Christ is our death: reading Romans 6 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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April 30, 2013 by jmar198013

So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.1-11 CEB)

Painting of baptism found in the catacombs of St. Callixtus.

Because I learned how to be a Christian among the Campbellites, I don’t know any other way into the church than through believer’s baptism. I tend to put it this way: believer’s baptism is a very good idea for the same reason you don’t marry off your three-year-old. That being said, my experience with believer’s baptism in practice has been that it bears more of a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage function for a lot of folks. You get to this indefinable “age of accountability,” and in what one of the shepherds at our church recently described brilliantly as a “chess move,” you strategically immunify (yeah, I made that word up) yourself from hellfire with a plunge in the baptistry. But if you read carefully what Paul is saying in Rom. 6.1-11, baptism embodies Jesus’ call to the disciples during his lifetime:  All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me (Mark 8.34). It is not your seven-year-old (or even your forty-seven-year-old) cleverly stalemating Old Scratch. It is following Jesus to Jerusalem to die with him. I say this because I perceive that many of my brothers and sisters have come to view baptism as the most rudimentarily (again, I made that word up) sacramental of processes. Indeed, so long as the right words are said and the proper procedure is followed, God more-or-less has to take you (the balancing corollary being that you never quite know when and if he will decide to get rid of you). I’m afeared that many in my faith tradition have diminished baptism to a cosmic parlor trick. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some compelling observations about baptism and discipleship in his Cost of Discipleship that might help us knock some of the dust off Romans 6. I say this not because I think Romans 6 gathers dust because it is irrelevant, but because we have placed Romans 6 as a relic on a high shelf in favor of more user-friendly ways of talking to ourselves about baptism. Bonhoeffer writes:

The Jesus of the Synoptists is neither nearer nor further from us than the Christ of St. Paul. The Christ who is present in the Christ of the whole scripture. He is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Christ, and he meets us in his word … Where the Synoptic Gospels speak of Christ calling men and their following him, St. Paul speaks of Baptism.

Baptism is not an offer made by man to God, but an offer made by Christ to man. It is grounded solely on the will of Jesus Christ, as expressed in his gracious call. Baptism is essentially passive–being baptized, suffering the call of Christ. In baptism the man becomes Christ’s own possession … From that moment he belongs to Christ. He is wrested from the dominion of the world, and passes into the ownership of Christ.

Baptism therefore betokens a breach. Christ invades the realm of Satan, lays hands on his own, and creates for himself his Church. By this act past and present are rent asunder. The old order is passed away, and all things have become new. This breach is not effected by man’s tearing off of his own chains through some unquenchable longing for a new life of freedom. The breach has been effected by Christ long since, and in baptism it is effected in our own lives. We are now deprived of our direct relationship with all God-given realities of life. Christ the Mediator has stepped between us and them. The baptized Christian has ceased to belong to this world and is no longer its slave. He belongs to Christ alone, and his relationship to the world is mediated through him.

The breach with the world … demands and produces the death of the old man. In baptism a man dies together with his old world … The old man cannot will his own death or kill himself. He can only die in, with, and through Christ. Christ is his death … In fellowship with Christ and through the grace of baptism he receives his death as a gift … The old man and his sin are judged and condemned, but out of this judgment a new man arises, who has died to the world and to sin. Thus this death is not the act of an angry Creator finally rejecting his creation in his wrath, but the gracious death which has been won for us by the death of Christ; the gracious assumption of the creature by his creator. It is death in the power and fellowship of the cross of Christ. He who becomes Christ’s own possession must submit to his cross, and suffer and die with him … The cross of Christ is the death which we undergo once and for all in our baptism, and it is a death full of grace.

. . .

Baptism and the gifts it confers are characterized by a certain finality … The call of Jesus was no less final and unrepeatable for those who heard it in the days of his earthly life. When men followed him they died to their previous life. That is why he expected them to leave all that they had. The irrevocable nature of the decision was thus put beyond all doubt. But it also showed how complete and entire was the gift they had received from their Lord … Having taken their life from them, he sought to confer on them a new life, a life so perfect and complete that he gave them the gift of his cross. That was the gift of baptism to the first disciples.

Baptism, like Jesus’ call to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow, means leaving everything behind–which is precisely what happens when we die. But as Jesus says just after he calls his followers to take up their crosses: all who lose their lives because of me … will save them (Mark 8.35).

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One thought on “Christ is our death: reading Romans 6 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  1. […] For my thoughts–guided mostly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer–on how we appropriate Christ’s self-emptying love in baptism and discipleship, see my post Christ is our death: reading Romans 6 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. […]

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