A look at Romans 6:3-4
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.
(Romans 6:3-4 ESV)
This is a passage often quoted in support of immersion as the true biblical mode of baptism. In fact, with a cursory reading of the passage, it’s hard to argue; who can deny immersion when it clearly says ‘buried with him by baptism’? How can it mean anything else other than immersion?
But note, I said cursory reading of the passage. Let’s examine this passage closely and see whether the physical mode of baptism was in the apostle’s mind in this passage at all.
Paul is attempting to establish the greatness of the grace of God in that the greater our sin, the greater is the grace of God that it should be forgiven by Christ’s death and atonement. Paul then anticipates a rationalization for sin; namely that if the abundance of grace is shown better by the abundance of sin, why not continue sinning. His answer to that rationalization is the passage under examination, namely why we cannot continue living a life of sin.
Baptized into Christ Jesus
What does this phrase mean? If we were to come to this passage with no preconception of the meaning of the word ‘baptize’, there is at least one other passage that uses the exact same language which should shed some light on what this particular phrasing of ‘baptized into’ should mean.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,
(1 Corinthians 10:1-2 ESV)
Here we have a description by apostle Paul of a series of events which he denotes as ‘baptism into Moses’. From what we know of the event of the exodus and Paul’s reference to it here, at the very least, we can conclude that Paul used this construction of ‘baptized into’ to denote a union of sorts with Moses and the Mosaic covenant. I am on purpose refraining from going into the details of what the nature of that union was, or the nature of the events that signified that union. For our present purposes, and approaching the text without preconceptions, it is enough that we can satisfy ourselves of the notion of ‘baptized into’ someone/something denoting ‘union with’ that someone/something based on this precedence.
Coming back to the passage under consideration, can ‘baptized into Christ’ refer to the physical ceremony/rite of baptism in this context? Absolutely! However, even in that interpretation, the emphasis would be on the union with Christ. So, whether that refers to the work of the Holy Spirit to unite us to Christ in spirit or to the physical rite that declares we are united to Him, evidently, in this context, the use of ‘baptized into Christ’ refers to being ‘united with Christ’.
Baptized into his death
Given the precedence described above for ‘baptized into’ referring to ‘united with’, it follows that the second part the verse refers to a union with Christ’s death. The implication of the apostle here, again in answer to the rationalization for sin, is that our union with Christ implies our union with his death (to sin). What the meaning and implications of this union are is, again, an entirely separate discussion and much can be gleaned from it. However, here we are trying to determine the presence/absence of a mode in the reference to baptism in this passage. For that purpose, it is sufficient for now that we can conclude that so far, the apostle Paul says that our union with Christ (baptism into Christ) should also imply a union with his death (baptism into his death).
Buried therefore with him
There was a bible teacher I used to listen to who, when teaching from Paul’s writings, would always say something along the lines of ‘whenever you encounter a “therefore” in the scriptures, you need to stop and ask “what’s it there for”’. So, true to that, we need to stop and consider that whatever the apostle is saying in verse 4, he builds on the conclusion of verse 3.
Since verse 4 says we are buried him, and that is based on the conclusion of verse 3 which is that our union with Christ also implies a union with his death, we must conclude that the burial here is a result of the union with Christ; i.e. union with Christ implies union with his death implies union with his burial.
Here then is the first place I think many people make a mistake in the interpretation of this passage; namely that rather than ‘buried with him’ referring to the physical act of baptism, the passage makes it clear that the burial with him (Christ) is a result of union with his death and with him.
Buried with him by… baptism?
The contention of immersionists is that the baptism here refers to the physical rite, i.e. we are buried with him when we are buried in the water. However, we have just established above that the burial in verse 4 is a result of the union with Christ and his death. The physical rite of of baptism has not at all entered into the picture. So, is it being brought into the picture here in the middle of verse 4?
Buried… into death?
If as the immersionist contend burial in verse 4 is a reference to burial under water by baptism and that we are therefore ‘buried by baptism’, a problem arises. If the ‘by baptism’ is simply a description of how we are buried, normal rules of language should allow us to remove that sentence fragment of the description and retain the meaning of the remainder of the verse.
Consider the sentence, “he traveled, by train, to France”. Normal rules of language would allow us to remove the description of the mode of travel (by train) and the main meaning of the sentence (he traveled to France) remains.
The problem with interpreting verse 4 to say that the burial happened by baptism is that if that temporary descriptor is removed in order to focus on the main meaning of the verse, the main meaning of the verse is unclear, because it then reads as ‘we are buried therefore with him into death’.
What would ‘buried into death’ mean? We would have to go to stretches of figurative and metaphorical language to find a meaning for burial into death. The closest interpretation I could give to ‘buried into death’ was to perhaps say that it meant we are buried alive. However, that would go entirely against the context of the passage where Paul wants to emphasize a reality of our death in Christ death. The language no longer makes sense.
Buried by baptism into death
Let’s also not forget that the phrase ‘baptism into death’ occurs in verse 4. We have already established from verse 3 that this phrase refers to union with Christ’s death. We have also established that verse 4 is an inference or conclusion drawn upon what is established in verse 3. Putting these together, the best interpretation of verse 4 is that we are buried with him by our union with his death, i.e. Union with christ, implies union with his death, implies union with his burial; which would supplement the apostle’s use of ‘therefore’.
Raised to newness of life
Verse 4 continues by saying that we were buried with him, so that we may be raised with him as well. In the later verses, Paul explains this further, that Christ’s death was our death so that his resurrection could be our resurrection. Here again, attempting to interpret the burial in these verses as referring to the physical burial under water muddles the message of the apostle. His entire argument throughout this passage is that Christ’s death is and should be our death, finite, and done; a one time event in the past already accomplished in order that a future event for us can take place, namely the ability to live the new life. Attempting to read our burial happening at the time of our baptism and attempting to tie our death to sin with our burial under the water, which would go against Paul’s argument that our death to sin happened with Christ’s death to sin.
‘Exradicism’ and Burial
To further clarify that the burial does not draw any inference or meaning from the physical act of baptism, I suggest the following exercise. Let’s substitute the word baptism for a word I’ve just made up ‘exradicism’ in these two verses.
Do you not know that all of us who have been exradicized into Christ Jesus were exradicized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by exradicism 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.
Would you need any knowledge of the word exradicism in order to get the main argument of the verse as Paul intends? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it now becomes much clearer that even if were to find exradicism meant standing on one leg, arms outstretched and having the exradicizer blow over your head (as ridiculous as it sounds), it would have just the same connection with burial that baptism has in this passage.
In other words, the physical rite of baptism has a connection to burial by the scriptures’ definition of it having that connection and not by the nature of the physical rite itself. In fact, many physical rites in the Bible have the same property, i.e. they have a connection to things they signify not in an of themselves by their physical form but because of the definition of significance attributed to it. However, that is an entirely separate discussion in itself.
To summarize, we are buried with him in baptism because by definition it is meant to symbolize union with Christ, his life, death, and resurrection, not because of the physical nature of the symbol of baptism. Can we think of burial in to the water and raising up of the person from the water as symbolizing their personal death and burial. Yes, it is a plausible symbolism. However, that is a symbolism WE are attributing to it, and not one drawn out of this particular passage.