What Does Baptism Mean?

Baptism really isn’t a difficult topic, but it’s become difficult by all the history, tradition and baggage associated with the different interpretations of this ordinance. It’s a beautiful ordinance, and it’s too bad there’s so much misunderstanding about it!

Here’s the bottom line; baptism doesn’t “do” anything to you or for you. It’s a picture of what the triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) has already done in a believer’s life. This means it’s only for repentant, professing believers – not infants.

There are good reasons why the Baptist position on baptism is correct, but that’s not my goal, here. Instead, I just want to look at what baptism means. What significance does baptism have? What does it mean? What spiritual truth does it convey? How does it convey this truth?

One good place to go is the Book of Romans.

In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul gives us the classic comparison between Adam and Christ; the two great representatives for humanity (Rom 5:18). We’re born belonging in Adam’s camp; the first man who disobeyed God and brought ruin to creation and to himself. We’re all fruit from the poisonous tree that is Adam; his disobedience was the fountainhead that poisoned the well, and that’s why you and I are born as sinful people who belong to Satan, not God. As Paul wrote, Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death leads to justification and eternal life for everyone who repents and believes – which is what Paul explains next (Rom 5:19-21).

With that context in place, we now turn to our passage. Paul writes:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1)?

Should believers continue to sin and live unholy lives, in rebellion against God and His Word? If our disobedience results in God extending grace enough to cover it all, then should we keep on sinning, so God keeps extending grace?

Implicitly, the question becomes:

  1. if God always responds with grace to our crimes,
  2. then, if you’re a Christian,
  3. does it even matter if you try to live a holy life?

What Paul is trying to teach people to avoid is an attitude that says, “do what you want; you can just repent later!”

By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it (Rom 6:2)?

This is Paul’s point – you should want to serve God with everything you have, because you love Him:

  • You’ve been set free from sin – so why should you go back?
  • You’ve been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved son, through whom you have redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:13) – so why should you go voluntarily go back to that life?

There’s been an internal, objective change in your identity with your salvation. When the prophet Ezekiel wrote about the New Covenant (Ezek 36:22f), he spoke about the Lord giving you a new heart, a new spirit, and cleansing you from all uncleanness, and the Holy Spirit dwelling within you to align your heart, soul and mind to want to please God, instead of your former master.

This doesn’t mean moral perfection, but it does mean a new moral orientation of your heart and mind borne out of love for God, based on what He did in saving you from yourself.

So, if that’s the case (and it is), how can you claim the name of Christ and use this foolish excuse as a cloak for deliberate sin? Paul says you can’t – it doesn’t make sense. This sets the stage for the discussion of baptism.

Here’s the point; believer’s baptism is an object lesson and picture of a spiritual reality. It pictures something that God has already done to you. As you go into the water, it pictures your old person is dead and gone. As you come out of the water, it represents that you’re a new person in Christ, with a new heart, soul and mind oriented towards God (i.e. “born again,” Jn 3).

This is Paul’s point in the next verses; he uses believer’s baptism as a figurative metaphor to explain why a professing Christian can’t live a life of deliberate wickedness.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)?

Paul is talking about union with Christ, which means a transfer of ownership.[1] If you’ve been baptized into union with Christ, then the title deed to your soul changed hands from Satan to God. You belong to God, now! He’s adopted you into His family.

And, if that happened, then you were baptized into a relationship with His death, too. Jesus died to atone for your sins and set you free from Satan. That means your old way of life should be dead to you because you’re a new person, with a new heart, a new spirit, and energized by a new will and a love for God. These are spiritual realities, and believer’s baptism is a picture of all this.

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 (Rom 6:4).

Follow Paul’s chain of thought:

  1. Jesus died for your sins, in your place, to set you free from a hole you’ll never dig yourself out of.
  2. You’ve been spiritually brought into union and relationship with Him, which means you belong to God now.
  3. That means you should count the “old you,” with all its sinful thoughts, intents, and slavery to sin, as dead and gone, with a stake through its heart.

What does this mean for you? It means Christ died to put sin to death, then came back to new life. So, this means your sins have been put to death, and you should act like it by walking in newness of life, too!

Paul repeats the same thing for emphasis:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:5).

If you’re a Christian, you’ve been united with Christ in His death for sin. So, you should consider yourself as dead to sins, because you’ve been spiritually “born again.” You’ll be united with Christ by resurrection in the last days; this mortal life is just the beginning of eternity. So, implicitly, you should live like you actually love Him now, while you wait!

This is what believer’s baptism pictures; a spiritual miracle God already did for you that, by this ordinance, you show and tell the world about.

  • Under the water: Your old person is dead and gone. God brought you into union and a relationship with Christ’s death, and the victory it brought over sin.
  • Out of the water: You’re a new person! You’ve been born again!

I made these pictures for a children’s lesson on baptism several years ago, but they get the point across:


We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6).

Jesus died to save you from yourself, and set you free from Satan’s grasp. He was crucified and died to atone for your sins. God has joined you to Him, in a union and relationship, and applied Jesus’ atonement for sins to your account. As a result, you’re not enslaved to sin anymore! So (implicitly), the question is – why would a Christian ever live a life of deliberate and unrepentant wickedness?

He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t. If you are, you should stop, or you probably don’t belong to Christ.

For one who has died has been set free from sin (Rom 6:7).

This is precious, but the opposite is also true! If you haven’t put your old person to death by repenting and believing in Christ, then you haven’t been set free from sin – you’re still a slave to sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him (Rom 6:8-9).

Christ died for our sins, then rose again. When God brings you into union and relationship with Christ, He applies what Christ did to your account. Death had no dominion over Christ, because He’s sinless. The penalty of death never applied to Him. If you’re a Christian, then death doesn’t apply to you either, in a final sense, because God has applied Christ’s work to your account.

If that’s the case (and, if you’re a Christian, it is the case), then why would a Christian ever deliberately live a life of service to sin, selfishness, and unrepentant rebellion against God, His word, and His Son Jesus Christ? Of course, a Christian wouldn’t.

For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:10-11).

Believer’s baptism is a simple picture of a spiritual reality because it shows and tells about this commitment. It’s where a Christian declares:

  • I AM dead to sin, and alive to God through Christ Jesus – and this is a picture of it!
  • God washed my sins away and this is a picture of it!
  • My old person is dead and gone, and I’m a new person in relationship with Jesus Christ – and this is a picture of it!
  • The Father chose me, the Son lived, died and rose again for me, and the Spirit converted me – and this is a picture of the result!

I’ll end our discussion with Paul’s next words:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:12-14).

Believer’s baptism is a picture of a spiritual reality, and it signifies a commitment to Christ, because:

the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live selfcontrolled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).

That’s the commitment a Christian makes, in baptism. That’s what baptism pictures and signifies. It’s important.


1 For a defense of this “in union with” view, see (1) Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 228-229, (2) James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, in WBC (Waco: Word, 1988), 311-213, (3) John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 213-215, (4) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 359-360 and (5) Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 246-247.

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks for this. Interesting view on "union." I'll have to check it out.

Somewhere I heard and saw a couple of pastors work some phrasing into their baptisms. And I liked how it communicated. So when I began baptizing believers in my ministry I worked it in. 

When I lower them into the water, I say "buried in the likeness of His death," then as they come up, "raised in the likeness of his resurrection." Then I say "even so, walk in newness of life."

I see baptism as declaration of a message that includes union with Christ, newness of life, and also cleansing.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


I use that wording when I baptize folks. I saw it modeled by one of my pastors while I was in the service, and I copied it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

ScottS's picture

Overall good article. One area that was stated, but not stressed as much as I think was needed, is that it is through baptism that Christians publicly identify with Christ's saving work for them. This relates to the question you ask of "What significance does baptism have?" You touch on this twice, before bullet points, in some of your wording:

By this ordinance, you show and tell the world about ...

Believer's baptism is ... where a Christian declares ...

But I believe in Romans 6, that public identification through baptism is also part of the grounds for why a Christian ought to live as if already resurrected (i.e. as if already perfected in sinlessness with a resurrected body and renewed spirit, which is another key point in the passage). Paul is saying that by baptism you have identified yourself publicly with Christ's death, but so also realize you have identified yourself publicly to follow him in His resurrection (as you will eventually do in reality), and so walk in that sinless way even before that resurrection time. So God, through Paul, is setting up these two parallels:

  1. God accounts (λογίζομαι) believers righteous now by their faith (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24), because with their having faith, they will at their resurrection be perfected in being made righteous (Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21; cf. Gal 5:5). God's accounting is grounded in His future work for believers to make them righteous.
  2. Likewise, God commands (through Paul here) that believers are to account (imperative of λογίζομαι) themselves now "dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11), for in identifying with the death, they have identified with the resurrection; and because of their having faith, they will be sinless in the resurrected state, having already had their spirits cleansed (Act 10:15, 1 Cor 6:11, Eph 5:26, Heb 9:14, 2 Pet 1:9, 1 Jn 1:7, 9, Rev 1:5) and renewed (Jn 3:3, 2 Cor 4:16, Col 3:10, Tit 3:5), and the sinful flesh (Rom 6:6-7; 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3) then disposed of as well with the new body (Rom 8:23, 1 Cor 15:42, 2 Cor 5:1-4, Phil 3:21). God's calling for believers to account ourselves as such is grounded in His future work for believers to make them "sin-free" and have eternal life.

(Also compare Phil 3:9-11.) And of course, the grounding in the truth of what will be, all comes about by that future reality being grounded in the work Christ has done. This work is why God can account His own level of righteousness (the standard) to believers, and why God can guarantee the resurrection as freedom from the penalty He imposed on sin of death for those that have been cleansed from such sin.

So baptism identifies publicly, and so one ought to be living publicly in alignment with that identification, both as dead and as alive.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture


Thanks. This article is based on sermon notes from a recent message I gave at church, on the occasion of a new Christian's baptism. I emphasized public declaration much more strongly in my sermon than I did in the notes, which became the article!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

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