Commentary on Romans 6:1-14
As is typical in Romans, Paul begins with a rhetorical question. “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).1 Right before, in Romans 5:20, Paul states, “[W]here sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The question in 6:1 is one possible conclusion that might follow Romans 5:12-21. If the increase of sin corresponds to the abundance of grace, one might wonder if one should “continue in sin” (6:1). Paul strongly rejects this idea. Believers cannot intentionally remain in sin, because such behavior totally abandons her/his identity as one united with Christ (6:3-4). Believers have already “died to sin” (6:2), and they are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Paul’s rhetoric persuades the audience to live a new (or renewed) life in Christ.
Baptism is key to understanding the new reality in Christ presented in Romans 6:1-14, though this is not universally accepted. For some interpreters, baptism is just one “metaphor” among many that Paul employs to explain unity with Christ. Paul is not talking about actual baptism. Others believe emphasizing ritual activity (baptism) risks undermining faith and obedience, and old protestant polemics toward Catholicism (and Judaism) return.
These objections are understandable. The first group would correctly point out that Paul blends at least four images to describe believers’ unity with Christ. Baptism into Christ is one way of articulating it (Romans 6:3), but Paul also combines it with burial imagery: “we have been buried with him by baptism into his death” (6:4). In addition, the agricultural metaphor appears in 6:5: “For if we have been co-planted with him” (my translation; NRSV: “united with him”). Finally, by mentioning the mode of Christ’s execution, Paul presents this unity with Christ as “co-crucifixion” (6:6, “our old self was crucified with him,” NRSV), as he did in Galatians 2.
For the second group, Romans 6:12-14 contains a strong exhortation to live a life of active obedience. For Paul, life is constant warfare over lordship and dominion. There is no neutral zone. The members of one’s body are “instruments/weapons,” and one presents them either to sin or to God (6:13). Thus, ritual is not at issue. The faithful life of believers is what matters.
Why, then, do I focus on baptism here?
In order to consider these issues, we need to place Romans 6:1-14 in its broader context, Romans 5:12—8:39. In this section of Romans, Paul portrays sin not so much as an individual person’s sinful act, but as a cosmic power. “Sin came into the world” along with death (5:12); “sin exercised dominion in death” (5:21; see also 6:12, 14). “Sin, seizing an opportunity . . ., deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). Sin and death (sin’s result) take people captive with their power and authority. Paul’s discourse in Romans 5:12-21 traces the origin of this problem back to Adam, the primordial past of humanity.
Simply speaking, the human condition lies beyond any individual’s control; the problem is rooted deeply, with no ethnic distinction between Jews and gentiles. This is a story of Adam, or all human beings. This is similar to some Jewish apocalyptic works written slightly after Paul’s time: “Each one of us has become our own Adam” (2 Baruch 54:19), and the transgression of Adam “became permanent” like disease among all his descendants (4 Ezra 3:21-22).2
Since the problem is cosmic and universal, the solution must also be. Rather than emphasizing individual believers’ faith, Romans 5 promotes the idea of the singular Christ who brings universal benefits (5:15-17). Finally, in Romans 8 (especially 8:18-30), Paul outlines his vision of God’s cosmic intervention and the transformation of all creation. Sandwiched between Romans 5 and Romans 8 is a description of individual struggling (Romans 6—7).
It is here that baptism appears. Baptism is important to Paul and his audience because it links the cosmic problem/solution to the body of believers. Baptism brings Christ’s death into the body of the baptized person, so that s/he can be freed from the power of sin and death. By baptism we are grafted into the primordial story of Christ and what has been achieved through this “one” (Romans 5).
Baptism indicates that we already live in this new reality, which requires the baptized to live it every day. Some think that Paul was fighting with “enthusiasts” who had an “over-realized eschatology.” Proponents of this view see this passage as Paul’s warning that full resurrection was not possible while living in their earthly body, and therefore they should constantly perform acts of bodily obedience. This is partly true, but the rhetorical force of Paul’s exhortation lies in the opposite direction. Paul’s exhortation stems from what believers have already achieved in Christ. Because they are no longer under the power of sin, but under the lordship of Christ, they must conform to this new reality.
Yes, we live in the hope of resurrection (Romans 6:5, 8), but this is not vague, faint, and unattainable hope. This hope is being realized in the body of baptized believers, those who “walk in newness of life” (6:4), those who devote their body parts to God as “instruments/weapons of righteousness” (6:13).3
- The author’s detailed discussion of Romans 6 and the issue of baptism will appear in his forthcoming book, Pauline Baptism among the Mysteries: Ritual Messages and the Promise of Initiation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023).
- Translations are from Michael E. Stone and Matthias Henze, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch: Translations, Introductions, and Notes (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).
- The Greek word can be translated either “instruments” or “weapons.” The image of cosmic warfare in Rom 5-8 provides a possible context for the latter option. For more on this in conjunction with Paul’s slavery metaphor, Donghyun Jeong, “God’s Hoplites: Slaves and Warfare in Romans 6:12-23.” Korean Journal of Christian Studies 105 (2017): 47-72.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of resurrection, you have promised new life to all who believe. Make us believers, and show us how to live into this new life. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
We are baptized in Christ Jesus ELW 451
Borning Cry ELW 732
You have put on Christ ELW 211, UMH 609
Baptism, William Billings
May 21, 2023