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How to Understand the Gospel

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Thus far in Romans we have learned of our universal plight in Adam, whether or not we are Jews or Gentiles (1-3). We have also learned of the universal salvation for the human race that has been accomplished in the second Adam (4-5), the salvation that was promised for the world through father Abraham. But we now have to bring this glory down to the individual level, and this can be tricky.  For example, if “all” are condemned in Adam, and “all” are justified in Christ, then no more worries, right? Just do what you feel. Wrong.


“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom.  6:1-5).



So Paul begins here by setting up a false conclusion to what he has presented so far. What shall our response to this glorious gospel be? Shall we continue our sinning so that God might continue His gracious forgiveness (v. 1)? And of course the answer is no. God forbid. How can people who are dead to sin still live in it (v.2)? But someone might come back at Paul—what do you mean, dead to sin? And Paul replies, “Don’t you know what baptism means?” If you were baptized into Jesus, you were baptized into His death (v. 3). Not only were you killed in baptism, you were also buried (v. 4). But the whole point of this was so that you might participate in His resurrection as well (v. 4). Note that Christ was not only raised, He was riase from the dead by the glory of the Father.  In the same way (by the glory of the Father), we should walk in newness of life (v. 4). This is because if you have been planted in the likeness of His death (which is what baptism is, the likeness of His death), we also participate in the likeness of resurrection (v. 5).


The first thing we need to work through here is whether or not Paul is referring to baptism in water. And our first instinct is to say that he could not be referring to water because, as we evangelicals all know, water baptism doesn’t do those things that are described here. Therefore we must hunt for a baptism that does do them, which would be baptism in the Spirit. This solves the problem, but perhaps it solves it a bit too easily. There is no contextual or grammatical reason to think that anything other than water baptism is meant. At the same time, there is a way of taking this as water baptism that is nothing but religious superstition. How are we to deal with this?


The seed of the gospel is broadcast. It falls on good soil and hard, it falls on the asphalt parking lot and on the well-tilled ground. The thing that makes it germinate is faith. When the declaration is made, we find out who it was meant for by seeing who believes it. We don’t test the declaration, sending it off to an objective lab somewhere, in order to find out whether or not it is worthy of our belief, so that we may then believe it. The gospel always brings its own credentials to those who are elect, to those who have genuine faith. So there is therefore always a perfect correspondence between those people for whom the statement is true and those who believe it to be true.

The doctrine of definite atonement is certainly true. Jesus died in order to secure the salvation of His elect, and only His elect. But Jesus also died so that we might offer salvation to every creature (Mark 16:15). These two things harmonize wonderfully, so don’t worry about it. We are preaching the gospel to a raggety-taggety world, not doing clean little syllogisms about P and Q. So don’t worry about it when your Arminian friends persist on telling people that “Jesus died for you.” If it is true, that person will believe it. If it isn’t, he won’t. (Incidentally, many Calvinistic paedobaptists make the same kind of statement at the baptismal font. We say in essence, “Jesus died for you,” without having been given a clear copy of the electing decree with little Herbert’s name on it. We walk by faith, not by sight.) But we want to be doctrinal fussers, saying that if it isn’t true and independently verified, then we shouldn’t even think about saying it. We should be reminded of Chesterton’s comment about the poet who tries to get his head into the heavens, as opposed to the rationalist, who tries to get the heavens into his head—and it is his head that splits.


The Westminster Confession rightly says that there is a sacrament union between sign and thing signified, such that it is appropriate to speak of one in terms of the other. So Saul of Tarsus was told to rise up in order to receive water baptism, washing away his sins (Acts 22:16), even though water doesn’t really do that. And Peter preached the same way, preaching a baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:28). Someone with genuine faith sees Christ in his baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper, in just the same way that he sees Christ on a tract made of paper and ink, or he hears Christ in a sermon preached by a poorly educated street preacher who breathes through his nose. God uses despised and weak things in order to humiliate the worldly wise. So does the grace go in when the water goes on? No, of course not, no more than a tract left in a laundromat can zap you as you walk by. This is something we understand easily in other settings. When performing a wedding, I have never said, “Please repeat . . . with this ring I thee wed,” only to have the bride stop me and say, “I didn’t know that gold rings could do that!”


So follow the direction of Paul’s argument. The direction of this argument, rightly understood, is always into newness of life. If you have a life of sin on the one hand, and a baptism into Christ’s death on the other, which one should we follow? Which one is in charge? Paul says, “What are you doing that for? You’re baptized.” The logic is the same as a man rebuking a friend—“You can’t go honky-tonking . . . you’re married now.” And when someone sees, really sees, that this is what their baptism means, then that is what their baptism is.


We have been planted together with, united with, Jesus Christ in baptism, this likeness of His death. We therefore have a covenanted obligation to be united with Him, just as united with Him, in His life. Let God be true and every man a liar. If there is an inconsistency between baptism and the sin, then it is the sin that must die—never the baptism.

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