Jesus’ baptism and ours: the Jordan River runs through Romans

Before my baptism, I memorized Romans 6:1-14. A seminal text for sure. “What shall we say then, shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? By no means! … Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Clearly baptism and sin are talked about together here. As are baptism and the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, it was natural to conclude that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for my personal sins and that baptism was for the forgiveness of those sins. And this, in my mind, created space between my baptism and the baptism of Jesus. The Jordan River didn’t run through Romans 6 even if it ran through the baptistry of my church.

Funny thing. Romans 6 never mentions the forgiveness of sins. The word forgiveness doesn’t appear once. Now, don’t have a stroke (I see the vein in your forehead popping). I think forgiveness of sins is in the deal. It’s just not how sin is talked about in Romans 6.

A few posts ago, I proposed that understanding Jesus’ baptism depended on what question you think the Bible is answering. One view sees the Bible as a response to an individual’s sin so that the pressing question becomes, “how can a sinner be forgiven?” Another view sees the Bible as a response to the loss of God’s shalom, or even glory, in creation. The question here is “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign love and care?”

Since Luther, most of us have read Romans around the first question. This, in turn, influences our reading of Romans 6. This text, we think, is explaining how an individual sinner has sins forgiven. But that reading of Romans has been seriously challenged in the last 30 years or so. The issue in Romans is now seen by most scholars of Romans more related to the second question, “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign care and love?” The driving concern of Romans is not how an individual can be forgiven, but how is God being faithful to his covenant promises if the Gentiles are accorded a place in the covenant without becoming Jews? The issue at stake is the righteousness of God within history.

Consider the theme verse at the beginning of Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed…” Under the older, Luther-influenced, reading of Romans, chapter five was the theological highpoint, justification by faith, or perhaps Romans 8. Romans 9-11, which discusses Jews and Gentiles and the covenants of promise, was thought to be a diversion from the main argument, an aside where Paul wrote things that none of us understand.

But, in fact, Romans 9-11 is the high point of Paul’s theology. It is at the end of chapter 11 that we find Paul praising God for what he has done in bringing Jew and Gentile together, “Oh, the depths of the riches of the glory of God…” And the big “therefore,” which marks a decisive move in the letter from talking about what God has done to talking about our response, follows immediately in 12:1. More, the high point of the “practical” section in Romans, (after the long section on the strong and weak which has to do with eating meat sacrificed to idols) is found in 15:7, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Paul then makes the theme explicit in the following verse, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness (righteousness?), in order to confirm the promise given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” This faithfulness to the promises made to Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles is for Paul a picture of the Kingdom of God, or as he puts it elsewhere, the new creation.

Paul doesn’t mention the forgiveness of individual sins in Romans 6, because it’s not central to his gospel. What he talks about in Romans 6 is central to his gospel–being transferred into the goodness of God’s kingdom.

Need proof? Notice how Paul talks about sin in Romans 5. Sin, and its henchman, death, “reigned from Adam to Moses.” As Paul sees it, there is one human story emanating from Adam in which sin and death constitute a reign or kingdom (the word used is actually a form of basileia, which is the word the gospels use for “Kingdom of God”). But now, in Christ, a new human story is possible under the dominion or kingdom of grace. “As sin reigned in death, so grace might reign in righteousness.” Grace is more than just God overlooking our sins. Grace describes a dominion, literally a kingdom (baslieia), that allows a new kind of life to flourish.

The argument in Romans 6 is that baptism moves you from one basileia to another. “For one who has died is set free from sin…We know that Christ, being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him… Let not sin reign in your mortal body…for sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law, but under grace.” Baptism in Romans 6 is about which kingdom you belong to.

And in this new Kingdom, there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We have a new humanity, not given to the old distinctions of the age that is passing away, but given to life imperishable, “newness of life,” that will survive into the eschaton.

This acceptance of a new kingdom is what Jesus was baptized into by John, and what we are according to Romans 6. When we are baptized we are welcoming and representing the coming reign of God. We have turned our lives (repentance) to show that our allegiance is not to the reign of sin and death which divides people according to human standards, but instead we belong to the reign of grace, and of life, which overcomes human distinctions in the cruciform way of Jesus.

The question driving Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans 6 is not “how does an individual get sins forgiven?” but “how can we escape the dominion of sin and death and belong to the coming dominion in which the righteousness of God is revealed?” The problem with sin is not principally our individual guilt, but, rather, the way that sin, in league with death, has ruled human life in ways that are not in keeping with the shalom of God.

The Jordan River runs smack dab through the middle of Romans.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to Jesus’ baptism and ours: the Jordan River runs through Romans

  1. Really like where you’re going with this, Mark – thanks for posting.

    Have you read Kilian McDonnell & George Montague’s work on this topic? They were writing from within the Catholic charismatic movement, a sort of “sacramental” approach to baptism and the Spirit generally – they said a lot of stuff that resonates with where you might be going 😉 (These two references come from a bibliography I’ve posted at RWF, and the parenthetical comments are mine.)

    If you have read them, I’d really like to hear your thoughts about where they’ve taken it, in terms of experience of the Spirit, in particular …

    Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries Kilian McDonnell (with George Montague) (1st, Emended Edition) “A Michael Glazier Book” Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press c1991 ISBN 0-8146-5009-0 BT 123.M145 1990 (Fascinating look into the view of the primitive and early church re “receiving the Holy Spirit”: strongly experiential. Infant baptism cited as one significant reason for the apparent attenuation of the experiential dimension of baptism in the Holy Spirit and charismata.)

    The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation Kilian McDonnell “A Michael Glazier Book” The Order of St. Benedict, Inc. Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press c1996 ISBN 0-8146-5307-3 BT 350.M33 1996 (The baptism of Jesus was the most common framework for understanding Christian baptism in the early centuries: this highlighted trinitarian experience and nascent trinitarian theology.)

  2. Kelly Carter says:

    Thanks, Mark. I appreciate your reading of Romans 6. I have recently been sharing with our church thoughts not unrelated about John 3. Being born again (or from above) and the water/s(S)pirit rebirth are not near so much evidence for the necessity of water baptism as they are about what God is trying to do through His Spirit in bringing renewal, both in the individual life and in all of creation. Similar to your remarks, in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus he never mentions baptism, sin, forgiveness, or remission of sins. Just as fascinating is that in John 1, with the story of Jesus coming to John at the Jordan, the one thing left out of the story is the baptism of Jesus! John only records the descending of the Spirit upon Christ. John is with intentionality focusing on the aspect of rebirth on which we have not spent enough time, both in John 1 and 3, the renewing Spirit. What I have seen in John 3 I hadn’t seen in Romans 6, but obviously there is correspondence based on what you have pointed out. Thanks for showing this to me.

  3. Thanks for finally talking about >Jesus baptism and ours:
    the Jordan River runs through Romans | Dei-liberations <Loved it!

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