Dying to Live

In Worship by Bruce LogueLeave a Comment

We should celebrate the “death day” of our baptism each year. Baptism is about dying with Christ. Why don’t more churches talk about this?
by Frank G. Honeycutt

On a recent bicycle ride, I encountered a dead deer and 11 turkey vultures feasting on its carcass. (Yes, I counted.) A small creek gurgled nearby and an ambulance echoed a half mile away, heading up the main highway. Several of the vultures perched on tree limbs until I departed up the next hill. Returning later in the day, I was astonished at how quickly the deer’s carcass had been reduced to bones.

Death is revolting and frightening. But in baptism, Christians receive a new identity, a different perspective on living in the world. Disciples are liberated from the great fear of death by going ahead and dying before we breathe our last.

In my decades as a Lutheran pastor, I’ve led a variety of classes and workshops inviting participants to answer this question: What word or phrase comes to mind upon hearing the word baptism? People offer valid and biblical responses: new life, rebirth, cleansing, forgiveness, family, body of Christ.

One word that rarely receives initial mention is death. Yet here is St. Paul:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:3–5)

It’s a rather jarring declaration, and it’s no biblical anomaly. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes elsewhere, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19–20). “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God,” says Colossians 2:2. “You have died,” the epistle adds later, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). We die to an old life and become what Paul calls “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The theme of dying in baptism was prominent in the early church. Elaborate sermons were once preached on it. The Red Sea story in Exodus became symbolic of how baptism drowns the pursuit of sin and the old life in Egypt, washing up a new community of people on the far shore of a whole new land. Baptismal fonts used to have a tomb-like quality. In the font of St. Ambrose (340–397) in Milan, catechumens descended precipitous steps into deep water—dying into Christ’s body, the church—and then ascended steps out the other side to their first communion with a waiting congregation.

Martin Luther preferred baptism by full immersion, even for young children. It captures a visible dying and rising with Christ—a drowning, a death, a new creation. Yet many North American Protestants have long used minimal water for baptism, having inherited small font dimensions from European forebears. The difficulty of heating large worship spaces and the danger of drenching in winter months led to the loss of this image of death in Christ by drowning.

The connection between death and baptism remains murky in much of the church today. The sacrament often centers around family tradition and photo opportunities, and babies are cute and full of life. There also persists the misguided notion of baptism as fire insurance, magical protection from a hellish afterlife. I’ve received more than a few frantic phone calls from parents who ask, “Will you do my baby?”

But baptism is not some holy inoculation against evil and mishap. Jesus proceeds directly from his baptism in the Jordan River, barely toweled off, to an encounter with the devil in the wilderness (Mark 1:9–13). The implication is not that baptism magically protects him from evil but rather that it gives him the spiritual wherewithal to confront it, to talk back. Dying with Christ in baptism suggests a powerful truth: nothing can get us, because God’s already got us.


  1. What images come to mind when you think about your own baptism?
  2. What do you think are important implications of baptism?
  3. What changes do you think your baptism calls for in you?

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