In other words, the “I” who died was the old unbelieving, rebellious “I” and the “I” who came to life was the “I” of faith – “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God.” And the basis of all this is union with Christ – “Christ lives in me.” And I live in him – in spiritual union with him. His death is my death and his life is being lived out in my life.
Another illustration of this would be Colossians 2:6-7a: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith.” Here again you can see that faith in Christ is the way you experience union with Christ. You receive him as Lord and Savior and in that faith you are united to him and walk “in him” and are built up “in him.”
So when Romans 6:3-4a says that we are baptized into Christ and into his death, I take it to mean that baptism expresses the faith in which we experience union with Christ. This is presumably why God designed the mode of baptism to portray a burial. It represents the death that we experience when we are united to Christ. This is why we are immersed: it’s a symbolic burial.
So know, believer, that you have died. The old unbelieving, rebellious “I” has been crucified with Christ. This is what your baptism meant and means.
Verse 4: “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Nobody stays under the water of baptism. We come up out of the water. After death comes new life. The old “I” of unbelief and rebellion died when I was united to Christ through faith. But the instant the old “I” died a new “I” was given life – a new spiritual person was, as it were, raised from the dead.
The most crucial commentary on this truth is Colossians 2:12. Paul says, “Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Notice: We are raised up with Christ just like Romans 6:4 says we walk in newness of life. And there is the working of God who raised him from the dead just like Romans 6:4 says that Christ was raised through the glory of the Father. And this happens through faith in the working of God who raised Jesus from the dead.
So Colossians 2:12 makes explicit what Romans 6:4 leaves implicit – that baptism expresses our faith in the working of God to raise Jesus from the dead. We believe that Christ is alive from the grave and reigning today at the Father’s right hand in heaven from which he will come again in power and glory. And that faith in God’s working – God’s glory as Paul calls it – is how we share in the newness of life that Christ has in himself.
In fact, the newness of life is the life of faith in the glory and the working of God. “I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live . . but the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” The newness of life is the life of day by day trusting in the working of God – the glory of God.
Baptism Portrays What Happened to us When We Became Christians
So let’s summarize and come to a conclusion. Baptism portrays what happened to us when we became Christians. This is what happened to us: we were united to Christ. His death became our death. We died with him. And in the same instant, his life became our life. We are now living out the life of Christ in us. And all this is experienced through faith.
This is what it means to be a Christian – to live in the reality of what our baptism portrays: day by day we look away from ourselves to God and say, “Because of Christ, your Son, I come to you. In him I belong to you. I am at home with you. He is my only hope of acceptance with you. I receive that acceptance anew every day. My hope is based on his death for me and my death in him. My life in him is a life of faith in you, Father. Because of him I trust your working in me and for me. The same power and glory that you used to raise him from the dead you will use to help me. In that promise of future grace I believe, and in that I hope. That is what makes my life new. O Christ, how I glory in what my baptism portrays! Thank you for dying my death for me and giving new life to me. Amen.”
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.