Paul is responding here to those who accused him of having a message that tolerated sin. He mentions baptism here as his first detail in his response to the accusations levelled against his message. His basic response is that at some stage believers died to sin and rose again to newness of life, which he links with the idea of baptism. ‘What has dying to sin and rising to life have to do with baptism?’ we might ask.
It is often said that Paul here is using the practice of baptism that is advocated by Baptists. They say that going under the water illustrates burial and coming up out of the water illustrates spiritual resurrection. The problem with this suggestion is that Paul does not say that what he is describing is merely an illustration of what occurred in a new convert’s experience. Instead he says that the actual baptism, whatever he has in mind by it, brought about the experience of spiritual death and reception of new life.
So how can we find out what Paul is speaking about here? I would suggest that we should bear in mind the context, which is that Paul in Romans 5 is dealing with the concept of identification with Adam or identification with Jesus. He says that those who are connected to Christ become the possessors of spiritual life through what he did for those he represented. And he is continuing to explain aspects of this identification in chapter 6.
So if we go back to his usage of baptism here, what can we say about his use of the word? First, we could say that water is not mentioned, and we should not find this too strange because sometimes the Bible speaks about baptisms that are not connected to water, such as the baptism of the Spirit or the baptism of fire.
Second, we could ask, who does the baptising here? Does Paul have in mind a church leader or another Christian? Or does he have in mind a divine person, because elsewhere he does say that ‘we were baptised by one Spirit into one body’?
Third, we could ask, where and when did this baptism take place, and I would say that the answer to this question is actually stated by Paul? It took place when Jesus was crucified, which may seem a strange answer to give, unless we recall the context, which is that Jesus is the representative of his people. And it may be significant to recall that Jesus did describe his experience on the cross as a baptism.
What about the other two comments? Who does the baptising, or who connected us to Jesus in his death and resurrection? Is the answer not God the Father, although it is possible to say that each person of the Trinity would have been involved?
And what is the meaning of baptism if it is not connected to water? It looks to me as if Paul is saying that instead of water we should insert Jesus. If he had said that we were baptised in water, he would have expected his readers to think of water. If he had said we were baptised in fire, he would have expected his readers to think of fire. If he had said some were baptised into Moses, as he does in 1 Corinthians 10, he would have expected them to think of Moses. Since he says we are baptised into Christ Jesus, he would have expected his readers to think of Jesus and whatever aspect of his work the apostle had in mind. And Paul states those aspects in the following verses, which we will consider in later readings.