A reader writes with a question about biblical interpretation and baptism:
I was going through Colossians 2 when I read the footnote from the Reformation Study Bible… which sent me to page 41 for a more in-depth explanation. Infant baptism seems to make sense to me on a general level, but I was wondering what your take is on Romans 8, specifically, verses 9-11…we are getting a lot of verses thrown at us about believer’s baptism. Romans 8:9–11 seems to be the only thing that I can’t make sense of.
There is a great lot of verses in Scripture (approx. 31,000) and our Baptist friends believe everyone of them demands believer’s baptism. Thus, the debate can go one endlessly because they read Scripture from within a certain paradigm, i.e., a set of assumptions and convictions about what must be true.
Reading Romans 8 In Context
Romans 8:9–11 says:
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But 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 (Rom 8:9–11; NASB).
If we read this passage in its broader (Romans 6–9) and narrower contexts (chapters 7 and 8), we see that Paul is explaining the doctrine of the Christian life.
The book of Romans is in three parts: Guilt (1:18–3:20); Grace (3:21–11:36); and Gratitude (12:1–16:27). Since Romans 3:21 he has been preaching the gospel of the accomplishment of redemption for us and its gracious application to us by the Holy Spirit. In chapter 6 he turned to the Christian life. Since, where sin abounded grace super abounded should we sin that there might be more grace? “Not at all!” he answers. Rather, it is precisely because we who believe have been justified and saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), and because we are united to Christ’s death to sin and to him in his resurrection power that we may no longer live in sin.
Having declared Christ’s victory in principle over sin, in chapter 7 he deals quite realistically with the Christian struggle and experience with sin. For more on this see this AGR series.
In chapter 8 Paul returns to the topic he was addressing in chapter 6, that, believers are identified with Christ’s death. To be clear, baptism does not itself confer the benefits of Christ’s death but it is a sign and seal of what is true of believers. It is also worth noting here that, unlike chapter 6, Paul does not actually refer to baptism here.
Here, however, he does not speak of baptism but he does use the categories of life and death to explain the Christian life. Those who are regenerated (given new life by the Spirit) are, by the Spirit, through faith, united to the risen Christ. What is true of Christ is true of us. He died and we, in that sense, died with him. He is raised. We are raised with him (Eph 2:6). He is seated at the right hand and, in him, so are we (Col 2:12).
In him, by virtue of our union with him, believers have died to sin and we have been made alive to Christ. Just as Jesus was raised, so too shall we be raised bodily (see all of 1 Cor 15). Therefore, we are live as those who have been given new life.
This passage, however, answers not a thing about baptism. This teaching about the Christian life was all true under under Abraham, when the Lord instituted infant circumcision. Isaac was regenerated and was united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Ishmael was not (at least not clearly). Jacob was united to Christ and Esau was not. The message of circumcision was there would come one who would put an end to sin, one who would be cut off as though unclean (Heb 13:11–13).
In other words, there is nothing about infant circumcision that contradicts what Paul teaches in Romans 6 and 8. We know this from his explicit and implicit teaching in Colossians 2:11–12. Under Abraham, salvation was by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), just as it is for us in the New Covenant. The great difference between Abraham and us is that he understood these truths through types and shadows and we have them in the full light of their fulfillment in Christ. Under Abraham, circumcision was applied to infants. Thus, it was not the case that what is signified of infants had to be true of the in order to receive the sign. This is because the sign was not applied because it was true of the person receiving it (contra the Baptist assumption) but because it is true of those to whom God gives the benefits of the covenant of grace. God commanded Abraham to apply the sign to all the children of the covenant. It belongs to God to decide who receives what circumcision signifies. It belonged to Abraham to apply the sign to believers and to their children.
The Message Of Circumcision And Baptism
According to the Apostle Paul, both circumcision and baptism have the same message. In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul appeals to baptism to explain the Christian life, dying to sin and living to Christ. We may not continue in sin because we have died to it (Rom 6:2). Baptism illustrates this truth (6:3). We were identified with his death and burial. Those of us who believe have died to sin with Christ (6:4). We have been raised to new life with Christ (6:5). For believers, our old self was crucified (6:6) and therefore we are free from the dominion of sin (6:7). We are liberated to live in grace and graciously before Christ. In light of these great realities we ought to consider ourselves dead to sin (6:11).
This is the very same teaching we find in Colossians 2:11–12) where Paul first appeals to circumcision, then to the cross (the fulfillment of circumcision), and then to baptism. Each is an illustrations of the same thing thing: death and life. Circumcision was a sign of dying to sin. The cross was an actual dying to sin and the breaking of the power of sin—not that Christ sinned, not at all, but that by his death the reigning power of sin was actually ended—and the making alive of the new man. Christ was literally raised on the third day. We who believe have been raised figuratively, from spiritual death to spiritual life by the regenerating, life-giving Power of the Holy Spirit. Then, Paul turns to baptism as the third illustration of this point. In baptism, as in circumcision, we are outwardly identified with Christ’s death and resurrection life.
The Good News Of Romans 8
In Romans 8, Paul is explaining our new, resurrection, life. This is how the Christian life appears for those who have, by grace alone, through faith alone, received what is signified in baptism. We are now free, as goes on to explain, to live a gracious (sanctified) life because, by the power of God we have been given new life.
Our Baptist friends are confused because they have made baptism the sign of confirmation that one has new life rather than the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community. They have conflated baptism and the Lord’s Supper to make them do essentially the same thing but Baptism and the Supper do not do the same thing. Baptism is an outward initiation into visible covenant community. The Lord’s Supper is the confirmation, if you will, that what was signified in baptism is really true of the one professing faith.
So, this is really a debate about how to read Scripture. The Baptists read Scripture under the assumption that, in the New Covenant, only those who have actually received (as far as they can tell) what baptism signifies can receive water baptism. They read Scripture in light of that assumption. I guess that your Baptist friends are reading that conviction into Romans 8:9–11 but we contest that reading and the assumptions on which it rests.
R. Scott Clark, Escondido.