4 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.
5 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.
The background to these verses is Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 2: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Now let’s convert this question to a statement: “Our (believers’) death to sin means we no longer should live in sin.” It’s obvious that Paul expects the mature believer in Christ to live free of sin, and in this regard he aligns himself with another apostle: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
Whereas Paul grounds sinless living in the believer’s death to sin, John finds it in God’s seed—the believer’s new birth. Both of these themes—death and resurrection into a new life—Paul now brings to the forefront through the illustration of baptism. Rather than seeking to add to our knowledge of baptism (though he certainly does that), Paul’s purpose is to show why our union with Christ frees us to live a new life.The believer’s cry for help
Paul and John write in the present tense, signifying sin as a lifestyle, not individual acts of sin. Although we have died to sin, temptations and sin have not died to us. As Richard Longenecker says, “the compulsion of sin has been broken, but sin is still present to tempt and to frustrate.” We still have to resist sin in all its forms, both old impure habits and new inclinations to pride, self-righteousness, and other wrongful motives and behaviors. We realize that sanctification will progress over our lifetimes with multiple acts of repentance and ever-increasing hunger for holiness, and when we sin, we confess it, knowing that Jesus Christ is our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1).
Whereas an unbeliever will be content to live in sin, a believer may struggle with habitual sins but will cry out to God for both forgiveness and escape from sin’s bondage and the misery of double mindedness. In response to a sincere cry from the regenerated heart, the Holy Spirit will guide the way to freedom, with a required stop at this chapter of Romans to find out what Paul meant by the phrase “we who died to sin.”
These three verses bring us to the theological basis for that question in verse 2. For Paul, truth always leads to action, and these truths are the answer to the believer’s cry for help to live a holy lifestyle.New identity in Christ
Similar to how a cloth immersed in a vat of dye comes out with a new color, a believer who is immersed (baptized) into Christ takes on the identity of Christ: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). The believer comes out of the water now wearing Christ’s holy garb. With this beautiful imagery, believers who undergo the initiatory rite of baptism signify that they now belong to Christ.
The experience of baptism
It’s significant that Paul reminds his readers of their experience of being baptized (note the past tense in verses 3 and 4a). They will remember what it felt like to go in the water as if to die by drowning and then come back out of it alive. If you have been baptized by submersion, the memory of your senses helps you to understand a marvelous truth—that when Christ died, went in the grave, and rose again, he did it not only in your place and as your substitute but also in solidarity with you. God united you with him in such a fashion that you died, went in the grave, and rose again in him and with him.
Paul’s point, says George Beasley-Murray “is not that the believer in baptism is laid in his own grave, but that through that action he is set alongside Christ Jesus in his” (quoted by Douglas Moo).
Paul’s appeal to the experience of baptism is purposeful, because his focus is on the implications of our union with Christ for the way we live. The result of that union is our freedom to “walk in newness of life.” The chapter’s organization underscores this purpose, as Paul follows statements of fact in first half with commands to act beginning in verse 11.United with Christ
Although the believer’s freedom from sin is the chapter’s theme, we also need to appreciate what Paul says about baptism as an illustration of our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. On the divine side, as we see elsewhere in Scripture, baptism also represents other vital spiritual truths about the status of a new believer: regeneration or new birth, forgiveness, membership in the body of Christ, gifting of the Holy Spirit, and other blessings. God bestows all these benefits through the believer’s union with Christ, who is the source of every blessing.
The statement in verse 4 that we were buried with Christ “by baptism into death” should not be taken to mean that baptism causes our union with Christ. Baptism illustrates, but does not accomplish, this union with Christ. As a new-covenant parallel to circumcision (4:11), baptism is a sign of unity with Christ gained by faith. As Moo points out, baptism explains not how we were buried with Christ but that we were buried with Christ.Resurrection glory
Imagine the power required to put life back into a dead and decaying body so it can get up and walk. Now imagine the power not only to resurrect a body but also to transform the inclinations of a person’s innermost being. By means of this divine glory, the believer can look forward to a new body in the future and also live a new life today! The latter is the chapter’s overriding theme—freedom to live a sanctified life.