Baptism and Union with Christ

“Baptism of the Neophytes” by Masaccio, circa 1426-27

This is the latest in a series of essays on baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In this series, I have already discussed the baptism of John, the rather unique baptism of Jesus Christ, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am sure that most people are eager for me to jump ahead and say conclusively whether we should be giving New Covenant baptism to infants. Not yet, my friends! There is a specific reason for my manner of proceeding. Everyone wants to start at that place which is really the end of the theological road. It is better for us to consider other factors before we make a final determination about whether we should dunk or sprinkle…or something else entirely.

There is one place in the Gospel of Luke where Christ talks about baptism in a way that seems rather different from anything else we have discussed. Let’s take a moment to consider His words on that occasion.

I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Luke 12:49-53 (emphasis added)

What did Jesus mean when He said that he had a “baptism to undergo”? He made this comment in the middle of His earthly ministry. That allows us to rule out the possibility that He was talking about the water baptism of John, which He had already received. It also allows us to rule out the baptism of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit had already descended on Him visibly in the form of a dove. We can furthermore rule out the possibility that Jesus is talking about a water baptism identical to what Christians receive today, for He never had one. No, I believe that the baptism Christ is describing here is more metaphorical: it is a baptism of suffering.

I conclude that Jesus was referring to His future suffering for two reasons. First, the phrase that comes immediately prior to the mention of baptism speaks of the judgment which is usually associated with Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus says this cannot happen until after He has undergone the baptism. In addition, He suggests that there is something distressing about the whole thing. The word translated as “distressed” is rather interesting, but it could make sense in light of Christ’s suffering and His desire to complete the work for which He was sent. The second reason I think Jesus is talking about a baptism of suffering is because of something else that He once said to two of His disciples.

James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.’ And He said to them, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ They said to Him, ‘Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

Mark 10:35-40

I will never cease to be amazed by the presumptuousness of these two young men, James and John, who dared to say to Christ, “Give us whatever we want!” Well, those weren’t their exact words, but that seems to have been the sentiment. What is perhaps more shocking is that Christ doesn’t say to them, “How dare you presume!” He simply asks, “What do you want Me to do for you?” (v. 36) How many of us wish that God would ask us that? However, we probably shouldn’t be quite so eager to make such a request of God, for we cannot possibly fathom all the ramifications of some of our requests.

This is a perfect example of that phenomenon. The brothers ask Jesus to let them sit on His immediate right and left in glory. They were likely imagining that Christ was about to set up an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as the capital, and they wanted to be His #1 and #2 guys. They wanted to be close to the action, sharing in the power and the spoils. Jesus points out the flaw in their request. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (v. 38)

I think what Jesus had in mind here was a baptism of suffering. He makes it sound like something no one would desire and few could endure. In regard to drinking the cup, consider what He said in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) I think it is not much of a stretch to say that Christ was thinking in that moment of the suffering He would undergo. He described it as intensely undesirable from a human perspective, but nevertheless He drank the cup on our behalf.

Returning to the conversation with James and John, we see that Jesus was telling them that to share in His glory was also to share in His suffering. Immediately before they had made their audacious request, Jesus told them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.” (v. 33-34) Now He tells them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.” (v. 39b-40)

None of Christ’s disciples have ever suffered in exactly the same way that He suffered. No one else has paid the penalty for sin. Yet His apostles did probably all receive martyr’s deaths in addition to many other persecutions. Throughout Christian history, those who have taken a strong stand for the gospel have often faced such backlash, to say nothing of the many forms of suffering that are an average part of life. We certainly share in the glories of our Lord, but we also share in His suffering. Jesus described this as a baptism, but why?

First, I think we need to consider the great theological topic at hand: union with Christ. The basic concept here is that to be justified before the Father and regenerated by the Spirit, you must be united to the Son. Some people may describe that process a bit differently, but all the benefits that a Christian has are on account of this union with Jesus Christ, beginning with the double imputation, which is also called the double exchange. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus Christ took our sins upon Himself that we might receive His righteousness. That is the double exchange.

Union with Christ has many other effects besides our justification and regeneration. It is also the reason that we increase in sanctification and may be sure of persevering to the end. It is how we receive something real from the sacraments of baptism and communion (or ordinances, if you prefer). Yes, it was because Jesus Christ took on flesh and defeated sin in the flesh that we can be united with Him more closely than any fleshly relationship.

Consider what the author of Hebrews wrote. “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Hebrews 2:14-15) The Apostle Paul further expounded on why our union with Christ means we should not engage in sexual sin.

Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.

1 Corinthians 6:14-17 (emphasis added)

What Paul describes here as being “one spirit” with Christ he describes elsewhere as being clothed with Christ. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-27) What is the significance of the mention of the word baptism there? Remember, Jesus had earlier described suffering as a baptism – one in which we would share with Him. Having established the concept of union with Christ, how should we see baptism as fitting in with that?

In that passage in Galatians, Paul seems to link three things: 1) having faith in Christ, 2) being baptized into Christ, and 3) being clothed with Christ. Very good, but which came first? We’re not talking about chickens and eggs here. Does being baptized lead to faith and union with Christ? Does having faith lead to union with Christ and then baptism? Or does union with Christ result in faith and then baptism?

I am going to suggest to you that that final ordering is the correct one: union with Christ allows us to have faith, which is then marked by baptism. In the long history of baptism debates, the most crucial question has probably been whether baptism itself regenerates (i.e. leads to faith and union with Christ) or whether it is meant to mark the fact that regeneration has occurred. I can understand the confusion. Let’s examine a few key passages, starting with Romans chapter 6.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God.

Romans 6:1-11 (emphasis added)

Notice what is happening here. Paul certainly talks about those who “have been buried with Him through baptism into death”, so we cannot avoid the baptism symbolism, nor should we. However, we must also consider the overall context of the passage. Paul is very clearly speaking about regeneration – that is, a person who is spiritually dead becoming spiritually alive. Even as Christ physically died and was resurrected, so the believer dies to sin and is resurrected to do the things of God. Paul does not say that it is merely baptism that brings about this regeneration. Rather, he speaks about being united with Christ. Paul certainly appeals to the symbolism of baptism, but I think we should be careful before concluding that baptism is one and the same with regeneration and union with Christ. Nevertheless, there is something about baptism that is clearly linked with both of those things. Let us move on to another passage where Paul makes similar points.

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

Colossians 2:6-15 (emphasis added)

The overall themes of this passage seem to be 1) the supremacy of Christ and 2) regeneration. Interestingly, even as Paul’s mention of baptism in Romans chapter 6 came in a passage where he was encouraging believers to increase in sanctification, the same thing happens here. He begins by saying, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith…” (v. 6-7b) The people Paul has in mind here are people who have received Christ and possess saving faith.

Paul goes on to list several things that these believers have gained by receiving Christ. 1) They have been made complete. 2) They have received the “circumcision made without hands”, which I think we can safely equate with the circumcision of the heart. 3) They have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him through faith. 4) They have been made alive spiritually and had their sins forgiven. 5) They enjoy the effects of Christ triumphing over the rulers and authorities and setting up His rule.

One standard interpretation of this passage goes as follows: By mentioning them in practically the same breath, Paul is equating baptism with circumcision. This is because baptism is the new circumcision. As children of believing parents used to receive circumcision, they should now receive baptism.

I would argue that this interpretation is problematic. There may be other passages of scripture on which one could base a defense of paedobaptism. However, it is hard for me to imagine how this passage could be seen as proof positive that infants should be baptized. Why? First, as I mentioned, Paul is speaking to people who have been united with Christ, whereas the Reformed paedobaptist argument is generally that not all infants who are baptized will be made regenerate and united with Christ. (This depends greatly on the Reformed person in question and the era in which they lived.) Second, the circumcision Paul refers to is not the physical circumcision given to all male descendants of Abraham, but rather the circumcision of the heart – not the removal of physical flesh, but the putting to death of the sinful (fleshly) nature. Third, baptism is brought in as a symbol of being joined with Christ’s death and resurrection, which for us is a spiritual death and resurrection. But how does Paul say that we are raised with Him in baptism? “…through faith in the working of God…” (v. 12)

Rather than serving as proof that baptism should be disconnected from regeneration, Colossians chapter 2 makes a clear link between union with Christ, saving faith, and baptism. We should also note that the emphasis is not placed on baptism itself but on all the various aspects of union with Christ and regeneration. This suggests to us that the true power comes from that union with Christ and not the physical act of baptism. Indeed, the clear impression I get from this passage is that baptism does you no good unless it is united with saving faith. Reformed paedobaptists would generally agree with this, because they do not believe that baptism becomes truly efficacious until it is joined with regeneration. Of course, the question then becomes, why put the horse before the cart? What good does baptism do for a person who is not regenerate? (At this point, a Reformed paedobaptist might appeal to their understanding of the New Covenant, which I will address at a later time.)

It is interesting that another passage to which people sometimes point to make the case that baptism itself saves or regenerates contains many of the same themes: union with Christ, sanctification, regeneration, and suffering. This occurs in the first epistle of the Apostle Peter.

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.

1 Peter 3:13-22 (emphasis added)

This is not an easy passage to interpret. Apart from the obvious difficulty of the phrase “baptism now saves you”, there is also the seemingly odd appeal to the time of Noah and the “spirits now in prison”. Let’s just take things one step at a time. 1 Peter talks extensively about suffering for Christ, and that is also the theme of this passage. The apostle begins by saying that “if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (v. 14). He speaks of defending one’s faith and demonstrating a good conscience, so that those who slander you will “be put to shame” (v. 15-16). He then speaks of how Christ suffered and died for us and makes that connection with regeneration: “having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (v. 18). Then he makes the leap and starts talking about Noah.

Why should Peter appeal to Noah? He speaks of spirits now in prison, but how does he describe them? They were people “who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark” (v. 20). I strongly believe that these were people who saw Noah building the ark and reviled him. In their sin, they mocked Noah’s righteousness. The book of Genesis does not record the reactions of those that saw Noah constructing the ark, but given that their thoughts were evil continually (Genesis 6:5), it’s not much of a stretch to assume that they persecuted Noah for obeying God. Thus, even as Peter told Christians in the first century to demonstrate a good conscience before their persecutors, so Noah acted in the same way toward his persecutors.

Peter then notes that Noah and his family were saved from the flood waters by the ark. That is when he says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God…” (v. 21) We must view this verse in the context of the entire passage. Peter indicates that his statement about baptism saving us corresponds to the way that Noah was saved. As we have seen, Peter did not only highlight the fact that Noah was saved from the Flood, but also the reason: unlike the other people on planet earth, Noah acted righteously. He had faith in God. He demonstrated a good conscience.

To drive home the point, Peter explicitly states that what is saving about baptism is not “the removal of dirt from the flesh”. That is, the physical act of splashing water on someone is not the truly saving part. What saves us is “an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. I think we can safely conclude from this passage that the significance of baptism is that it serves as a symbol of the regeneration mentioned in verse 18. Our salvation depends on the fact that we are united with Christ. There is a certain symbolic tie between the ark and baptism, without a doubt. In both cases, a person was being saved from death and brought into life by the power of God. However, in Noah’s case, it was his physical body that was saved. Baptism is about the saving of our souls. That can only occur through union with Christ and saving faith. Only the one united with Christ can truly appeal to God for a “good conscience”.

Our regeneration is not brought about solely by the baptismal waters, but the baptismal waters serve as a symbol of our spiritual regeneration. The New Testament always envisions a close link between baptism and union with Christ. I believe that is because it is meant to be administered to those who are united with Christ. Does this mean that we can always know perfectly who is united with Christ? No. Does it mean that physical baptism has no benefit for those who are not united with Christ spiritually? Yes. Does it suggest that we should make every attempt to link the sign of baptism with the thing signified, i.e. regeneration and union with Christ? Yes, I believe so.

There are really two errors you can make regarding baptism and union with Christ. The first is to assume that baptism itself creates union. There are far too many examples out there of people who received baptism and then were demonstrably not regenerate believers for that to be the case. (Simon Magus was the first we have on record, and no doubt you can think of one or two.) If you are going to say that only by having faith before baptism can it then regenerate you, I would ask how a person can have faith before regeneration. The second error is to say that baptism has nothing to do with union with Christ: that is, to separate the sign from the thing signified or to administer it hopefully to infants who may very well never enjoy this union. Given that multiple passages of scripture speak of a connection between baptism and union with Christ, this seems like a rather odd opinion to adopt. I firmly believe that those who do not have the Spirit and are not united with Christ receive no benefit from the sacraments.

We have looked at those portions of scripture that link union with Christ and baptism. I wanted to close by mentioning a few other verses that talk about our union with Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20) This verse demonstrates as well as any how this union causes us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul also said that he would count his supposedly righteous deeds as rubbish,

…so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:8b-11 (emphasis added)

Here Paul speaks of a fellowship of Christ’s sufferings in which we participate through our union with Him. However, we do not only participate in His suffering and death, but also in “the power of His resurrection”. Therefore, we should not fear to be united with Christ, but know that the sufferings of this life are not the end. We are increasing in sanctification and will attain to the resurrection. Here is the final passage that I want to mention, coming once again from Paul’s writings.

And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Colossians 1:21-27 (emphasis added)

By His death, Christ has reconciled us to God. We have received His righteousness. By our union with Him, we are His very Body. We are joined with Him in the most intimate way, so that we may even speak of our sufferings as His sufferings. That is why Paul speaks of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. It is not as though the sacrifice of Christ was incomplete, but our union with Him is such that He shares in our afflictions. Notice how Paul ends: along with the suffering, we also have a hope of glory in Christ. Whatever temporary afflictions we may experience, that eternal glory is our hope. Therefore, even as we are baptized with the same baptism of suffering as our Savior, let us remember that we will one day have the same resurrection, even as He has already made us spiritually alive.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – Introduction (now somewhat dated)

#2 – The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism

#3 – Why was Jesus Baptized?

#4 – The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings

#5 – The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Prophecies

#6 – The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: A New Era

#7 – The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: What It Means for Us