(Rom. 6:3-4) Is this passage describing water baptism? –or something else?

CLAIM: Some interpreters argue that Paul is referring to water baptism in this passage. For example, John Stott argues that this refers to water baptism:

Baptism means water baptism unless in the context it is stated to the contrary. It is true that the New Testament speaks of other kinds of baptism, for example a baptism ‘with fire’ and a baptism ‘with the Spirit’. Some commentators have suggested that Paul here is referring to baptism with the Spirit as uniting us with Christ, and have quoted 1 Corinthians 12:13 as a parallel. But it is safe to say that whenever the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘being baptized’ occur, without mention of the element in which the baptism takes place, the reference is to water baptism. Whenever water baptism is not meant, however, the alternative baptismal element is mentioned; for instance, ‘with the Spirit’.[1]

Douglas Moo also argues that this refers to water baptism. He writes, “Paul usually uses the verb baptize to refer to Christian water baptism (1 Cor. 1:13-17; 12:13 [though debated]; 15:29; Gal. 3:27). Moreover, the noun ‘baptism’ (Gk. baptisma) in verse 4 almost always has this meaning.”[2] Thus he concludes, “With the great majority of commentators, then, we think Paul here refers to water baptism as the point in time at which people become joined with Christ. When we were baptized ‘into’ Christ…, we were baptized ‘into his death.’”[3] Later he argues that water baptism in Romans 6 stands as a “synecdoche for the entire conversion experience,” which would include faith, repentance, etc.[4] Thus, to be clear, Moo does not believe in baptismal regeneration.[5]

Is this passage referring to water baptism?

RESPONSE: While there are many passages that prescribe water baptism in the New Testament, this is not one of them. Even if baptizo was always used to refer to water baptism, this would not preclude another usage. In other words, why would we assume that baptizo must always be referring to water baptism? Who made that rule? This is a case of circular reasoning.[6]

Baptizo literally means “to dip in or under… to dye… to immerse… to suffer shipwreck… to drown.”[7] This word is used to describe immersion into Jesus himself (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27), fire (Mt. 3:11), suffering (Mk. 10:38-40), judgment (Lk. 12:50), Moses (1 Cor. 10:2), dipping a finger in water (Lk. 16:24), dipping bread in a cup (Jn. 13:26), or dipping clothes in blood (Rev. 19:13).

Because baptism can refer to any number of substances, we need to look to the context to understand its meaning. Since Paul specifically tells us that we are baptized “in Christ Jesus,” then this refers to spiritual baptism.

[1] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 173). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 193.

[3] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 193.

[4] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 204. Likewise, Thomas Schreiner holds the view that water baptism, faith, and repentance are all combined here, because in Paul’s mind, an unbaptized Christian “would be an anomaly.” In Schreiner’s view, water baptism and spiritual baptism are both in view. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 306-310.

[5] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 206.

[6] Words can be used in different contexts in different ways. For example, Paul uses the word “death” in different ways throughout the book of Romans.

[7] Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 530). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.