Whenever we behold someone emerging from the baptismal waters, we hear the Biblical formula gleaned from Romans 6 pronounced over that new believer: “Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in newness of life.” To watch someone emerge from the baptismal waters is to watch someone rising into freedom, more freedom than they can possibly imagine, more freedom than they will ever use. I say this emphatically because even those of us who have been Christian believers for a long time have difficulty fathoming the freedom that we enjoy in Jesus Christ. This freedom has both passive and active aspects – passive in that we know that we have been freed by someone else. We cannot, could not, free ourselves from the power of sin and death. We were freed from the power of sin and death through the ministry of Jesus Christ and through the initiative of God the Father. Yet our freedom is active in that we must embrace and accept God’s acceptance of us through an energetic faith that is creative, courageous and committed. Our baptism into Christ Jesus is a baptism “from” and “for.” We are freed from the power of sin. We are freed for the power of goodness. We are freed from the power of death. We are freed for the power of life. We are freed for newness of life!
I fear that what I have said remains simply words to you. I fear their profound meaning may not penetrate your consciousness. So let me try to explain our sublime status as believers by means of a parable. The American humorist and writer Damon Runyon once told the story of a criminal named Blond Maurice, whose body was found in a large lime-filled grave in the country. Actually, all that was found of Blond Maurice was his shoes, but since the rest of him never showed up anywhere else, everyone agreed that Blond Maurice had gone the way of all flesh — and rather quickly at that, on account of the lime. So it was quite a surprise to Damon Runyon’s narrator the day he walked into a diner and saw Blond Maurice eating a roast beef sandwich at the counter. The narrator thought it worthwhile to go ask Blond Maurice if he knew that his friends and enemies considered him dead. Blond Maurice said yes, that though in fact he had been taking a long vacation in Europe, upon his return to town he had asked the district attorney if there were any charges against him and was told no, that he was accounted as “deceased.” Since no one issues warrants for dead people, Blond Maurice was free as a newborn baby. Owing to his alleged death, Blond Maurice had a new lease on life. He was accounted, in the eyes of the law, perfectly innocent. His guilty self was accounted as dead. He was freed to live a life of righteousness.
That is precisely our status as baptized believers. Our sinful self was crucified with Christ on the Golgotha cross. Our guilty life died with Christ, was buried with Christ, and we are accounted by God as innocent and freed, freed for goodness, freed for newness of life. Like Blond Maurice, our guilty self has been accounted by God as dead and buried in a tomb. Moreover, like Blond Maurice, we would be foolish to return to a life of sin and evil, because we have been freed for righteousness through the redemptive action of our Lord. We were buried with Christ in baptism — because baptism is a symbol of death. We were also raised with Christ in baptism for newness of life – for baptism is a symbol of resurrection.
Paul asks one simple question of Christian believers: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” He provides his own answer: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Don’t you know that we who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” If you pause to ponder the exact meaning of Paul’s words you find your imagination staggered and stunned!
Even those of who have been Christians for a long time do not fully plumb what Paul is saying here. All other major religions proclaim that if you do good deeds, you will receive good rewards. Virtually all religions are like the teacher who says to her students, ‘If you study hard, you will do well on the test.’ Even Christianity often says something along those lines, because it so accords with our human sense of justice. But that is not really the Christian message. Christianity does not really proclaim that if we do good deeds then we will win God’s acceptance. Christianity asserts that through the actions of Christ Jesus, God has already accepted us! Christianity does not propose that we do good works in order to gain God’s acceptance and reward. Christianity does not say, ‘Do good deeds and God will be gracious to you.’ No! God is gracious to us before we ever acted. Christianity does not suggest that if we will do good works God will bless us with eternal life. Christianity says, “God has already pronounced you freed for heaven; so go live abundantly!” We don’t earn God’s grace. God graciously says, “Through Christ you are already accepted as righteous and destined for liberation from sin, freed for eternal fellowship with the divine. So go live without anxiety! Go serve my Kingdom!” What an extraordinary message!
Of course, the apostle Paul was no fool. Paul knew that his argument seems to come dangerously close to undermining the need for ethics. He knew that he seems to have blurred the distinction between good and evil. For if our sin causes God to be more gracious to us, then how can sin be sin? If our evil allows God to demonstrate the depth of God’s mercy, then how can our evil really be evil? What would the natural reaction of an athletic team be if their coach said, “Guys, the scoreboard has declared beforehand that we are the winners – so go out and play hard!” What if a teacher said to her students at the start of the year, “I have already given you all straight A’s in conduct – so I want you to be really good!”
Many early critics of Christianity argued that our concept of grace looks like a license to steal. And yet, if you use God’s grace to steal, then you haven’t experienced and appropriated God’s grace. As Christians baptized into Christ Jesus, God’s grace doesn’t free us equally for good and evil. To experience God’s grace is to know we are freed from evil and for good. We are not freed equally for sin and righteousness. We are freed from sin and for righteousness. Morality doesn’t win us grace, rather, having experienced God’s grace, morality flows naturally from the freedom we embrace that eventuates in a genuine faith. God’s grace is not a license to steal, but is that power that frees from the desire to steal or do anything other than be oriented around the values of God’s Kingdom. We are freed from sin and death and freed for newness of life.
Of course, some young person, contemplating the decision to accept Christ as Savior and participate in believer’s baptism, may be wondering, “Is Dr. Kremer saying that once I have been baptized, I will never again do any thing wrong?” Sadly, that is not what I am saying. I am saying that when you are baptized into Christ Jesus you are freed to become a new creature. That does not mean that you will never feel the tug of the old person, does not mean that you will never experience the lure of temptation. It does mean that when you yield to that lure toward evil, when you feel the call of God and choose to do otherwise, then you sense in your soul that you are rebelling against your true self. To be baptized into Christ Jesus is to receive the power to become a new creature; it is to receive a new name. It is to sense that we have been given a destiny that directs our feet toward God, so that to stray from that path is to feel that we are denying our true selves and straying from our true destiny and denying the very freedom that grants us newness of life.
Again, the meaning of the words I have just uttered may be difficult to grasp, so let me try to convey this truth by means of another parable. For twelve years our family had a golden retriever named Suzie, a wonderful dog but, who, like all of us, had her faults. Specifically, Suzie liked rolling in mud puddles and on dead things. We periodically “baptized” her in clean water, soap, shampoo, and flea powder, but in a sense her baptism never really took: released from her bath, she did not regard herself to be freed from mud puddles, but only freed for them again. As baptized Christians, through the ministry of Christ we have been freed from the mud puddle of sin, evil and death. We’re freed from the status of sinners. When we fall back into this mud puddle of sin and evil and death we are not expressing our freedom but we are denying it. We are like a freed slave who willingly re-enters servitude. We have been freed for cleanliness of soul, and when we deny that freedom we are circumscribing the destiny of our existence. Our sin is not an expression of our freedom, but an act against it. If somehow Suzie had ever become convinced that her next bath was a baptism that freed her forever from a desire for mud puddles, she might have become a Christian. Then again, she would have ceased to be a golden retriever.
How exactly have we been freed from the power of sin and death? We are freed because God views each of us through the prism of Jesus Christ. For we have been baptized into Christ Jesus and his righteousness and his death and his resurrection are accounted as ours. We live in union with Christ. Again, I can only revert to parable to explain the power of this union. For many years the heavyweight champion of the world was a black Alabama sharecropper’s son named Joe Louis. It is said that whenever Joe Louis got in the ring, the entire black race got in there with him. During an era when American culture taught African-Americans that Negroes were an inferior race, Joe Louis was their rejoinder. When Joe Louis met Max Schmeling, a German whom Adolph Hitler had touted as the great white hope, an entire race felt that their worth was being challenged. When Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling, an entire race felt like they stood triumphant in the ring with him. The fate of an entire race seemed embodied in the exploits of this one man. When Neil Armstrong stepped out of his spacecraft, all America said, “We have put a man on the moon.” Indeed, an entire world identified with the exploits of this one man: his “one small step for man” was “one giant leap for mankind.” One man’s deed was seen as representative of the pilgrimage of the entire world. So, too, we live in Christ: his righteousness, his death, his resurrection, they are all ours. In Christ we live and move and have our being. As strange as this might sound, the fact we live in Christ is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith.
Of course, sometimes Christ in his holy righteousness and perfect obedience to the Father can seem to stand against us not as our Savior but as our Judge. Some years ago I came across an article in a journal of psychology that was studying college girls who read Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Glamour magazines. Researchers assumed that periodicals of this nature that portray women in positive ways, as beautiful, powerful, strong, savvy, and assertive, would engender positive responses. Instead, they found that these college girls reacted to these images with alienation and anger. These idealized pictures of seemingly perfect women seemed to stand as an accusation against these college girls who knew they were not perfect. But that is not Christ for us. Christ does not stand against us as our accuser. We live in Christ. We have been baptized into Christ, so all of his virtues have been accounted as ours through our union with Him.
There are just a few moments in life where a small period of time makes all the difference, a few moments that can define the direction of our existence. A wedding altar is one such moment, a delivery room is another, a baptistery is another. You enter a baptistery one way, you walk out it a little wetter — and maybe you don’t feel differently, but everything is changed, because you have opened yourself to a life of meaning. You have oriented your life around the values of God’s Kingdom. You have opened yourself for fellowship with God and that eternally – which is why we call the basic message of our faith Gospel – Good News.